A counter-attacking World Cup?

If current trends are any indication, the 2010 World Cup could be all about the counter-attack, and soccer played at a breakneck pace.

Fast-break soccer could be all the rage in South Africa

Kaka, right, was at the heart of Brazil's counter-attack at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. ((Antonio Calanni/Associated Press))

An overriding tactical theme tends to dominate each World Cup tournament.

At the 1962 competition in Chile, the dour, defensive system perfected by the Italians known as catenaccio (door-bolt) was the order of the day.

In 1974 in West Germany, Total Football (catenaccio's anti-thesis) prevailed, as the scheme's top practitioners, the Germans and the Dutch, met in the final.

Goals were at a premium at Italia '90, a tournament that saw no less than four matches decided by a penalty shootout, a sobering testament to how the mentality of playing "not to lose" had gripped the game.

In 2006, skill and precision won out, as technically proficient teams such as Italy, France and Germany dominated.

What will it be in South Africa? If current trends are any indication, the 2010 World Cup could be all about the counter-attack, and soccer played at a breakneck pace.

Counter-attacking in 2010

Fans may have already received a glimpse of what to expect next month during last year's FIFA Confederations Cup held in South Africa, where the counter-attack was used to stunning effect.

Brazil, the U.S. and Spain — three of the four semi-finalists — found great success by moving the ball quickly up-field, thus allowing themselves the chance to strike before defences could set up.

The counter-attack was an "effective means of making a breakthrough," noted FIFA in its technical report published after the tournament.

"When a team attacked, its otherwise compact defence was often caught out of position, thus creating good opportunities for the defending team to advance when it regained possession by playing quick passes to exploit gaps left at the back."

Indeed, the Brazilians were masters of the counter-attack, using it to erase a two-goal deficit and earn a miraculous 3-2 victory over the U.S. in the tournament final.

"The Brazilians have changed their style under coach Dunga with counter-attacking now a key part of their philosophy,'' FIFA stated.  "They gave a perfect demonstration of how to switch quickly to attack after gaining possession, move the ball quickly through midfield and play a killer final ball.''

The Americans, too, received praise from FIFA for their efficient use of the counter-attack.

U.S. forward Landon Donovan's goal in the final was an "outstanding example of a successful counter-attack following wonderful interplay with [Charlie] Davies."

Copying Spain

There is also a prevailing belief that Spain's victory at Euro 2008 and its subsequent success in international play could lead to other countries copying its playing style and adopting a similar tactical approach at the 2010 World Cup.

Spain's pass-and-move style known as tiki-taka, which emphasizes quick ball movement and maintaining possession in midfield, allowed the Spanish to romp to victory at last year's European Championship.

Spanish club FC Barcelona used the same tactics to great success in 2009, winning a historic treble: the UEFA Champions League, the Spanish league title and Copa del Rey.

Could the overwhelming success of the Spanish national team and FC Barcelona lead to more fast-paced soccer in South Africa? Prominent soccer reporter Sid Lowe thinks so.

"Obviously, different countries will take different tactical approaches and there's a level of pragmatism that comes into play. But I do think success breeds imitation," Lowe, a Madrid-based correspondent for The Guardian, told

"Greece won Euro 2004 playing the most hideous, defensive and boring football and other teams copied that. So I think Spain's success, and Barcelona's success, playing a similar style to Brazil, augurs well for a tournament with plenty of attacking, fast-paced football."

Teams might also look to copy Spain when it comes to using the wings — nine of the 11 goals the Spaniards scored at the Confederations Cup came after build-up play down the flanks. In total, 21 of the 44 goals in the tournament originated from the wings.

Again, speed was the key.

"The variation in wing play was shown by the different ways in which the goals were created. One tactic, used predominantly by Spain, was to play passes forward quickly, with players switching positions in front of the ball before it was crossed into the middle from the wing," FIFA explained.

The fact that this will be the first winter World Cup in 32 years means that players will be playing games in a temperate climate and won't have to deal with stifling temperatures, unlike at past tournaments.

With FIFA predicting "mild temperatures'' for next June and July, counter-attacking soccer is expected to be front and centre. Thus, teams that play a high-tempo game, such as Spain, will benefit more than others from the cool weather.

"It will lead to faster football," opined Lowe. "Spain is not a fast team apart from Fernando Torres, but they are a team that moves the ball around very quickly. That may help them."