The 2006 World Cup is on record as one of the leanest in terms of goals scored, 139 in 62 matches heading to the final weekend, for an average 2.27 goals per match. The 1998 WC, produced 171 goals in 64 matches (2.7 goals/match) and the 2002 WC scored 161 goals in 64 matches (2.5 goals/match).
The trend is that goals are going to get harder to come by in future editions of the World Cup. Branko Milanovic postulates that the globalization of the soccer trade has introduced a parity in soccer through most of the national teams. Players migrating to the bigger European leagues have introduced their national teams to higher standards of soccer. A Didier Drogba or a Kolo Toure playing in the EPL can only benefit the Ivory Coast national team. Soccer being the global game also means that good coaches can be had for the right price to coach national teams. Of the 32 teams in WC 2006, 14 teams were coached by foreign coaches. The average winning margin among the top eight World Cup national teams has steadily decreased, from more than two goals in the 1950s, to about 1.5 goals in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and only 0.88 goals in the 2002 World Cup. Globalization explains this narrowing of difference neatly.
Still globalization cannot explain the dearth of goals that began in the 1960's. In the 1962 and 1966 World Cups, 89 goals were scored in 32 matches (2.8 goals/ match). This was because the game of soccer transitioned from the more attack oriented 5-3-2 and 4-2-4 to the defensive 4-3-3 and then to the 4-4-2, most famously played by England in its 1966 World Cup win. The days of the wingers were over. The Italians had also perfected their version of 4-4-2 called catenaccio, that employed a deep defender called the libero whose main function was to reinforce the man to man defence of the other three defenders, as well as start a counterattack. The Germans employed this formation with Beckenbauer in 1974, whose speed, anticipation, and ball skills made him the perfect libero.
The trend towards an even more conservative attack as seen in many teams employing the 4-5-1 or the 5-4-1 in this World Cup means that opportunities to score goals have lessened even further. Bruce Arena used it for the US team and they were held goalless till the Ghana game. The only time that they looked like getting back to attack was when he had Brian McBride and Eddie Johnson as strikers.
The Dutch were the only exception using a 4-3-3 that would allow them to attack up front with Van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, and Robin Van Persie but for it to succed you have to have a speedy midfield that can utilize all that space to attack and to shore up the defence. Philip Cocu, Mark Van Bommel, and Wesley Sneijder were not really upto the mark. Their defense gave way too much space to the Portugese offense and Maniche capitalized on one of their defensive breakdowns.
How many crosses did we see go begging in this World Cup because teams would not commit players up front? Too innumerable to count.
Globalization is bringing a parity to the teams that would not have made it to the World Cup otherwise. Unfortunately, globalization is also making powerhouse teams play much more conservatively too, knowing fully well that on any given day, they can be upset by a Ghana or a Cote D'Ivoire or an Australia.
WIth free agency, NBA teams like the LA Clippers can improve and can keep their matches tight AND high scoring because the NBA has been extemely adaptive when faced with scoring shortfalls by introducing the 24 second shot violation, goaltending, and the 3 second holding rule, to help scoring and to keep the game going.
FIFA needs to change many of the rules to introduce a new level of dynamism and give about 2 years to implement it; in time for the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.