Thursday, 3 July 2014

WORLD CUP 2014: It's A Knockout – And Quality Is Telling

In eight battles of aggression and ambition, aesthetics have counted – but only just. We look ahead to the quarter-finals of World Cup 2014 with much anticipation

The second round of Brazil 2014 has followed a strict, but quietly spellbinding, pattern: no tactical stalemates, almost no mismatches, just a mixture of quiet penetration and wholehearted physicality from virtually every country involved, with quality ultimately prevailing in the end. It is not a battle of managerial tactical "wits", but a war of aggression, attrition and ambition, with aesthetics ultimately prevailing. The best footballers, man for man, are finishing on top in a knock out stage where, barring Switzerland and Uruguay, every nation has entered the sporting arena with a will to win. Nothing overly mechanical. Nothing too complicated. Just "having a go". A refreshing simplicity that sometimes dazzles and often inspires. Roy Keane would be proud of it.

One should still be reluctant to laud this competition as a "truly wonderful" World Cup, like many pundits have; the over-praise for Brazil 2014 is based on a theory of relativity. The knockout stages in 2002, 2006 and 2010 were so dour and defensive that any remotely exciting World Cup knockout stage this year was likely to be regarded as nirvana. And the question I now ask is: is it likely that the upcoming quarter-finals will match the high watermark of those in the United States in 1994?

The USA '94 quarter-finals produced fifteen goals - that's an average of 3.75 per game. Italy 2-1 Spain, Holland 2-3 Brazil, Bulgaria 2-1 Germany and Romania 2-2 Sweden (with the Swedes winning on penalties). Almost entirely Euro-centric, but were we spoiled for choice or weren't we? It felt like a clash of attacking titans: Roberto Baggio vs. Jose Luis Caminero, Dennis Bergkamp vs. Romario, Hristo Stoichkov vs. Jurgen Klinsmann, Gheorghe Hagi vs. Tomas Brolin. A true football feast, with at least one major upset bound to happen (it did).

Today we look forward to Brazil vs. Colombia, Holland vs. Costa Rica, France vs. Germany and Argentina vs. Belgium; or, if you prefer, Neymar vs. James Rodriguez, Arjen Robben vs. Joel Campbell, Karim Benzema vs. Thomas Muller and Lionel Messi vs. Eden Hazard. Not quite as mouth-watering - Campbell is modest rather than mercurial - but Rodriguez, the tournament's top scorer at the time of writing, has been a real find. He could be this competition's Stoichkov, or better.

Perhaps one should be fairer on Brazil 2014, however. It is so easy to pick holes in modern international tournaments in today's oversaturated age of social and televisual media. We need to remember that the competitions we hold so dear - especially Italia 90, where dramatics glossed over the negativity - were seriously imperfect themselves.

These quarter-finals have one truly important thing going for them - they do not feel predictable. We cannot tell who will win this World Cup, let alone these matches. Were this set of games to successfully build on the sound second round, then we could have a treat of a tournament.

With the exception of bus-parkers Switzerland (try not to let Blerim Dzemaili's late, late missed sitter mask their "park the bus" tactics) and a Uruguay team demoralised by the Luis Suarez fiasco, every team in the last sixteen should be pleased with themselves. The quality has been varied, but the general performances have been laced with considerable endeavour, proving Roy Keane's adage that "having a go" is indeed winning half the battle in international competition, where the "best" teams are often overrated and fragile.

How right that can be. Russia started Euro 2012 with a bang, becoming favourites to win their group; and then they were found out by Greece. Four years earlier, Marco van Basten's Holland side of Euro 2008 stormed through the group phase with three wins out of three, before unexpectedly coming a cropper against Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin. Croatia and the Czech Republic fell victim to the colourful Turks in extremely unlikely circumstances that same year. And all because Greece, Russia and Turkey were unafraid to "go for it".

It's extremely refreshing. As modern football has developed, luck has taken more of a back seat as tacticians have stepped to the fore, and their keenness to establish control has drained colour from the game. Germany 2006 was the epitome of this malaise, starting well before deteriorating into a tournament for control freaks. The paucity of goals from the quarter-finals onwards spoke volumes. Only in the extra time period of the Germany-Italy semi-final did both teams let the shackles loose and produce a brutally compelling game.

This theme ties in with nearly every knockout game in Brazil 2014 to date; high quality teams pacing themselves over ninety minutes, hunting for openings while fighting hard not to let in any themselves. Then, they step up a gear in a mostly successful attempt to win the game without the lottery of penalties. Which, really, is how it ought to be. No, the physical, pacy, counter-attacking goal fests of the group stage are no longer so prominent, but with more at stake, that's understandable. Teams must work harder to break deadlocks. And, unlike the late nineties and early noughties, teams are no longer so fearful of conceding in extra time. The additional thirty minutes are therefore more enthralling, more about quality and stamina than luck and mood. The Golden Goal idea has been fully exposed as the misfire it was.

The elimination of Spain has been even more of an eye-opener, shattering the illusion that rigid, controlling tactical systems would always win the day. Teams would now have to do the difficult things to stand out and win; a footballing romance, of sorts, has been recaptured in a more adventurous, unpredictable tournament. And that's exactly how we stand at the last eight of the twentieth World Cup finals.

Costa Rica, man for man, are arguably the weakest team in the quarter-finals, but as CONCACAF's sole representative at this stage, they will not need motivation. Nor will the gifted Colombians, currently living up to their FIFA World Ranking of 5th. The sole "Europhile" encounter could see France and Germany cancel each other out, or Germany's statuesque and confused defence - fortunate not to be exposed by the limited but entirely admirable Algerians - will be punctured by Benzema and Paul Pogba. Holland will, naturally, be favourites, but since the Game That Rocked The World against Spain, they've yet to fully convince. And Belgium? The star trio of Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku appear to be hitting form at the right time, though most neutrals will be hoping Messi can do a Diego Maradona as far as opponents Argentina are concerned.

Which brings us back to Suarez. The "one man makes a team" myth is simplistic: Argentina in 1986 weren't all about Maradona, Brazil in 1994 weren't all about Romario, Colombia aren't all about Rodriguez, Brazil aren't all about Neymar, and France aren't all about Benzema. Their teams could still win without them. But it is they who have that canny ability to make everyone else in the team dance to their tune when they are on top of their game. One mercurial man doesn't make a team, but he makes a difference; he inspires when he fires. A Messi, Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo proves Jorge Valdano's point that while teamwork is very important, you need individuals to go to the next level.

USA '94 didn't have an extraordinary team, but it had several extraordinary players. It just goes to show that for all the teamwork, tactics, organisation and pacing you toss into football, there is no substitute for outstanding individualism. And that's what we will hope to see in the Brazil 2014 quarter-finals: unexpected, outstanding, spontaneity, from teams inspired by the the hearts and feet of incredible individuals.

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