Saturday, 28 June 2014

WORLD CUP 2014: It's Been Good So Far. And It Can Be Great...

Si's Insights muses on the 2014 World Cup to date...

By the time you read this, it might be all over for the not yet fully convincing Brazilian hosts, and the dazzling Colombians, spearheaded by the fearless James Rodriguez, will have fallen prey to the Greek Gods. Alternatively, Jose Pekerman's 100-per-centers will continue to enhance their reputation with their first ever quarter-final place, and Neymar will continue to reign supreme.

This unpredictability, the joy of seeing the latest set of already established and newly established world stars react, perform or non-perform in the media has already made Brazil 2014 the best World Cup since 1998. It is, however, hampered by not having much competition. Too many upsets, not all of them legitimate, robbed Japan/South Korea 2002 of quality. Germany 2006 started well, with plenty of stunning goals to savour in the group stages, before deteriorating into dour, defensive play.  Similarly, the flashes of individual brilliance we saw in South Africa in 2010 became more sparse as the tournament went on and teams prioritised results, as if it wasn't already bad enough that the vuvuzelas were drowning out the atmosphere. The over praising of Brazil 2014, then, as an “epic” and “wonderful” competition, is like enjoying a very good meal at a restaurant where the last four or five meals haven't been much cop in your eyes. It's not a great meal, in the same way this World Cup is not a truly great tournament, but it feels like one.

But, unlike the meal, Brazil 2014 can be a great tournament.

And it is the knockout stages that might make it so. Today, we will find out the answer to at least four questions. Will Brazil really play like the team their two wins and seven goals suggests they can be, or will Neymar's knack for popping up in the right place at the right time draw a veil over their frailties again? Impressive though the Chileans have been, do their individuals have the spark required to overcome the World Cup's most successful nation in their own backyard? Now that the quality of James Rodriguez is no longer so unknown, will Colombia be so effective? Will the hullabaloo surrounding Luis Suarez crush the spirit of the Uruguayans or fire them up to prove a point to their press and the watching world? And so on, and so on...

Pacy, physical, counter-attacking play with a sprinkling of innovative individual invention has defined this World Cup. There has been no place for a limp, lightweight and uninspired England, nor a Spanish side cursed by age and a footballing identity crisis. The Real Madrid-Barcelona trifecta of Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta were all thirty or older, and even when Spain were in control during the earth-shattering 5-1 defeat to Holland, they seemed torn between sticking to the tiki-taka they knew best and adhering to the more direct Diego Costa experiment. (Frankly, cups of Costa Coffee would have given the lumbering World and European Champions a bigger kick.) It is impossible to overstate how revelatory Robin Van Persie's game-changing equaliser was; when roughed up, robbed of their aura and denied of their typically possessive control, Spain had no answer. That both David Villa and Fernando Torres scored against Australia spells further trouble; where do their replacements come from, let alone Xavi's, Alonso's and eventually Iniesta's? The “champs to chumps” cliché couldn't feel more apt.

If Italy, Bosnia and arguably Ecuador can count themselves unlucky to be eliminated, every other “favourite” to make the last sixteen feels like the architect of their own downfall. England were beaten by genuinely better teams, though their failure stems not so much from Roy Hodgson and his players as the culture that spawns them. The technical skill they actually have feels submerged beneath a “battling” stereotype that translates into a general lack of organisation in defence and quality up front.

The likes of Croatia, Portugal, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Luis Suarez have all dug their own graves. The overall quality of players like Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic, Gervinho and Yaya Toure counts for little when you cannot come good at the right time. To point a finger at the debatable (but ultimately correct) last minute penalty for the Greeks would be to gloss over the Ivorians' failings. The “Golden Generation” did not have the acceptable excuse of being dumped in an “impossible group” this time (Argentina & Holland in 2006, Brazil & Portugal in 2010) and still failed to make the second round. Perhaps they are destined to be the Scotland of Africa?

As for Suarez, he should simply ask himself if he wants to be remembered as the phenomenally talented footballer he is or as someone who exists to literally provide some bite to the headlines. It is probably best to think, instead, of the positive headlines provided by world class like Lionel Messi (above), or the up-and-comers who have pleasantly surprised us all, like Nigeria's Ahmed Musa (below), a diamond in a very rough-and-tumble side.

I shall return to ponder further events at the World Cup in due course. Until then...

Enjoy the games!

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