So, another World Cup, another German victory, another England humiliation. And at the end of it all some (not quite) random thoughts about the tournament.
A fine World Cup, some truly great games, but no truly great team – not even Germany, outstanding though they were, and worthy winners though they are.
Part of what made this tournament so riveting was the way it upset so many received wisdoms and footballing myths. Most of the ‘big’ teams – Spain, Italy, Brazil, Portugal, England – had a wretched tournament. Much of the real excitement was created by the ‘lesser’ teams – Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Algeria, the USA. Equally, arguably the three greatest players in the world – Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez – all had, for different reasons, poor tournaments. (I’m tempted to say they all lacked bite, but I will resist.) The players that lit up the World Cup were those who have long been overlooked for the label of ‘great’ – Robben, Mascherano – or those whose time has yet to some – Rodriguez, Neuer.
The choice of Lionel Messi for the Golden Ball award ahead of Arjen Robben or James Rodriguez was beyond baffling. Messi was not even the best player in the Argentina team in this tournament – Mascherano took that accolade, and by a considerable margin.
Messi’s award shows how much of football rests on myth, reputation and sentiment. What was striking about this World Cup, though, was how many football myths were exposed, including perhaps the greatest myth of all. Brazil, we all know, is the greatest footballing nation, the land of free flowing football, the home of the beautiful game. Except that not since the early 1980s, and the team of Sócrates, Zico, Falcão and Éder, has Brazil played the beautiful game. The Brazil teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002 were, the likes of Ronaldo, Romario, Rivaldo and Kaka notwithstanding, pragmatic and efficient, rather than brilliant and charismatic. This year’s model was not even that. Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil did more that merely humiliate the hosts. It hopefully laid to rest the myth.
Germany’s demolition of Brazil may also have helped laid to rest the myth of German football. This may be the first German World Cup triumph for 24 years – a period over which Brazil has won the Cup twice – but Germany has, over that period, and in fact for a much longer period, produced a stream of outstanding teams, certainly far better than most Brazil teams of the time. Yet, Germany continues to be regarded by so many commentators not as a nation that plays the beautiful game, but as one that produces ‘efficient’ teams – perhaps the most over-used footballing cliché. When Juninho said after Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation that ‘Germany taught us how to play football’ he was speaking a truth too long ignored.
What this German teams lacks, however, is pace and an outstanding striker (Müller, brilliant though he is, doesn’t really count). Find those, and this truly would be a great team.
As for England, it was a case of another tournament, another angst-ridden debate about failure, another set of theories to explain a dismal performance. England went to Brazil with few people having any great expectations. It left with even those low expectations having proved too high.
As in politics, so in football: ‘Too many foreigners’ has become the explanation of England’s ills. And as in politics, so in football: it is an explanation that explains nothing. The ‘too many foreigners’ arguments suggests that before the Premiership and the influx of foreign players, England were masters of the footballing universe. In fact, with the singular exception of 1966, England have never triumphed in a major tournament. But 1966, and the almost 50 years of hurt, has clouded all subsequent debate, and befuddled all judgment. As the writer Nick Hornby observed, England has ‘won precisely five knockout games in any World Cup played outside our own country’. ‘Whatever is wrong with English football now’, Hornby pointed out, ‘has always been wrong, ever since we began playing the game at international level.’ It cannot even be argued that the presence of Henry or Zola or Suarez on English soil has prevented the development of homegrown players. Whether the old Golden Generation of Beckham, Terry and Gerrard, or the upcoming generation of Barkley, Sterling and Shaw, England has never lacked good, technically proficient players. What it has lacked is a national team able to utilize their abilities.
Finally, the myth that the Would Cup would transform life in Brazil, or improve the lives of the poor, can be laid to rest. It was always as credible as David Luiz’s defending. Brazil can now return to real life, and to debating economic growth and social inequality, rather than Luiz’s inability to stop a goal or Fred’s to score one. As for the next World Cup, somehow I think there will be little discussion of the beautiful game in the run up to Russia 2018, still less as we approach Qatar 2022.