Saturday, 12 July 2014

WORLD CUP 2014: Argy Bargy, And The Third Place Final

We review the second semi-final, picks our tournament winners and make a case for the third place final

The worry for the second semi-final of Brazil 2014, in advance, is that Brazil vs. Germany raised the bar so high for astonishment, entertainment and clinical finishing that it was always going to be a tough, even impossible, act to follow.

In the event, Louis van Gaal’s Holland did not possess quite enough Argy Bargy to see off their marginally more determined opponents in Sao Paulo. It was a case of sad history repeating itself for the Dutch; sixteen years before, they had lost 4-2 in a penalty shootout to a worse-looking South American team on the day, with the shootout hero being a much-maligned goalkeeper. For Claudio Taffarel, read Sergio Romero, as his brace of saves carried Argentina into the final and continued their proud record of never losing a semi-final match.

The match itself was disappointing, a turgid tactical battle between, as Liam Brady put it, “two boxers who (wouldn’t) drop their guard”. There were strong, persistent spells of passing and probing from both nations, but these ultimately amounted to nothing, with tiredness and tentativeness taking precedence as the match went on. Suffocating the middle of the park, and not giving the totems – Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and a clearly unfit Robin van Persie – room to dictate, seemed key for teams who appeared to prioritise not losing over the desire to win. Result: a safety-first stalemate where penalties seemed the only solution.

If this match will be remembered for any reason, it’ll be held up as an example of a defensive collective triumph. Each back four excelled, with Javier Mascherano’s exceptional tackle on Robben deservedly marking him out as man of the match.


Most neutrals, who desire goals and excitement above all else, will plump for Jogi Loew’s Germany to lift the famous golden trophy this weekend. I’m not so sure.

As they’ve proven repeatedly in this tournament, the Argentine back-line are not likely to be anywhere near as accommodating as Brazil. Nor is Loew likely to field a defensive midfielder to nullify Messi, as Van Gaal did with Nigel De Jong, then Jordi Clasie. That would be going against his principles.

My instincts, and the knowledge that Germany have more obvious match winning individuals, still point towards a narrow German win, but something more akin to the dramatic encounter in the Azteca Stadium in 1986 than the filth of 1990 which left Diego Maradona in tears. If Messi does cry tears of defeat, I fear it may not be his fault. The tight solidity of this unspectacular Argentina side, surely brought upon them by haunting memories of Marcelo Bielsa’s failures of 2002, is not the sort of environment for an individual like Messi to really prosper. Neither the opposition’s tactics nor his own team’s structure are really letting him play his game – it is clear that at Maradona’s zenith, Argentina were more cavalier – and fatigue, fear and frustration look to have caught up with him, to the point where he seems a shadow of the goalscorer he was in the group stages.

Football hopes that Messi can find something in the tank to dazzle us all with, regardless of the final outcome.


Going by Louis van Gaal’s recent comments that the third place final in the World Cup is “unfair”, “should not be played” and, ludicrously, “has nothing to do with sport”, I can see why many might look upon the consolation match as pointless.

However, if you put van Gaal’s own self-interests aside and look upon the fixture as purely a football match, I think the fixture generally provides an enjoyable spectacle and has produced matches that are even better than the World Cup Final itself, especially in the modern era.

Without so much at stake, the fear of conceding significantly decreases in relevance and teams are encouraged to play more freely. The result? Goals, goals, goals. Only two third place matches have produced less than four goals since the 1980s (Italy vs. England in 1990, and Croatia vs. Holland in 1998). But the match also opens the door for new stars to emerge, new records to be set and individual awards to be won. In Bari, Toto Schillaci crucially netted his sixth goal of Italia 90 to clinch the Golden Boot that year; Davor Suker followed suit in France 98 as his superb strike against Holland, also his sixth of the tournament, gave Croatia third place. Elsewhere, Hakan Sukur set the record for fastest goal at the World Cup finals in 2002, Bastian Schweinsteiger rose to prominence with two humdingers against Portugal in 2006, and a then unknown Bolo Zenden fired a swinging strike into the roof of the Croatian net in 1998. That's not even taking the 3-2 "thriller" of four years ago into account (watch it below).

Flowing football, new heroes, goals and Golden Boot winners. What more could you want?

(Originally published at Pulp Interest on July 11, 2014.)

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