Like everyone else, I’ve been wondering why there has been such paucity of goals at this World Cup. Has it been the altitude? Did it have to do with the ball? Does it have to so with top players on the verge of exhaustion after long European seasons?
I don’t doubt that each of those factors have played some part in the lack of goals, but I think there’s another factor at work. I think the information revolution we’ve witnessed in the last 10 years had helped make the bad teams less bad. Here are the two key things that the revolution has done to make world smaller and the bad teams a bit better:
- Tactical information exchange. Thanks to the internet and the explosion of televised soccer on cable/satellite TV, everyone, even those in poorer or non-soccer-obsessed countries can see what the best players, teams, and coaches are doing. In Soccernomics, the authors talk a lot about how important it is for the best coaches (especially the Dutch ones) to go to other countries and bring with them knowledge and “best practices.” The increased ability of countries to see those “best practices” put to work in matches serves as a cut-rate version of what the Soccernomics authors were talking about. Sure New Zealand or North Korea might not be able to go get Jose Mourinho or Guus Hiddink, but they can watch many of their teams’ matches on TV, learn from the systems, and do their best to implement then with their own teams.
- Increased ability to scout opponents by video. Again, thanks to the explosion of televised soccer and the ability through means like Youtube and Bittorrent to watch past games, teams and players; coaches, even those on the “periphery,” can scout opponents better than they ever have before. Even if you don’t have access to every relevant match an opposing team or player might play, coaches in poorer countries now, if they have broadband, have far more access to that video than they would have even 10 years ago. This means they are in a position to better prepare teams for opponents. I wonder how much video US coach Bob Gansler had before Italia 90 to prepare his team for Italy, the Czechs, and Austria. Knowing what I know about the pre-1994 USSF and the availability of televised European matches in the USA pre-1994, my guess is that he had very little to work with. And that’s no longer the case, for not only rich countries like the USA, but for poorer ones as well.
This won’t turn New Zealand into the Netherlands or the USA into Brazil, but what it has done is eliminate some of the “fog of war” that used to afflict poorer and more geographically peripheral teams. Teams, even “small ones” have come into this tournament better prepared both physically and tactically than I’ve ever seen before. It means you’re less likely to get repeats of South Korea 1954 (0g scored, 16 against) or Zaire 1974 (0g, 14 conceded). In the end, for the sport as a whole, that’s a very positive thing.