World Cup Morning Report – Why are things going pear-shaped for top nations?

One characterisation of this year’s World Cup group stages so far has been the inability of some of Europe’s top nations to provide the level of performance we have come to expect from them, and this has naturally resulted in several surprise results. World champions Italy were once again, as they were against Paraguay, decidedly uninventive despite bossing yesterday’s game against New Zealand, which resulted in arguably the biggest shock of the tournament thus far as they drew 1-1. For the Kiwi minnows, who are ranked 78th in the world, the result was clearly a dream come true, but Italy were almost as dire in the attacking third as England were against Algeria. Spain’s level of invention when attacking in their defeat to Switzerland last week was also surprisingly poor, and the predicament of the French squad is as high-profile as anything that has occurred on or off the pitch at this World Cup. But how can we explain the relative failures in performance, results, team cohesion and spirit of these European masters?

On observing the displays given by England, Italy and Spain so far, the primary, and perhaps most plausible explanation for their lack of quality, invention and bravery is fear and pressure. All three sides’ players have demonstrated an unusual reluctance to make the standard darting runs behind the opposition’s back line in order to unlock it and create goalscoring opportunities. This is perhaps to do with a fear of failure or the heavy hands of pressure and expectation that weigh on their shoulders as the World Cup seems to grow in importance to the nation’s people each time it comes around, and the hype bestowed upon the competition swells uneasily. The players must realise their success or failure determines the nation’s mood, and that their displays have the ability to evoke feelings of delirium or despair amongst millions of people. That is pressure that could understandably cause some players to freeze once they get on the greatest footballing stage of all.

An alternative cause of poor performances and team distress is the daily boredom that England players have often flagged up. There is only so much training the players can do each day, and afternoons often mean being stuck in a hotel room trying to find things to do. It is not what players are accustomed to, and living in teammates’ pockets also tends to drive some players up the wall. It is for this reason most teams organise day trips out or endless rounds of golf to keep themselves occupied, relaxed and entertained in order to maintain their sanity and positive state of mind. However, every individual is different, and some players may not want to do anything.

There are so many factors to consider when attempting to maintain team spirit and unity, and in order to succeed at a World Cup, these are paramount. Yet the disharmonies within the French camp have been well documented, and after England’s pair of drab performances, the speculation surrounding team togetherness and the players’ relationship with Fabio Capello has increased worryingly despite John Terry’s very honest, candid comments in yesterday’s press conference that bore similarities to Ricky Tomlinson’s in Mike Bassett England Manager. Although it is positive the England players decided to hold ‘clear the air’ talks with each other and Capello yesterday evening in a bid to get things right for the Slovenia game on Wednesday, it is possible part of the reason relations between the Coach and the players are frayed, is down to the self-aggrandisement of the players. The arrogant manner of the French squad is almost certainly why things have gone terribly for them, and player power has become a serious concern in club football over the last decade.

For England’s sake let’s hope the discussions went smoothly last night and that the players were able to communicate effectively to Capello what they feel needs to be done in order to win on Wednesday. The other half of a potentially successful equation would have been Capello’s willingness to take the ideas of the players on board – something Raymond Domenech seemingly failed to do, hence complete disarray amidst the French camp.

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