Thursday, June 17, 2010

Brazil vs. North Korea: Running Tips for the Supreme Dictatorship

(Dear readers:  Unfortunately, all the World Cup highlights have been removed due to copyright infringement.  The other links below are still working.)

To the North Korean team:  I have contacted your coach via his invisible phone to congratulate him for his team's success, and to share with him my observations that could improve your futbol techniques, based on last Tuesday's World Cup game against Brazil.  But for the less elite citizens of the world who don't have access to such invisible cutting-edge technology, I am writing this blog post.

Brazil's Maicon was biting his knuckles and crying for joy after he scored that first goal in the 54th minute.  Against North Korea.  To no one's great surprise, the world champions claimed victory in the end, although The Mystery Land put up a commendably good fight.  However, I was distracted by something else:  The difference in running technique between top-seeded Brazil and bottom-scrubbers North Korea.  Here's a peek into my thoughts.

Firstly, I didn't know if it was just my bodyworker's eyes that had the feeling that for every step Brazil took, N. Korea had to take five.  Something about the N. Korean team seemed inefficient.  Even when Ji Yun-nam scored the historic goal for his country, he was running like a switchblade.  In the minute-long clip above, you can see a little of what I mean, especially in the instances where the two teams are running side by side.

The most obvious thing that stands out is the beautiful extension in running that the Brazilians display with their longer stride.  But smaller steps doesn't necessarily make Korea a worse team.  Look carefully, and you may get the feeling that the Brazilians seem to be hardly moving as they play.  There is a stillness and agility that North Korea, as valiant as they were, didn't possess.  Specifically it is a stillness in the upper body.  This is because the Brazilians are using their arms to stabilize, whereas the Koreans use their arms to run.  The result of grabbing for speed in the arms, instead of maintaining stability, as I see it, not only wastes energy by encouraging more twist in the trunk, but also sacrifices adaptability by lifting the center of gravity when the elbows are bent.  That means the player has to expend more energy preventing a topple, while dedicating less energy to following the ball.  Furthermore, the player has to brake as he redistributes his center of gravity while transition from running to preparing for a kick.

To illustrate this more clearly, examine the technique of Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger in the following video (that is, when he is playing, not so much when he's whooping to fans).  I remember back in the 2006 World Cup, when the kid was only 21, he stuck out to me for his unmistakable posture on the field.  It wasn't just his shock of blond hair that was easy to spot, but his arm position when he ran was very low and wide.  Lower the center of gravity and the chest facing forward makes him more agile.  (Please excuse the choice of music!)

Take another world star, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.  There is a reason why they call him "The Antelope" for baffling opposing teams with his footwork, then moving in for a lethal shot.  The following video is someone's 6-minute collage of Ronaldo's obsessive footwork, giving the impression that if Ronaldo ever got cut, he would bleed little soccer balls.  Now, Ronaldo's body build is key to his ease.  Because of his long spine, his weight distribution is naturally lower, since his legs make up less of his height.  And having this longer torso also lends him a more upright posture, even while running, which means maintaining a constant vertical axis around which he can turn.  This leads to more stillness in the upper body, more control, more adaptability to the quickly moving ball.  Once again, you can see how he does not swing his arms to power his run, but keeps them low and relatively still to stabilize the torso. (Again, I apologize for the soundtrack.)

However, we're only looking at the best of the best here, so it may seem like I am splitting hairs as far as technique.  So, as an example of less-than-world-class football, I invite you to watch this clip of Sri Lanka vs. Afghanistan, tied at 2:2 and surely an exhilarating show nevertheless.  Note that on the field, the players look more like they are jogging:  high swing of the arms, strongly bent elbows, and twisting of the torso which means the chest is moving in all different directions.  The play lacks elegance and focus, the movement is messy.  But, the stadium is having a blast, which is what counts.

I'm going to sign off now, must hit the sack early to get up at the crack of dawn for Germany vs. Serbia...