32 nations. 64 games. Millions watching worldwide. Many of whom are scratching their heads and wondering why their country is struggling so much at the World Cup. European Champions Inter Milan may hold the key to the answer.
England and Italy have both opened with a pair of uninspiring draws against less illustrious opponents, while France can only gaze to the north-west and south-east with envy having picked up just a solitary point from their first two games.
Germany have lost. Spain have lost. Brazil laboured to a narrow victory over North Korea. Of the major footballing nations, only Argentina and Holland have looked relatively untroubled. So where was the warning sign? What clues could we possibly have picked up on that the big guns would misfire this summer?
One game stands out above all others. Of the hundreds of top-level club games played worldwide last season, one particular encounter reflects what we have seen so far in the World Cup and it may have given belief to every player, coach and supporter of an unfancied team travelling to South Africa.
Not that Inter Milan are usually unfancied. Not Scudetto winners Inter Milan. Not Coppa Italia winners Inter Milan. Not Champions League winners Inter Milan. Not Mourinho’s medal-hungry treble winners, surely?
Inter were underdogs at the Camp Nou, though. On 28th April, Jose Mourinho took the Nerazzurri to Catalunya and, although they returned to Italy having lost the game, they still had a trip to the Bernabeu the following month to look forward to. Inter took a two-goal lead to the Camp Nou and, against all the odds, still led on aggregate when the final whistle sounded after 180 minutes facing the champions of Europe.
Now, of course, they hold that crown themselves. Inter’s triumph was hailed as a masterclass in pragmatic football, with Mourinho the magician able to glean that extra per cent out of his players to turn them from nearly-men into superheroes. It was especially difficult after Thiago Motta’s first-half sending off, but Inter closed down the angles that Barcelona thrive upon and held their shape magnificently.
There was surprise from some uninformed quarters when Marcelo Lippi’s Italian World Cup squad was announced and no Inter players had made the cut. But of the eleven that faced Pep Guardiola’s side at the Camp Nou, none were Italian and the only substitutes eligible were the ageing Francisco Toldo and Marco Materazzi, along with the talented but unreliable youngster Mario Balotelli.
So it meant little for Italy’s chances in South Africa, but which other nations could take heart from Inter’s victory over Barcelona? Argentina? Maybe not. Walter Samuel was central to the outcome but his compatriots Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti were excluded by coach Diego Maradona, while Diego Milito made the plane but is not a first choice forward for his country.
Julio Cesar’s predictably assured display between the sticks would have encouraged Brazilians, who also have the marauding Maicon among their ranks. When the right-back’s shot from a narrow angle opened the scoring against North Korea in Brazil’s opening game of the tournament, some declared Dunga’s side the saviours of the World Cup. And then there’s Lucio.
There was another team we could rely upon to dazzle us, the holders of a proud record of just one defeat in 48 games going into the finals. The current European Champions, Spain. Think again. For Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Pedro Rodriguez, it must have felt awfully familiar when they found themselves unable to break down the massed ranks of white shirts ahead of them.
Oh, they had no trouble with Los Blancos. It wasn’t Real Madrid that stood in the way of success at the Bernabeu. Manuel Pellegrini’s side huffed and puffed but Cristiano Ronaldo and co could not break down a Pique-inspired Barca in either Clasico. Guardiola’s men swept Madrid aside on their own patch with Xavi feeding Pedro for the decisive goal.
But that was the final time that Barca played at the Bernabeu last season. Stifled by the white-shirted Inter defence, they were unable to claw back that two-goal deficit and failed to win the right to travel to Madrid for the final.
Although not fatal to their hopes of winning the World Cup for the first time, Spain’s defeat to Switzerland carried a sense of deja vu. Just like against Inter, Xavi’s probing was ineffectual and Pedro found his route to goal blocked when he arrived as a late substitute. The Swiss, coached by wily old campaigner Ottmar Hitzfeld, could not have prepared any better than by watching a video of Inter’s constant pressing and rigid defensive shape.
It appears that others also took note. New Zealand’s rearguard held out brilliantly in their 1-1 draw with Italy this afternoon, while the focus on England’s failure to break down a stubborn Algerian side on Friday night largely disregarded the organised nature of the North Africans. Madjid Bougherra was Lucio and Samuel combined.
The clues were there in that Inter performance all along. Not just the excellent form of Brazilian trio Julio Cesar, Maicon and Lucio or the Dutch contribution from Wesley Sneijder. Most importantly, Inter taught the lesser lights of the World Cup that, even in this superstar age of Messi and Ronaldo, defensive discipline can frustrate even the most talented footballers on the biggest stage of all. And any well-drilled outfit can reasonably attempt to replicate that hard work and solidity with the odd stroke of luck thrown in.
So there you have it. Not the ball. Not fatigue. Not a lack of team spirit. Not the absence of key players through injury. Not even the Vuvuzelas. To find the main reason that the world’s best are struggling in South Africa, perhaps you – like Switzerland, New Zealand and Algeria – just have to watch 90 minutes at the Camp Nou.