WORLD CUP

One for the memories

Print edition : August 08, 2014

The victorious German team at the Maracana after defeating Argentina 1-0 in the final on July 13. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Germany's Mario Goetze (centre) scores the winning goal past Argentina's goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Photo: DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

Italy's Giorgio Chiellini complains after Uruguay's Luis Suarez (right) bit him during a Group D match on June 24. Photo: Ricardo Mazalan/AP

Mexico's goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa makes one of his famous saves, this time on a shot by Brazil's Neymar during a Group A match on June 17. Photo: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

A Brazil fan cries as he watches a live telecast of the semi-final between Brazil and Germany on July 08, which Brazil lost 1-7. Photo: Leo Correa/AP

James Rodriguez of Colombia controls the ball during the quarter-final match with Brazil on July 4. Rodriguez won the Golden Boot. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Costa Rica's goalkeeper Keylor Navas punches the ball away in the quarter-final match with the Netherlands on July 5. Photo: Themba Hadebe/AP

Germany's Miroslav Klose (centre) challenges Brazil's midfielder Luiz Gustavo in the semi-final. In this match Klose became the highest scorer in World Cup history with 16 goals and Brazil received its worst thrashing in World Cup matches. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

The Netherlands' Robin van Persie scores a goal in the Group B match with Spain on June 13. The reigning champion was beaten 5-1. Photo: Bernat Armangue/AP

Brazil's Neymar being tackled by Juan Camilo Zuniga of Colombia in a quarter-final match. This tackle ended Neymar's World Cup campaign. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Argentina's Lionel Messi dribbles past the Netherlands' Dirk Kuyt (right) and Robin van Persie, in a semi-final on July 9. Photo: Themba Hadebe/AP

Colombian singer Shakira performs during the closing ceremony ahead of the final at the Maracana stadium. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

It was all there: drama, glory and heartbreak, magical display of skills and biting brutality, the making of new heroes and the breaking of old reputations and, above all, sublime football. It was indeed a World Cup to remember.

THE 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil was everything that a World Cup should be. It was four weeks of unrestrained emotional drama, played out at the highest level on the grandest stage possible. Joy and heartbreak, heroism and skulduggery, excellence and incompetence, glory and shame, magical skills and base brutality, along with such a good measure of high melodrama and histrionics that a diva could have benefited by taking notes—such was the stuff of this World Cup, making it one of the most entertaining tournaments in recent times. And, of course, there was the most sublime football. It all culminated in an exciting clash of titans as the traditional rivals, Argentina and Germany, two giants of the game, met for the third time in a World Cup final.

History repeated itself as Germany beat Argentina 1-0, 24 years after their last encounter in the 1990 World Cup final, which Germany (then West Germany) won with a similar score. This was Germany’s fourth World Cup victory (1954, 1974, 1990 and 2014), and it became the first European nation to win the cup on Latin American soil.

In a match which was more or less evenly balanced, it was German coach Joachim Loew’s tactics that won the day. The Germans could successfully subdue Lionel Messi and keep up the attack, using the “False nine” strategy effectively to cause confusion in the Argentine ranks. Loew’s decision to substitute veteran striker Miroslav Klose with the young Mario Goetze in the 88th minute proved to be the match-winning decision. With both the teams locked in a goalless struggle, and with just seven minutes left before the end of extra time, Goetze etched his name in the history books with a splendid goal from an equally splendid pass from Andre Schuerrle. Argentina had its chances, but Gonzalo Higuain missed a sitter in the 21st minute and Messi’s shot in the 46th minute missed the net by inches.

MESSI’S UNFULFILLED DESTINY

For Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, whose four goals and individual brilliance had taken his team to the final, the long shadow of the legendary Diego Maradona continues to envelope his own greatness. Ever since Messi blazed onto the international scene, there has been talk of him being the true inheritor of Maradona’s mantle. Maradona single-handedly won the World Cup for his country in 1986 and then again took it to the final in 1990; the same had been expected of Messi since 2010. Until there is a World Cup in his trophy cabinet, for all his achievements, Messi’s will remain an unfulfilled destiny (though it is one that was thrust upon him), and his legacy will forever remain in the shadow of Maradona’s greatness.

Neither of the teams lost a single match on their way to the final; Germany, however, drew one against Ghana. But the essential difference between the two was that while the young German team played as one single unit, Argentina seemed excessively dependent on a few individual stars like Messi, Angel di Maria and Javier Mascherano. In the semi-final, up against an in-form Netherlands, Argentina was in for a tough fight in which no quarter was given for 120 minutes.

Argentina, thanks to the match-winning effort by goalkeeper Sergio Romero, won 4-2 in the penalty shootout. In fact, Argentina may well have gone out of the tournament had it not been for the life-giving block tackle by Mascherano that denied Arjen Robben a goal in the dying seconds of normal play time. Speaking of the indefatigable defensive midfielder whose selfless dedication on the field helped take his team to the final, Argentina’s coach, Alejandro Sabella, said after the match: “Mascherano is a symbol… an emblem for the national squad on the field of play and off it.”

BRAZIL’S DEFEAT

Germany, on the other hand, was in devastating form as it humiliated the host nation Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals. This was the biggest loss ever for Brazil in a World Cup, a tournament it has won a record five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002). The goals just kept coming, like a slot machine gone berserk. Thomas Mueller struck first in the 11th minute; then it was the turn of the predatory Miroslav Klose, who showed that age had done little to diminish his hunger as he scored his 16th World Cup goal and became the highest aggregate scorer in World Cup history, a position earlier occupied by the Brazilian striker Ronaldo with his aggregate of 15 goals. The nightmare began for Brazil as Germany scored three more times in the next five minutes (Toni Kroos in the 24th and 26th minutes and Sami Khedira in the 29th minute). Such was Brazil’s plight that even their ravaging, merciless opponents took pity on them and decided during the half-time break “not to pile on Brazil’s agony”. It was a decision taken unilaterally by the German players, but still two goals followed, with Andre Schuerrle scoring in the 69th and 79th minutes. Finally, Oscar scored for Brazil the least celebrated goal of the tournament.

Absence of Neymar, Silva

The fact that their talismanic star Neymar Jr was out of the tournament due to a backbone injury and that the captain, Thiago Silva, the bulwark of their defence, had to sit out this match owing to a yellow card received in the previous game cannot be an excuse for this whitewash. The humiliation was compounded when Brazil failed to redeem itself in the match for the third place against the Netherlands, and even with Silva in the defence Brazil lost 3-0. In the absence of Neymar, if there was one Brazilian player who showed spirit and courage in the face of disaster, it was the young midfielder Oscar, who made a mark in this tournament with his play-making abilities.

The “most unkindest cut of all” was that the humiliation took place in Brazil itself, a name practically synonymous with football. This World Cup was hyped to be one of redemption for Brazil. Before this World Cup, the biggest disaster to hit Brazilian football was “Maracanazo” (meaning the Maracana blow, a term coined after Brazil lost to Uruguay in the 1950 final, played in the Maracana stadium in Rio). Apparently, the wound had not healed even after 64 years and five World Cup victories, and nothing short of victory in the home ground would have erased the pain of the past. Little did they anticipate that a far greater humiliation was in store for them at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte.

A CUP OF WOEs

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who has been facing widespread criticism in her country for the enormous expenditure incurred in hosting the World Cup, had promised that this would be the “copa das copas” (the cup of all cups). Now, with the euphoria turning to bitter disappointment for the people, and the country heading for a presidential election later this year, Dilma Rousseff’s copa das copas has turned into a cup of woes.

During the felicitation ceremony after the final, jeers could be heard from the stands directed against her and FIFA president Joseph “Sepp” Blatter.

The story may have been different if Neymar had been on the field and not gone out of action with a cracked vertebra. At the beginning of the tournament, many felt that this World Cup would be “Neymar’s World Cup”. He was instrumental in Brazil’s wins at the group stage, scoring three goals (one against Croatia and two against Cameroon), and was named “Man of the Match” in two of the three matches leading to the round of 16. Of the 10 goals that Brazil scored on its way to the semi-finals, Neymar scored four, including one in the penalty shootout against Chile in the pre-quarter-finals.

But Neymar is more than just a superstar. He is the present mascot of Brazilian football and arguably of Brazil itself. In a team that came nowhere close in talent and excellence to most of the teams of the past, Neymar was the only rallying point. The entire hope of not only the nation but football lovers and Brazil fans all over the world rested on the shoulders of this fragile young man with magic on his feet. But it all came crashing down with a brutal tackle from behind by the Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuniga that cracked Neymar’s vertebra and shattered his World Cup dream. Miracles were expected from him, and the question will always linger whether the story would have been different had Neymar been there.

Even with Neymar out of the tournament, he continued to be the rallying point for the Brazilian team. “Let us do it for Neymar” was the slogan of the squad, which strangely appeared a bit too emotional and tearful throughout the tournament. As the two teams lined up for the national anthems before the semi-final, Neymar’s number 10 jersey was held aloft by his teammates, who then proceeded to get the worst hiding of their lives. With both Neymar and Silva out, things were bound to be difficult for Brazil, but no one, not even the Germans, expected such a one-sided drubbing. But then, expecting the unexpected has been the essence of this World Cup.

THE UNEXPECTED

Right from the beginning, the predictable was thrown out of the window and the unexpected took over the reins. Favourites fell, the unheralded rose, and the inconceivable happened. If the defending champion Spain’s inglorious exit at the group stage came as an initial surprise, it nevertheless established the reversal of traditional trends as lesser-known teams began to assert themselves, narrowing the perceived gap between the big fish and the minnows of the game.

One of the biggest surprises of the tournament was Costa Rica. Grouped with three former champions—Italy, Uruguay and England —it was a forgone conclusion that Costa Rica would be eliminated at the group stage itself. But not only did they emerge at the top of their group, beating Italy and Uruguay, but they went on to beat Greece in the round of 16.

Playing its first ever quarter-finals, Costa Rica gave the star-studded Dutch team a run for its money for the full 120 minutes, before losing 4-3 in the penalty shootout.

Even as the big names of the game like Spain, England, Italy and Portugal stumbled out, the lesser names, who for so long have been considered mere participants and not a real threat to the major powers, made their mark on the world stage. Algeria, Nigeria, Chile, Colombia, Greece, Mexico and Costa Rica all reached the round of 16.

Their rise was what made the group stage so interesting. Mexico held Brazil to a goalless draw, Chile beat Spain 2-0, Germany drew 2-2 against Ghana as did the United States against Portugal. The 1998 champion, France, who reached the quarter-finals beating Nigeria, was held by Ecuador to a goalless draw in the group stage. There was no absolute favourite and that was what made this World Cup so thrilling. Nine games were drawn in the group stage, and seven games after that went into extra time, of which four were decided on tie-breakers.

THE GAME changes

There has been a perceptible change in the style of the game itself. There was a marked departure from defensive play, and a preference for a more attacking and aggressive game. Often, teams abandoned their usual styles—the ones they are traditionally identified with—and adopted totally different strategies. For example, Germany, known for its robust, straight-on attack, with long balls, was seen adopting a variation of the “tiki taka” approach, with short passes and longer spells of ball possession—a style that the previous champion Spain is identified with. Similarly, Argentina, under its coach Alejandro Sabella, contained its usual flair and preferred a counter-attacking style for this tournament.

Traditional formations were set aside to make way for new variations and experiments. Coaches came as much under focus as the players as tactical moves and crucial substitutions became a deciding factor in the evenly balanced matches. This aspect made the game far more dynamic than ever before.

GOALS and Goalkeeping

One result of this change was the remarkably high number of goals scored in the tournament. With 171 goals, this has been the highest-scoring World Cup in history, a position shared with the 1998 tournament hosted in France. The first goal of this tournament was, ironically, a same-side goal off the foot of Brazilian defender Marcelo in the opening match against Croatia, but what followed over the next month was a deluge of goals of amazing variety. Be it Robin van Persie’s goal against Spain, for which the Dutch striker sprouted invisible wings and took flight to head home a beautifully floating pass from defender Daley Blind, or the baffling curve of Messi’s free kick from 25 yards against Nigeria that sailed over the wall and into the right-hand corner of the net, the goals of this World Cup were a delight as much for their profusion as for the artistry involved.

Alongside the brilliant goals were spectacular saves. From one perspective, this was a World Cup of goalkeepers. In football, goalkeepers are at once the most striking presence and the ones whom spectators pay the least attention. They are the last line of the defence, colossal, solitary figures who prowl the breadth of the goalpost, warding off attacks from the enemy. The only time the focus is on them is when there is the danger of a goal. The fact that goalkeepers were the most important figures in this World Cup is indicative of the kind of action the tournament saw.

Manuel Neuer of Germany, Keylor Navas of Costa Rica, Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico, Vincent Enyeama of Nigeria, Sergio Romero of Argentina, Julio Cesar of Brazil, Rais M’Bolhi of Algeria and Tim Howard of the U.S. were some of the outstanding goalies of the tournament. In closely fought matches, it was their heroics that made the difference.

Neuer, widely considered the best goalkeeper in the world today, practically redefined his position in this tournament with devastating forays well outside the penalty area, earning him the sobriquet of “sweeper-keeper”. He was awarded the Golden Glove for his overall performance.

The relatively unknown Keylor Navas also became a force to reckon with during Costa Rica’s dream run to the quarter-final stage. It was his saves in the penalty shootout against Greece that took Costa Rica to the last eight. Even though his team lost to the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, it was Navas who was voted Man of the Match.

But the one who stole the show even though his stay was relatively short in the tournament was Mexico’s Ochoa. One of the defining moments of this World Cup was Ochoa launching himself at a full stretch to save what seemed to be a certain goal from Neymar. That feat immediately found itself in the list of the greatest saves in World Cup history. The match was one of the high points in the early stages as the mighty Brazil failed to beat Mexico. Ochoa’s efforts were instrumental in taking Mexico to the pre-quarter stage, where they were stopped by the Netherlands. Even though Mexico lost, Ochoa was adjudged the Man of the Match. Later, Luis van Gaal, the maverick Dutch coach, admitted that the inability to score past Ochoa forced him to change tactics. The Netherlands was playing in a 4-3-3 formation, but Van Gaal decided to get more men out of the defence into the attack to beat Ochoa.

NEW HEROES

But the angelic-looking Ochoa was not the only new discovery of the World Cup. If football lovers all over the world were denied the pleasure of watching the wizardry of Andrea Pirlo, the power of Cristiano Ronaldo or the craftsmanship of Andres Iniesta owing to their teams’ early departure from the tournament, they were more than compensated by the magic of the new crop of players who dazzled the world with their skills and etched their names alongside the established stars.

The foremost among them was James Rodrigues of Colombia. With six goals—the highest in the tournament—in just five games, Rodriguez was the main force behind Colombia’s unprecedented run to the quarter-final stage. He became the first Colombian to win the coveted Golden Boot.

Twenty-one-year-old French midfielder Paul Pogba was another revelation. Though France was eliminated at the quarter-final stage by Germany, Pogba’s efforts did not go unnoticed, and he was named the Best Young Player of the tournament. Alexis Sanchez of Chile and Oscar of Brazil also made their marks on the field; but the one who made the biggest splash was the German striker Mario Goetze, who took the place of the legendary Klose in the final and scored the only goal, which won Germany the Cup. Goetze, who was being kept as a trump card, was unleashed by Loew at a most crucial stage of the match, and the 22-year-old showed no sign of nerves as he executed one of the finest goals of the tournament.

GLORY AND SHAME

The World Cup is a stage where glory and shame, beauty and brutality are often inseparably linked. This was demonstrated time and again during this edition too.

Arjen Robben’s breathtakingly powerful surges through the defence of the opponents will be as much talked about as his “dives” at the drop of a hat. Similarly, the memory of Colombia’s dazzling display of football will always be marred by the almost career-threatening foul committed on Neymar in the quarter-finals.

But the one incident that will forever be associated with this World Cup is Uruguayan star Luis Suarez’s biting episode. Suarez, who almost single-handedly took his team to the round of 16, inexplicably lost his head in the group stage against Italy and bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. Though he escaped a red card, Suarez was subsequently punished by being banned from any football-related activities for four months. With him out of the tournament, Uruguay went down tamely to an exuberant Colombia 2-0 in the pre-quarter-final stage.

Accept it or deplore it, but such is the sum and substance of a World Cup experience; the good, the bad and the ugly come together to create arguably the greatest sports spectacle on earth (according to reports, an estimated one billion people worldwide tuned in to see the final). And finally, when the carnival has folded its tents and left town, when the jubilation and tears have subsided, and the revellers at the venue have begun their long journey back home and those in faraway lands have switched off their television sets, and found themselves helpless at the sudden descent of a blank weariness, a question may arise: Was it all really worth it? All the fuss, the aggravation, the sleep-deprived irritability, and the entire pointlessness of such enthusiasm over a sport?

The answer—whatever it may be —would be as irrelevant as the question, for it is just a matter of four years when the whole process will be repeated with as much uninhibited intensity and unrestrained enthusiasm as it was this year and all the years before.

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