Has South Africa ended up an imperfectly neutral World Cup?

Vuvuzelas, Jabulani’s, and Polokwane… you name it, there’s definitely been talk about the “conditions” at this World Cup. But have the horns, ball, and elevation/synthetic grass stadium actually helped level the playing field for the World Cup?

The first round of play has seen some surprising results and action. We’ve seen South Africa and Switzerland able to hold off dominating performances by Mexico and Spain. We’ve seen fluke goals (USA vs England and Slovania vs Algeria) and extra time equalizers (Slovakia vs New Zealand). And aside from Germany’s route of awful Australia, we’ve seen relatively close matches. However, I suspect with one round of games in the book, the creme will start to rise to the top soon, and the contenders will begin to establish themselves.

The horns, while annoying, drown out any vocal support from the thousands of fans in the stadium. While those of us watching on TV won’t here South Korean supporters sing their songs like we did in 2002, neither will the Koreans on the field. The constant drone of the Vuvuzelas are canceling out what “home field” support that a team can experience at the World Cup, making the match, to some extent, neutral.

Additionally, the noise is forcing players to maintain their focus for the whole match, as Martin Dimichelis most likely notice this morning because he couldn’t hear Park Chu-Young running up behind him. I think this is significant as we’ll see teams who rely on team play over individual performance will likely adjust quicker. We’ll also likely see more of complaints from teams France who are susceptible to under performing, as they look for an another excuse for their poor performance.

Many players and managers have complained about Adidas’ Jabulani. According to England Manager, Capello:

Maybe Capello should instruct his players not play the “kick and rush” style Beckenbauer suggested recently. Additionally, while the ball has been suggested by some as a reason for some of the goal keeping blunders, it does appear to affect the strikers just a little more. This may not be the ball, but I’ve notice a large quantity of shots being sent over the crossbar, making me wonder whether Dema Kovalenko is a World Cup calibre player… well, maybe I shouldn’t go quite that far.

However, we’ve already seen more goals in the 1st four games of the 2nd round of the group phase than we did in all of the 1st round of games for Groups A – D, suggesting that teams are beginning to adapt to the new ball.

Finally, the stadiums across the country offer changes in altitude and different playing service, but with the majority of the teams have base camps in the Gauteng region of South Africa, meaning that they’re sleeping at an elevation anywhere between 4000 and 6000 ft. As a result, there has not been a noticeable impact of games being played at multiple elevations. Additionally, since both teams must adapt between the stadiums that have all grass and those that have a synthetic mixture, there does not appear to be anything that will favor one team over the other. In fact, the only one that the elevation may have impacted is possibly the assistant referee for the Slovakia/New Zealand match, who could not keep even with New Zealand’s last defender during the run-up to Vittek’s goal to notice the attackers in off-sides position.

In the end, with the second set of round robin games beginning yesterday, we’re seeing what many believe to the better teams adjusting to the “neutral” conditions with the last four games bringing us at least 2 goals per game to enjoy. Of course, we’ll see if this continues as Groups A and B weren’t considered difficult group match-ups.

The real question is whether we will see the teams whose managers spent time complaining about the vuluzelas or the Jabulani, make any noticeable improvement/adjustments over the next week or two, or continue to hide behind the noise and ball as the reason that their team was knocked out of the Cup in the group phase.

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