So was it any good, then?
Yes, eventually. The first week or so of the tournament was largely dull, with too many teams adopting anti-football tactics, simply to avoid defeat in their opening contest. The tournament picked up, as we desperately hoped, after the first round of group fixtures, with bad results for France, England and Italy keeping many groups wide open until the death.
The United States v Slovenia match in Group C gave the tournament a shot in the arm: not the best quality football but an engrossing, thrilling match worthy of its Ellis Park setting. But the combination of a terrible ball and many matches being played at altitude handicapped the players, who needed half a tournament to get used to controlling the confounded Jabulani.
Recent tournaments have seen the goals dry up in the knockout stage but the opposite happened in South Africa, probably because the worst, most negative teams had been sent packing. Germany, playing the best football seen in the tournament, slaughtered first England and then Argentina, both of whom defended idiotically.
Germany, though, remained a largely reactive side, dependent on hitting teams on the break for their impressive haul of goals. Against Spain in their semi final, this was not an option as the European champions kept so many players behind the ball. Spain’s game is based on conservatism: keeping the ball at all costs and not being punished by a counter attack.
The downside was that they struggled to create chances. That, combined with the miserable form in front of goal from all of their players bar David Villa and, on occasion, the imperious Andrés Iniesta, left them as comfortably the lowest-scoring world champions in history.
The tournament had a shortage of true playmakers: inventive midfielders who could play their way through a side putting two banks of players behind the ball. Only Lionel Messi, witlessly accused of playing badly by those who only pay attention to the goalscoring lists, and Lukas Podolski looked a constant danger when dribbling at defenders.
How was the atmosphere?
An acquired taste, to be charitable. The vuvuzela will mercifully be consigned to the history books from today onwards. Its monotone racket prevented any distinguishable atmosphere at any matches, with the ebb and flow of the game not reflected by the noise from the terraces.
South Africa struggles for nightlife during the winter, and you would have struggled to learn that a World Cup was on in cities on days with no local matches. Fan parks, one of the great developments in Germany in 2006, struggled to attract visitors, with too many games scheduled during local working hours. The irregular kick-off times of 1.30, 4.00 and 8.30 pm did not help.
That said, the host nation enjoyed fanatical support, with the opening goal of the tournament from Siphiwe Tshabalala becoming one of the iconic moments in football history. It could not have helped that South Africa became the first ever World Cup hosts to fail to negotiate their group but support was quickly transferred to Ghana, victim of a gross injustice in the final moments of their quarter final with Uruguay.
What was the refereeing like?
A mixed bag. Some early matches were very well officiated but we were robbed of two potentially classic match by refereeing howlers. First, the United States comeback against Slovenia was rendered incomplete after Maurice Edu’s goal was mystifyingly disallowed, despite two clear fouls by Slovenian defenders in their own area. Had Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany been given – as even in real time it clearly should – who knows what would have become of the second round tie?
As ever, too many rules were inconsistently applied, particularly regarding encroachment at a penalty kick. Why were Paraguay not entitled to a re-take when Spanish defenders entered the penalty area prematurely, yet Spain were obliged to go again when Xabi Alonso scored with attacking team-mates trespassing in the 18 yard box?
Howard Webb’s performance in the Final divides opinion, but most serious observers concluded that he did a reasonable job in difficult circumstances. The real villains of the piece were the Dutch, who set about their Spanish opponents with outright thuggery at times. Too much is said about not wanting to spoil a big match but had Webb sent Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong packing for serious foul play in the opening half hour at Soccer City, at least one team would have been able to play football.
That said, it should not be forgotten that Spain were lucky not to have Carles Puyol sent off for a clumsy foul on Arjen Robben with the Dutch winger through on goal, and the theatrics of their players – Iniesta particularly – was little more gracious than the constant fouling from the Dutch.
Sepp Blatter has promised to review technology in the wake of two shocking errors in one day which may have cost England and Mexico their places in the competition. Yet we have had ‘reviews’ before, what is needed is urgent change. Certainly, a penalty goal rule needs to be devised before the start of the European season, in order to take away the ability of players such as Luis Suárez to cheat opponents out of a goal.
The issue is complicated by use of the word ‘technology’, which conjures images of expensive 3D modelling computer programmes such as those we see at Wimbledon and international cricket matches. The only thing football need do to correctly adjudicate 99% of decisions is rewind the tape. Television, not technology, should be the watchword.
Player of the Tournament
FIFA – make sure you’re sitting down here – have got this one right, giving Diego Forlán the FIFA Golden Ball award. Forlán spearheaded Uruguay’s improbable charge to fourth place, scoring some sensational goals which put other star players’ inability to control the ball to shame. Honorable mentions should go to David Villa, Thomas Müller and the effervescent Alexis Sánchez, who brought back a classic style of wing play all too rare in modern tournaments.
Forlán, though, was the individual star: all of his five goals bar the penalty against South Africa came from the edge of the penalty are and beyond. Following his wonder volley against Senegal in 2002, has any player in history such a collection of World Cup goals?
Goal of the Tournament
The temptation lingers to give this to Andrés Iniesta, if only for sparing us the grim prospect of having another World Cup Final decided with a penalty competition. There were, however, many better goals.
The early games lacked spectacular long-range goals; those which were scored from outside the area were down to calamitous goalkeeping errors such as those from Robert Green and Faouzi Chaouchi. There were, however, a couple of fine team goals from Germany, plus Maicon’s goal from a tight angle for Brazil against North Korea.
When the long-range goals began flying in, though, they did so in style. Gio van Bronckhorst’s semi final strike against Uruguay flew straight as a dart, giving lie to those who whinged that the Jabulani ball could not be controlled. The most spectacular strike, though, must surely be Carlos Tévez’s thunderbolt against Mexico.
Goal of the Tournament, though, goes to a goal which combined brilliant individual skill and clinical finishing: David Villa’s first against Honduras, which saw Barcelona’s new signing dribble past three defenders before finding the top corner. In a World Cup lacking great dribbling, it was a breath of fresh air.
Assist of the Tournament
An award which, it must be confessed, is devised solely to give credit for Keisuke Honda’s extraordinary skill and selflessness in setting up Shinji Okazaki’s goal for Japan against Denmark.
Match of the Tournament
Those who argue the tournament lacked a classic match didn’t see Germany thrashing England or Argentina, both of which provided neutrals with breathtaking performances in lively matches.
Slovakia’s shock 3-2 victory over Italy was brilliant in the last quarter, though the match had been fairly humdrum until Italy woke up to their dire situation once Slovakia scored their second goal. For a simply extraordinary, brilliant and often insane football match, look no further than the pulsating Cameroon v Denmark clash in Group E.
Though the football that night in Pretoria was not of the highest quality, it was the most open game of the championship. Indeed, some of the defending belonged on Hackney Marshes. Cameroon, out of desperation, spent the final half hour attacking like maniacs and how only three goals were scored from 36 shots on goal can only be explained by the two goalkeepers.
England and France were so poor that it would be silly to pick out an individual player, so this ‘award’ goes to Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel, whose constant brutish tackling extraordinarily failed to elicit a red card or cause a serious injury in seven matches. Argumentative and often violent, it is easy to see why Holland were such an enjoyable watch during Euro 2008 when coach Marco van Basten refused to pick van Bommel.
Things we won’t miss now the tournament is over
Vuvuzelas. People saying ‘technique’ instead of ‘skill’. Jabulani. Players clean through on goal shooting straight at the goalkeeper’s body. The Port Elizabeth pitch, flown in straight from Wembley. Mark van Bommel. Players being accused of ‘diving’ for going down when fouled. Algeria. People banging on about England players’ wages because they can’t think of a more constructive criticism. Spanish attacking players standing still for minutes at a time while BBC pundits drool over their cautious and non-progressive passing. Brazil’s terrible midfield. Vuvuzelas.