It was a measure of how entertaining the 2014 World Cup finals were until then that the second-round tie between Argentina and Switzerland got such horrible reviews. No two hours of football containing 43 (count ‘em) attempts on goal should be completely written off, however putrid some of them were (hello, Josip Drmic). Especially given the almost unspeakably dramatic climax. However the finals were threatening the highest three-goals-per-game ratio on colour telly. So viewers were ill-prepared for a return to ghosts of ghastly finals games past. And the final itself highlighted a conflict between “good” and “entertaining” football. For much of the month, the defending was wretched enough to make you glad Mick McCarthy was no longer a pundit, for the sake of our eardrums and his sanity. But both finalists were defensively sound without being defensively-minded, which turned a potentially entertaining 3-2 into a slightly frustrating 1-0.

The tournament ran out of entertainment steam at the quarter-final stage, before being brought back to life by David Luiz, Marcelo etc… in, ahem, unexpected fashion. For instance, few watching Germany labour to victory over France were confidently tipping them as tournament winners, or even the best team in it, despite subsequent revisionist tendencies. “Germany did not resemble a team who plan to lift the title,” noted the BBC’s David Ornstein. Correctly. 12 days before the final. Everyone’s entitled to a bad round, though. And a competition in which even England played some entertaining football was certainly due a breather from dramatic finishes and, in international football terms, goals and saves galore.

Teams

There seems as little debate about Germany being the best team as about Lionel Messi being the best player. There should be more. Germany’s acclaim was influenced as much by their destruction of Brazil’s Coco-the-Clown defending in the semi-final as by their ultimate victory. But the Netherlands would probably like a word about this, given that they had the huge disadvantage of NOT playing Brazil in the semis. A “Netherlands XI” beat Brazil in the third-place play-off at such a canter that you suspect 7-1 might have been an option had semi-final opponents been swapped. Bad though Spain were, the Netherlands’ 5-1 win over the defending champions had as much merit as anything Germany did to the hosts.

Despite tipping Argentina before the tournament, I rarely envisaged them as winners during it. And if Belgium’s dark horses ran poorly, Chile’s and Colombia’s emerged as thoroughbreds – almost as if Belgium’s emergence as absolutely bloody everybody’s dark horses was entirely due to the side being “packed” with “Premier League stars.” None of them shone. The EPL is the world’s “richest” league, not necessarily the “best.” Episode 94. Colombia’s best team since Carlos Valderrama’s perm was a lad was driven by James/Hames Rodriguez. But he was ably supported by the bold Juan Cuadrado and the old Mario Yepes – a centre-back who occasionally looked 38 but more often looked the assured veteran of over 100 caps.

Chile garnered the sort of comment about their (lack of) height that used to infest stereotypes of East Asian teams. More worthy of comment was the incessant energy of their midfield, the sensible way in which the match-unfit Arturo Vidal was nurtured through the tournament and the transformation of Gary Medel from Cardiff City midfield hacker to positionally-alert centre-back. Chile’s defeat to Brazil may have kept the tournament’s “party atmosphere” going. But whether it benefitted its football is far more doubtful. Costa Rica were plucky underdogs with added style. They were easy to warm to. And while Bryan Ruiz was a surprise-and-a-half to watching Fulham fans, goalkeeper Keylor Navas was well known to regular La Liga viewers from his displays against the bigger clubs in the Spanish title run-in.  Whether striker Joel Campbell will finally get a chance at Arsenal remains to be seen. But he looked a better bet than Olivier Giroud.

Before they ran out of steam, France produced a more stylish version of Germany’s team ethic. Paul Pogba cemented his reputation as one of Alex Ferguson’s biggest mistakes (the wine-loving manager letting him leave Man Yoo in 2012 because “I don’t think he showed us any respect”). Karim Benzema delivered on the big stage like never before. Christ, even Patrice Evra wasn’t bad. Algeria were terrific against South Korea and Germany, the United States likewise in spells of all their games. And Croatia were plain robbed of a second-round place by daring to look the likeliest winners of the tournament’s opening game against Brazil. It was hard to know where to categorise Ghana, as personified by John Boye, who flitted between all-action defender and a disgrace to The Waltons (one for the 40-pluses, there). They produced the best 20 minutes of the tournament against Germany, lest we forget. Twenty more minutes of that and the story of 2014 would assuredly have been less Teutonic.

Players

There was no justification whatsoever for Lionel Messi’s “Golden Ball” award – and even he knew it. He arguably had a better overall tournament in 2010. Cynics have already marked it down as a transparent marketing tool and the thinking behind the award would be fascinating. And even if the decision had to be made in less time than it required – and with marketing in mind – tournament top-scorer (and leading “200% one to watch”) Rodriguez was surely the “easy” option. It is, I suppose, natural for semi-finalists, finalists and winners to dominate “teams of the tournament.” But not always justified. Was Germany’s Manuel Neuer a better keeper than Navas, USA’s Tim Howard or Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa? Did Mats Hummels have a better tournament than Mexico’s Rafael Marquez?

My player of it was Argentina’s Javier Mascherano. Having spent far too long in a Barcelona shirt proving that he isn’t a centre-back, Mascherano dealt with everything that was thrown at him in Brazil – including Martin Demichelis as a defensive partner for the knock-out stages (although Demichelis looked eight times the player in Brazil than he ever has at Manchester City). Mascherano was a throwback to days when Argentine defenders were always “rugged” – I always believed Oscar Ruggeri changed his name by deed poll to fit the stereotype. And without him, Argentina would have been finished long before the final.

Arjen Robben’s no-show in the semi-final was all the more galling for his inspirational brilliance to that point. His second goal against Spain provided one of the tournament highlights… Steve Wilson’s BBC commentary – a homage to Brian Moore’s memorable “it must be five, it’s got to be five…it IS five” when (and the 40-pluses may wish to sit down here) Don Givens put Crystal Palace five goals up at Selhurst Park in 1972 against… Manchester United. Thomas Mueller deserves a little ripple for re-exposing the composure deficiencies in Pepe’s make-up before the grinning Portuguese idiot could do real damage. And while Germany were a team effort, mentions in despatches are due to the annoyingly-good Neuer and supersub Andre Schurrle – the champions’ very own David Fairclough (consult the afore-mentioned over-40s for details).

Among those who fell short of the tournament “business end”, there was Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland’s very own Andy Read and the oldest-looking 22-year-old since the balding Robben was that age. Hector Herrera impressed in Mexico’s Olympic champion team and impressed even more in Brazil. And a fully-fit Cristiano Ronaldo would almost certainly have got his ultra-cumbersome Portuguese mates out of their group (and arguably contributed more to his side’s general play in their first two games than Messi did to his). But he wasn’t. So he didn’t.

Match

One man’s stinker is another man’s game of the tournament – or is that terrorist and freedom fighter? I get SO confused. So it is that Netherlands/Costa Rica got my vote here. Initially for the afore-mentioned stylish pluck of CONCACAF’s finest and Navas’s on-going net-minding brilliance, then for the fruitloop final 40 of the 120 minutes.

It didn’t end well, of course. Clearly, having ignored everything they had JUST TOLD goalkeepers about not leaving their line too early, referees also lacked the power to book shoot-out protagonists. Otherwise Tim Krul’s, ahem, ungentlemanly conduct would have been strangled at near-birth by the prospect of Ron Vlaar having to guard the net from penalty three.

Mind you, freed from yellow-y sanction, Costa Rica’s penalty takers could have responded to the wishes of the watching world by sticking one on Newcastle’s finest whenever he got near them. “You can see where the next penalty is going, can you Tim? Not with these tears in your eyes you can’t…whack!!” Not that I’m advocating the use of such free-floating violence. Oh no.

Stinkers

For a tournament so entertaining it is surprisingly easier to pinpoint these. Primarily, of course, Brazil (bar Neymar, who was a delight). Argentina without Maradona would have been wretched in 1990. But I wonder if there was a Fred, Paulinho or Luis Gustavo among them.
Cameroon’s dispute over bonus money was the height of irony. Under-performance-related-pay, perhaps? Outstanding in a sea of talent-betrayal was Alex Song’s dismissal for an elbows-first swipe from behind at Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic which had all the co-ordination and intellectual merit of an ungainly six year-old at the end of an arduous PE lesson. It was easy to imagine Song simpering “I’m telling of you” as he swung his arm.

Russia’s sterile, fearful displays, with their goalkeeper dropping the ball into his own net, recalled England’s 2010 struggles, for reasons which, like the luminous red jumper, red tie, blue shirt and green watch manager Fabio Capello wore to their last group game I just can’t quite fathom. Uruguay let themselves down over the you-know-who, you-know-what incident – to the extent that even some “anyone but Englanders” would have balked at supporting them had they met England post-Suarez ban. Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani might inexplicably have engineered a lucrative move to the EPL.  And Alvaro Pereira had an uncanny resemblance to Thierry Henry in a hall of mirrors, which seems like fair comment of sorts.

Part of Spain and Portugal’s downfalls were because Real Madrid had a worse tournament than Fulham and Stoke, what with the failings of Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas and the gormless Pepe. And the energy-sapping Champions League final couldn’t take all of the blame, as Xabi Alonso had the worst tournament of the lot – and he missed the final through suspension. As for Asia… bar Iran’s wonderful second-half against Argentina, only Australia came away from Brazil with any reputational benefit – and Tim Cahill with what almost amounted to a proposal of civil partnership from ITV’s Lee Dixon. There were individual horror shows in the good teams too; most notably Wesley Sneijder, who was a non-event bar one stiff-legged drive which helped maintain the World Cup’s best-respected tradition – Mexico’s desperately unfortunate second-round exit.

England?

There was little of the tactical paralysis and stodge of their last two World Cups. But England had no player near the tournament’s best or worst XIs. In short, England simply didn’t matter.

The Telly

The BBC had their usual victory over ITV. And, whisper it, their coverage was really rather good. Inevitably, given their hugely increased number, the punditry attracted almost as much punditry as the football. And the emergence of so many new names should surely herald Mark Lawrenson’s ignominious exit alongside the effectively-long-retired Alan Hansen. The Beeb’s newbies – Neil Lennon especially – exposed the complacency and paucity of genuine insight from more experienced colleagues…bar Gary Lineker, who had his best World Cup since 1986.

Lennon was eloquent, informative and amusing. And if Rio Ferdinand was less eloquent, he did offer the “current” players’ perspective for which he was hired. Indeed Ferdinand showed the strengths that made Hansen a breath of fresh air in his early punditry days (no, really).
Lennon was a sad early loss to the tournament. Given the on-field incident in 1998 when Lennon eye-butted Alan Shearer’s studs, there was little prospect of the two comfortably sharing studio space. And Shearer’s punditry being affected by nerves remains too horrifying a prospect to contemplate.

Almost as sad a loss was much of Danny Murphy’s humour and insight, to the point where he was once, not without foundation, confused with Lawrenson. Murphy remains one of the best of the new breed. But if he thinks it wise to watch and learn from the old breed, someone should, as Lineker once memorably mouthed at a World Cup finals, “have a word with him.” The less said about Robbie Savage, the better. I’ll merely note that bollocks at high pitch and volume is still bollocks and that he is being paid a LOT of taxpayers’ money to do a job to a level me, you and any girl named Sue could manage. Jonathan Pearce is also emptying the Treasury while spectacularly misunderstanding goal-line technology. And I GENUINELY could do that for much less money.

ITV could also take “plenty of positives” from their tournament, even if most of them (Gordon Strachan, Dixon, Martin O’Neill) developed their trade on the BBC. As did main commentator Clive Tyldesley, who occasionally reminded listeners just why he was once the Beeb’s number one. Strachan provided the punditry highlight with his rant on football’s lack of morals. Dixon knows what he’s talking about. And O’Neill eventually wrung some humour out of his slightly snotty reaction to remarks about his lack of a World Cup winner’s medal. Regular Europa League watchers on ITV4 already knew commentators Sam Matterface, Joe Speight and Clark Carlisle. The ex-Burnley/Countdown man may have wondered why Colombia’s Jackson Martinez wasn’t good enough for Ecuador’s team but he was informative and infectiously enthusiastic. So not even Andy “in and around” Townsend, Glenn “for me” Hoddle and Ian “gaffer” Wright could drag ITV down to former non-glories.

On the downside on both sides were the foreign pundits – bar Clarence Seedorf and the all-too-sparingly used Brad Friedel. Thierry Henry’s contributions sounded better than they were. And while Fabio Cannavaro’s English was more eloquently enunciated than mine (a point I may have just proven), his vocabulary was too limited, despite having the aura of a natural broadcaster. The Beeb made better use of expert knowledge. Friedel listenably told us everything we needed to know about the USA. South American correspondent Tim Vickery proved as eloquent a broadcaster as he is a writer. And if Jason Mohammad’s trawls through “real” Brazilian culture matched “here, with the latest from the England camp” for blood-chilling capabilities, they outshone Shearer patronising his way through South African townships four years ago.

Referees

Refreshingly, referee mistakes were limited to the “normal,” after years of World Cups besmirched by barmy FIFA directives and experimentation with new laws in the early stages of the tournament itself. Awarding Germany a free-kick for Neuer’s borderline assault on Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain in the final was possibly the worst decision I’ve ever seen (a Wolves penalty in the 1981 FA Cup semi-final may still edge that award). And Brazil’s penalty in their opening game against Croatia hinted at dark officiating arts to come. But they never materialised. The refs used their spray beautifully, when they remembered to use it at all. Some had apparent allergies to awarding penalties. But there wasn’t a seriously dirty game, with Brazil’s assault on Colombia and Honduras and Ecuador’s assault on each other among the closest we got to any “Battle of (insert venue here).” Robbie Savage complained about referees from weak domestic leagues getting World Cup games as if it was “political correctness gone mad.” But, well, Robbie Savage…

(Thanks For The) Memories

Many individual images will endure. The overhead camera which made Neymar look like an android being stretchered away for some replacement limbs after his tournament-ending injury. The pure emotion of USA’s John Brooks, visibly wilting at the enormity of his late winner against Ghana…either that or he’d bet the house on 1-1 and remembered just too late. A welcome antithesis to Cristiano Ronaldo’s preening prickdom at the Champions League final. Arthur Askey’s stunt double, in a bright orange commissionaire’s uniform.  And the Argentinian boy, praying hard during the final, seeing himself on the stadium screen and…continuing to pray hard. In contrast to the adult fans instantly reverting to childhood, gurning gormlessly at their own image, regardless of how their team was doing, this was proper football support. Party atmospheres and good grace in defeat are hugely welcome before and after games. But during the games? Pray hard. That is real support. At that point, more than ever, I wanted Argentina to win.

Conclusion

I was two years too young to remember the 1970 finals. I was the right age to remember the dross served up alongside Socrates, Rossi et al in 1982. And reading through match-by-match tournament reviews in When Saturday Comes since 1994 reminded me of the dross within each tournament since. So these finals were the best I’ve seen to date. Of course, with finals in Russia and Qatar in the next eight years, it’s anybody’s guess how long that status will last (OK, at least eight years). But the first adverts for the forthcoming EPL season were a reminder of the money-grubbing pantomime to come. The first images were of a Jose Mourinho press conference, as pantomime a villainy as you could imagine. The World Cup finals had almost none of that nonsense and were all the better for it. It WAS fun, wasn’t it?

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