CURITIBA, Brazil – In a World Cup full of goals and attacking intent, the scoreless draw between Iran and Nigeria stood out.
The Iran side has been criticized for playing defensively, and trying to strangle the game. It joins a long list of teams accused of "parking the bus" in order to grind out results.
While it may not make for entertaining games, defensive tactics have often been hugely successful in football — sometimes even helping underdogs win major titles.
Football has always been a battle between attack and defense, and here are four examples of when the latter came out on top.
INTER MILAN IN THE 1960S: Rightly or wrongly, Italy has a reputation for playing defensive football. Much of that stems from the great Inter Milan side of the 1960s, which won three Serie A titles and two European Cups. Under Argentine coach Helenio Herrera, Inter perfected the "catenaccio" style of football, which translates as "door bolt." Under his system, four defenders man-mark opposing attacking players, while a "libero" sweeps up anything that gets through. The goals would come from swift counter-attacks, often involving long balls. Though offensive innovations, such as the "total football" practiced by the great Netherlands side of the 1970s, contributed to the neutralization of "catenaccio," the tradition of the strong and often ruthless Italian defender has continued through the decades with the likes of Claudio Gentile, Franco Baresi and Fabio Cannavaro.
ARGENTINA AT 1990 WORLD CUP: Argentina was a very different team in the 1990 World Cup in Italy compared to the one that won the title four years earlier in Mexico. Though it was still led by the great Diego Maradona, Argentina won over few neutral fans. Though it made the final, where it lost 1-0 to West Germany, Argentina only scored five goals in the seven games it played. As the tournament progressed, Argentina under coach Carlos Bilardo played an increasingly defensive game seemingly in an attempt to get to a penalty shootout. It won two shootouts in the quarterfinal against an often-exhilarating Yugoslavia side following a scoreless stalemate and then knocked the host out in the semis after a 1-1 draw. One innovation that came largely as a result of the caution displayed by Argentina and other, was FIFA's decision to introduce the back-pass rule whereby a goalkeeper was banned from handling a ball if it was deliberately passed back by a member of his team.
GREECE AT EURO 2004: Greece winning the European Championship in Portugal in 2004 ranks as one of the great surprises in football history. Its previous appearance in a major tournament, the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., was a disaster. It returned home having lost all three games, scoring no goals and conceding 10. German coach Otto Rehhagel made sure his team would not suffer similar ignominy. Throughout the tournament, Greece was extremely well-disciplined with athletic defenders and hard-working midfielders. The goals came from swift counter-attacks and well-drilled set-pieces. In the knockout stages, Greece beat France and the Czech Republic 1-0 and defeated the host in the final by the same scoreline after Angelos Charisteas headed in a corner. Though it is often touted as an overly-defensive team, the Greek side in 2004 played to its strengths. None of its opponents, blessed with talents such as Zinedine Zidane and Christiano Ronaldo, proved capable of breaking it down.
CHELSEA IN 2012 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Nigeria midfielder John Obi Mikel bemoaned Iran's tactics during the 0-0 draw between the two sides in their opening match in the 2014 World Cup. Iran, he said, had "11 men behind the ball the entire game." Mikel, though, should know what a defensive approach can achieve. He was an integral member of the 2012 Chelsea side that surprisingly won the Champions League. Facing a Barcelona side over two legs in the semifinals, coach Roberto Di Matteo's team spent most of the 180 minutes defending desperately and focusing on counterattacks. After winning the first leg 1-0 at home, Chelsea went through 3-2 on aggregate. After containing Barcelona, Chelsea then defeated Bayern Munich in Munich on penalties in the final following a similarly defensive display.