What a month that was, the 20th World Cup, one that finds itself placed up there among the greatest tournaments of all time, perhaps a shade short of the 1958 or 1970 pinnacles given that it was not marked by the presence of one truly awe inspiring team, but a memorable one nonetheless give the quality and the entertainment that was on view for much of the month.
Once upon a time, back in the ‘70s, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury joked about forming a band called Hair, Nose & Teeth. If only they had, they could have been the soundtrack for this World Cup, covering some of its main stories in David Luiz, Clint Dempsey and Luis Suarez.
The Brazilian, having been, quite extraordinarily, named best player of the tournament by FIFA’s stats after the quarter-final stage unravelled so spectacularly thereafter that he took the aspirations of 200 million people with him in a flood of tears.
Clint Dempsey had his nose smashed to the other side of his face right at the start of the United States’ campaign, but by the time his country narrowly lost out to Belgium in the round of 16, they’d become most neutrals’ favourite team, down to their never say die attitude and coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s devotion to taking the game to the opposition at every opportunity, a philosophy that was surprisingly, thrillingly embraced by all kinds of countries to ensure that the goals kept flooding in.
And then there were Luis Suarez’s teeth, items that the UN might well monitor in future as weapons of mass destruction. Certainly they destroyed Uruguay’s hopes of going beyond the last 16 when they sank into the shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and earned the gums beyond them a competition ban and – and some conspiracy theorists would say this is why he did it – a move to Barcelona from Liverpool.
An ageing Uruguay could not survive without him, for even at 75% effectiveness following injury, he was the difference between his nation and England, two strikes condemning Roy Hodgson’s men to the earliest of exits home – back before the postcards as the saying used to be, though in their case, they were so quick they probably overtook the emails as well. There was much talk that England had at least struck out towards a brave new world with the selection of Sterling, Sturridge, Shaw and their ilk, but if you have a defence that could be greatly improved by the addition of a Brazilian, I’d counsel that it’s wise not to be getting your hopes up so much.
The early phase of the tournament looked to be heralding a changing of the guard as some of the great powers of Europe fell by the wayside. Italy followed England out at the group stage as the exuberance of Costa Rica took everyone by surprise, while the holders, Spain, were smashed to smithereens by the Dutch and then swept away by an enterprising Chilean outfit, the World Cup proving to be no country for old men as pace, power, youth and athleticism quickly began to take charge. That said, the death of tiki-taka has been exaggerated, as we shall see, and let us not forget, had David Silva made it 2-0 against the Dutch just before the break, the entire competition might have been reading from a different script, such are the fine margins at this altitude.
Elsewhere, South America fared well, the Concacaf nations excelled, Africa saw two nations qualify from the groups for the first time, but Europe? Not so good.
The old powerbase began to reassert itself once we got to the knockout stages though, the age old experience of game management coming to the fore, the free scoring French seeing off the challenge of Nigeria, the Germans suffering to the final seconds of 120 minutes against Algeria before edging past them.
Concacaf’s nations started to falter too, albeit in unfortunate circumstances, Mexico much the better side against the Netherlands until the approach of injury time whereupon they fell apart – and Robben just fell – and Louis Van Gaal unveiled what we are required to call his masterplan, revealed to his players in the water break 15 minutes from the end – essentially, lump it up the field and run after it a la Wimbledon.
The United States fell by the wayside too in what was one of the games of the competition, epic end to end stuff against Belgium that proved a 0-0 draw over 90 minutes can be a cracker, Belgium just doing enough in extra time to win the game with by far their best performance of a competition where they otherwise disappointed given the talent they had at their disposal.
Costa Rica did see the job through, albeit that they needed penalties against the ultra-conservative Greeks, for whom the opposition half was generally a foreign country and they’d forgotten to bring their passports.
It was elsewhere that the stories were emerging though, Argentina just barely sneaking beyond the Swiss in the 118th minute, a moment of magic from Messi to set up Di Maria enough to do the trick but Messi was clearly husbanding his resources and rationing out those glimpses of genius, failing to illuminate the World Cup as many hoped he would, yet still piloting his team through the competition right to its final game.
Colombia had already looked magnificent in the group stages but they really began to look the real deal as they dismantled the toothless Uruguay, James Rodriguez announcing himself on the world stage with a wonderful goal, though the impressive thing was that they were no one man team.
The same could not be said of Brazil, desperately reliant upon the attacking flair of Neymar, although even that was not enough to take them past Chile, the game going all the way to the penalties, though had Pinilla’s last minute shot off the bar been six inches lower, Brazil would have been out. The Brazilians, so emotionally overwrought throughout this tournament, looked to be enduring a collective nervous breakdown before a kick was taken, goalkeeper Julio Cesar in tears. He must have been able to see through them though, making a couple of saves in a shootout of dreadful quality, before Jara smacked his effort off the inside of the post and out to safety to hand the game to the hosts.
That brought us to the quarter-finals and a sudden brake on all the excitement as we sat through four mostly forgettable fixtures. The French were simply drowned by the superior intelligence and movement of the Germans who scored early and then just held their opponents under until the life had gone out of them. The game between Argentina and a desperately lacklustre Belgium was broadly similar, an early goal followed by an opponent being held comfortably at arm’s length.
Costa Rica had run out of steam by the time they reached their tie with the Netherlands, but they were still capable of taking the game to penalties as Dutch ambition, so fierce and impressive at the outset, gradually petered out with Van Gaal looking to take his side to the finals by attritional means only, the flair of Robben and Van Persie subjugated to the requirements of the clean sheet.
Having achieved that, with the shootout looming, Van Gaal substituted his goalkeeper for Krul and after indulging in some cringeworthy gamesmanship, the big ‘keeper kept out two penalties to defeat the Costa Ricans. Some saw this as evidence of the genius of the Dutch leader, though they failed to explain how it was that said genius hadn’t been enough to see Costa Rica off in regulation time.
The final game of the round of 8 saw Brazil overcome Colombia, largely by the expedient of kicking Rodriguez into small pieces. But in victory was sown the seed of disaster, for Thiago Silva picked up a second booking of the competition to see him ruled out of the semi-final, then, in the last moments, Neymar sustained a back injury that finished his tournament.
More than that, the fragility of the Brazilian team and its nerves was laid bare for all to see. From the moment David Luiz made it 2-0 with a brilliant free-kick scored in the half where he is less of a liability, Brazil spent the last 25 minutes in panic mode, failing to exert any control over the game, simply lashing the ball upfield any time Colombia got near their goal. Rodriguez’s penalty ten minutes from time shredded the nerves still further, but even though Brazil won, it was clear all was not well. Just how wrong things were would be shown by the semi-final.
Even these few days later, it’s still hard to believe that that game happened. The Brazilians, always travelling on the most extreme emotional edge, allowed those emotions to finally overwhelm them. It began with the pre-match homage to Neymar as though he was now encased in a coffin rather than a corset, his shirt held out during the anthems like the Shroud of Turin, any semblance of proportion long gone. And then the game started…
What can we say about Brazil that evening, and particularly David Luiz? On the BBC, it was fortunate indeed that Alan Hansen was covering his penultimate game as a pundit because the poor soul was hyperventilating at the diabolical nature of his “defensive work”. Hansen may never recover from what he witnessed. David Luiz was not the only culprit but he put everything into giving the single most stupid individual performance at a World Cup since that lad from Zaire dashed out of the wall and leathered the ball 80 yards away back in 1974. It wasn’t so much his incompetence that was astonishing, not if you’ve ever watched Chelsea, it was his utter self indulgence, his unwillingness to subjugate his ego and do the things defenders should do, but instead he continued to play to the crowd, rushing around like a madman to illustrate his “passion”. If you can find the heat map of his performance in this game online, do. It’s beyond belief.
Take nothing away from Germany, they put in a brilliant display, perhaps the single best performance of the competition, but the ease with which they registered goal after goal in that first half obliteration of the host nation was shocking to witness. To hear that the Germans agreed to go easy on them in the second half was even more unbelievable, but it was clear that after the break they were looking after themselves with the final ahead of them. Brazil, meanwhile, compounded their disgrace by defending just as badly against the Dutch in the third place game, losing 3-0 with the Netherlands barely breaking sweat.
That they were in that game came as a result of a failure against Argentina in the penalty shootout of the semi-final, Van Gaal’s team paying the price for playing the game seemingly with penalties the only end game in their minds. They got there, then lost, Messi scoring from the spot on the only occasion he got in the Dutch box all evening.
So we came to the final, the world’s best team against the world’s best player as the billing told us. Experience tells you that on such occasions, nine times out of ten it is the team that prevails, and so it was this time. You had to feel for Messi, a player who has clearly had his struggles this season for club and country and who is still trying to work out a way to deal with them. Faced with carrying a misfiring team forward – before we start castigating Messi, what of the vaunted attacking prowess of Higuain, Aguero and Di Maria in this tournament? – it was a task that ultimately proved too much even for him.
You could argue that he wasn’t best employed either, often playing too deep or going wide, but this was a month in which the muse deserted him. Of course, he was still hugely significant – without him Argentina might not have got out of the group, never mind reached the final – but such is his talent that he is held to a higher standard than mere mortals and sadly, he came nowhere near reaching that level.
Even then, we would be having different thoughts and conversations about him now had Higuain and Palacio not both missed sitters or had Messi himself done better early in the second half with the kind of chance we see him gobbling up without a thought in La Liga. But those opportunities went begging, as did a last minute free-kick from 30 yards that could have salvaged a penalty shootout from the wreckage. As he lined up the ball, you could feel the presence of Pele and of Maradona, especially Maradona, hovering around him. This was the career defining moment, here it was, the final proof.
And then the ball ballooned way over the bar and into the crowd. Messi turned away, a baffled half grin flitting across his face, knowing that the game was gone, aware of what the world was preparing to say about him, the confusion of the genius whose touch has suddenly deserted him etched on his features. His misery was compounded when he was required to go up and collect the Golden Ball as the tournament’ best player, a risible decision given he wasn’t even Argentina’s best – that accolade surely belonged to Mascherano.
The Messi sideshow threatened to take away the focus from the Germans and a thoroughly deserved, well worked win. Of course, there will be lapses into stereotyping here, but stereotypes are often there because they reveal the truth. The Germans are renowned for being methodical and ruthlessly efficient and they were that alright – they built their own training complex in Brazil after all.
Their football was a model of economy and precision too, beautifully structured, thought out, delivered exactly as required. Some use these facts as a stick with which to beat them rather than lauding the clear eyed, rational planning over a decade that has brought Germany back to the top of the game, has created history in enabling them to become the first European side to win the World Cup in South America and has them looking ready to emulate their dominance from 1966 to 1990 that saw them win two World Cups, contest three other finals and reach one semi-final in seven tournaments.
But again, to talk of them as merely mechanical and prepared would be to damn them with faint praise. What they have done, coach Joachim Low in particular, is what all smart operators do. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they have stood upon the shoulders of giants and evolved the game.
Look at the way they play and it is Spain’s tiki-taka, just on speed. They use that high pressing game – occasionally to their detriment given the vulnerability of their high defensive line at times – that Spain and Barcelona have long favoured, they harry opponents into errors, they win the ball in the other half. Spain’s style has now been countered because they are more ponderous with the ball, keeping it for its own sake, the Germans have added a directness to things, willing to get forward faster, to break with more pace, to have the ball but to use it, always, in the pursuit of another goal rather than simply to keep the opposition from their goal. This is the Guardiola plan but with a degree – Cruyff surely doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry given that it is now Germany who are playing total football.
And that you can add a clutch of great individuals, all of who are harnessed to the betterment of the team rather than themselves. Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world and a sweeper of real vision and intelligence to boot. Lahm is similarly brilliant at full-back. Muller is a mobile, all purpose striker / attacking midfielder / playmaker who would adorn any side in the world. Kroos and Ozil, for all the apparent vendetta that the British press have towards him, are creators of chances from the very top drawer.
And then there is Schweinsteiger, the man of the match in the final, who simply was not going to allow his moment to slip through his grasp, still driving on, battered and bruised, when he could barely stand. In the end, it was he, not Messi, who grasped destiny and turned it his way, simply by force of his unquenchable self-belief and his determination, allied to his undoubted quality. How very German…