THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
The twentieth World Cup finals were played in Brazil June and July. The tournament was memorable, vying with the greatest, thoroughly entertaining throughout and topped off by an excellent final featuring undoubtedly the two best teams in the tournament. Few of the matches were dull, few were vicious and goals were abundant. The competition was marked by two extraordinary results, one in the early stages, one in the semi-finals, which will reverberate around world football for some time to come.
Ireland was not there but we followed the event enthusiastically on T.V. We can take some solace from the fact that our early elimination in the qualifying stages was from the group won by Germany, the eventual winners, and the drubbings we sustained from them look less bad after seeing what they did to Portugal and Brazil in the finals. We must now face Germany again, in the qualifying groups for the 2016 European Championships.
The tournament included all previous winners. Brazil entered as slim favourites, given their tradition and position as host nation. Their arch-rivals, Argentina, however, had the world’s greatest player, Messi, which many felt would cancel out home advantage. Third favourites were Spain, World Cup holders and European champions, though no European nation had ever won in Latin America. The only other country rated by the bookies was Germany, which actually had the shortest odds pre-tournament to reach the last four.
A number of countries had something to prove. England, perennial under achievers, had brought along a group of young guns and were optimistic. France hoped to cast off the miserable memories of four years earlier, and Holland, runners up in the 2010 final, had a disgraceful and cynical performance on that occasion to live down as well as a rapid, winless exit from the 2012 European Championships. Belgium, one of the dark horses, with a formidable squad, hoped to gel as a unit and achieve their greatest success since 1986. Italy, marshalled by the ageing Pierlo, hoped to repeat their surprise showing in Europe 2012.
The Latin American contingent was strong overall, and looked set to emulate 2010 when all had battled through to the knockout stage, with Uruguay reaching the last four. The Africans also hoped to do better than last time out; many fancied Algeria to spring a surprise with an experienced squad, chiefly French born.
The group matches produced several upsets, setting the scene for some rapid exits by several of the fancied teams. The seismic shock was the 5 – 1 defeat of Spain by a Dutch team playing flowing football in a style reminiscent of the great “total football” side of the 1970s. The rout was started by a superb looping header by striker Van Persie. Spain followed this up with another dismal display against Chile and suddenly the holders were out, their beautiful football vanquished. Xavier Alonso, who played Gaelic football in Ireland as a youth, suggested that the Spanish players were tired after an arduous season in which, in addition to the domestic scene, Spanish teams had dominated European club competitions.
England also made an early exit, the young guns failing to fire. Italy joined them, after a bad tempered match against Uruguay which generated worldwide publicity when the Uruguayan striker Suarez bit an Italian defender. Suarez, the most on-form striker in the world, had previous form for biting and was summarily ejected from the competition, carrying with him Uruguay’s hopes. Brazil limped through, crude, disjointed, a shadow of the great teams of the past and over – dependent on Neymar. Argentina were winning but looked less than impressive, relying heavily on the genius of Messi. Germany overwhelmed Portugal, even with Ronaldo, a hint of things to come. The surprise qualifiers were the USA, joining most of the Latin Americans, Algeria, France and Belgium.
The tournament pointed up certain trends and traits in the modern game, not all positive. The gap between the very best nations and the next echelon has narrowed even further, with better coaching and well drilled defences able to offset, in part or totally, superior skill. There were few easy matches and in others the superior team just squeaked a late result when skill finally triumphed; Messi’s goal against Iran, Ronaldo’s cross to frustrate the USA, both deep in injury time, just two examples.
Diving remained a problem, though most matches were played in a sporting spirit. The offence has now become chronic, with referees forced to make rapid decisions under pressure; it is surely time for FIFA to take some action. Mostly the charades were of little consequence but this time Mexico were eliminated by Holland through the award of a dubious last minute penalty. Referees overall were in an invidious position, under constant pressure of one sort or another, and it showed. There were several blatantly bad decisions.
The Round of Sixteen produced, in the end, few surprises but some exciting and exhilarating matches, none more than that which saw a gallant never-say-die USA go out to Belgium in extra time. The USA brought honesty and endeavour and their success may well ignite the game there. So also did Chile, eliminated cruelly in a penalty shootout against Brazil, after a game they deserved to win. The question marks over Brazil were mounting, while for Argentina Messi seemed jaded and had ceased to inspire. Yet when the dust settled, the quarter finalists were the eight group winners, including surprise packets Colombia and Costa Rica.
The quarter final between a floundering Brazil and Colombia saw Brazil’s crude tactics of kicking their more skilful opponents around the field pay off in victory but at great cost. As the match degenerated into an unsavoury contest, Neymar suffered a cracked vertebrae after an innocuous looking tackle. Without their diamond, Brazil were just rough. Argentina and Germany advanced efficiently, while Holland needed penalties to see off Costa Rica.
Belo Horizonte, scene of USA’s famous 1950 victory over hot favourites England, saw Brazil get their comeuppance against Germany, who scored four goals in nine minutes, led 5 – 0 at half time and ran out winners 7 – 1. The demolition was swift and clinical. Germany played like Brazil of old, like the great Brazilian teams of the past crushing a hapless opponent. The myth of Brazilian superiority was shattered – and on home soil. It’s reasonable to assume that next time around Brazil will no longer intimidate Chile, Colombia, Mexico and the others. World soccer will never be the same. Meanwhile, in Sao Paulo in the other semi-final, Argentina overcame Holland on penalties.
The Final COULD have been anticlimactic. It was, rather, an excellent game between two evenly matched teams. The question was less whether Germany could repeat their heroics, more whether Messi would rise to his greatest player tag and repeat Maradona’s feat of 1986. He couldn’t, appearing just a shadow of his best, seeming to carry heavy weights on his legs, as his father put it – perhaps another victim of Alonso’s arduous Spanish season. Germany won 1 – 0 in extra time with a fine goal by Gotze, a rising star. A final worthy of a great tournament.
On October 14 next Ireland face Germany in Gelsenkirchen. Some prospect!