July 01, 2010

Spain 1, Portugal 0: Finally playing like the top team in the world, Spain permitted a few chance to their Iberian rivalry, scored halfway through the second half, thanks to David Villa, then shut down the 2006 semifinalist convincingly.

We have now reached the quarterfinals, the point in the World Cup that the tournament goes from being an event that unites the sports fans of the planet to just another sports championship. Sharing in common with all other sports, offense usually takes a hit at this stage:

YEAR 1st Round/2nd Round/Quarterfinals/Semifinals/Finals
1986 74 (36) // 24 .....7 ... 4 /// 5
1990 82 (36) // 18 ... 7 .. 4 /// 1
1994 88 (36) // 25 ...15 .. 4 /// 0
1998 127 (48) // 24 ..11 .. 5 /// 3
2002 128 (48) //17 .. 6 ... 2 /// 2
2006 117 (48) // 15 .. 6 .. 3 /// 2
2010 101 (48) // 22 ..10..6

In the early rounds of the World Cup, goals are typically scored more frequently, since the disparity in talent usually permits the games to open up; thus, a talented but defensive-oriented team like Portugal will beat North Korea by seven goals; when there’s some debate as to whether a team belongs at this level, the question isn’t so much the outcome but the ability of the better team to break through. Scoring in soccer, like offense in baseball, football or basketball, goes way up when the match-up is lopsided. In the second round, there are still a handful of teams that are lucky to be there, such as the representatives from Africa, CONCACAF and Asia, so the possibility for a number of highscoring games is increased at that point as well.

After the second round, the teams that are still alive are likely to belong among the elite; they're in it to win it. And at that level, it is unusual for a team not to have a solid cadre of players at the back. No matter how creative they are up front, those teams run into other teams that can slow them down. In addition, the tendency in any sport is for defenses to be ahead of offenses; teams at this level are usually playing to stop the other side rather than outscore them, which makes sense in a sport where 1-0 scores are the most common. When defense becomes too dominant, as it has now in soccer, the governing authorities in the sport will try to devise a way to open up scoring, but that’s more likely to happen after the Cup, which through the first round generated the fewest goals per game in history. So in the meantime, get ready for more non-scoring games going to penalty kicks, and 1-0 results that have the feel of being one-sided.

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