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The rare, exacting, high stakes of the World Cup

Soccer

The make-or-break nature of the World Cup can’t be underestimated, writes Paul Marcuccitti.

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The early 1980s weren’t a particularly good period for the Italian national team.

Things hadn’t started too badly with a fourth-place finish in the 1980 European Championship. But 1981 began a long period of poor results.

From the beginning of ‘81 until late in June the following year, Italy managed just two wins in 15 internationals. And one of those was over Luxembourg.

There was a decent run of four straight wins after that but then the rest of ‘82 and 1983 would see only two more in 10 games.

Not exactly the record of a traditional power is it? Just eight wins in 29 matches over a three year period. Take out the little run of four victories and it looks disastrous.

But, as you probably know, that run of four wins carried the Italians to World Cup glory. And with an impressive list of victims – Argentina (defending champion), Brazil (tournament favourite), Poland (one of the top teams of the ‘70s and early ‘80s) and West Germany (European champion).

And because the Italians defeated those teams – scoring an impressive 10 goals in the process – it’s rarely suggested that they were lucky winners in 1982, irrespective of their ordinary record before and after the tournament.

Fast forward to late 2001 and a poor qualifying campaign threatened to end the Brazilians’ run of reaching every World Cup tournament since the competition began. They needed to win the last of their 18 matches in that series to ensure that they’d make it.

Despite that form, Brazil not only won the 2002 World Cup, it did so in the most convincing way possible by winning seven out of seven matches without needing extra time in any of the knockout games – a feat not achieved before or since.

The Socceroos’ loss to France was expected but there was enough to show they could achieve better results against Denmark and Peru. And if they do well enough to make it to the next round, the manner of their qualification, friendly results (whether you’re looking at the heavy loss to Norway or the big win over the Czech Republic) and even Saturday’s loss are simply irrelevant. All except the match against the French will be forgotten. (When was the last time anyone thought about the pre-tournament friendlies against Denmark and USA in 2010?)

But we’ll remember these weeks. And for manager Bert van Marwijk, everything – warm-up matches, training sessions and team selection – has been geared to what counts: whether or not Australia makes it through to the knockout phase.

I roll my eyes whenever I hear that coaches should have an eye on the future when making selections for the World Cup finals.

International soccer works in four-year cycles and the next one begins in four weeks’ time – future-planning can start again then. Sure, the Asian Cup (coming up in January) is an important tournament but the World Cup is it. And while we all know it’s big, sometimes its gravity is underestimated; its finality is not always properly recognised.

It makes or breaks reputations in a way other international tournaments don’t and there’s often little between the two. Under Guus Hiddink, Australia got four points in its group and made it through to the second round: he’s widely seen as a hero and his errors are forgiven. But at the next World Cup four points wasn’t enough so Pim Verbeek received less praise.

Bert van Marwijk surely knows this. He got plenty of credit for taking a good but not brilliant Netherlands side to the 2010 World Cup final yet many fans and, sadly, a few self-styled analysts, default to the spoiling tactics used by the Dutch players in that final to define him.

For the Socceroos’ manager, success is the ultimate motivation. He could have stayed with Saudi Arabia, who he expertly guided to qualification.

He would have certainly received a high salary for continuing with that nation – whose last qualification was for the 2006 tournament – and simply agreed to the terms its federation insisted on. They were unacceptable to him so he walked away. And, as we’ve recently learned, he is personally paying staff he felt he needed for the Socceroos’ campaign.

But fans are unforgiving. Despite all those things, the way he’s remembered here will come down to two games. And, as we saw against France, it might also come down to two centimetres.

The matches against Denmark and Peru will be Australia’s 15th and 16th at World Cup finals. Few things in sport, never mind soccer, have such rarity. Win, lose or draw, the results are part of a unique history. How I hope there will be a 17th game before this tournament ends.

Go Socceroos!

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist. He is in Russia for the World Cup finals.

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