Wednesday, 16 July 2014

WORLD CUP 2014: Loew's Not Low Anymore; A Fitting Finale To A Compelling Tournament

In our final World Cup 2014 column, we proclaim Germany rightful Kings Of The Football World, and reveal our own tournament "award winners"

On a barmy, balmy night in Rio De Janeiro, Germany persisted to a deserved triumph over a valiant Argentinian side, winning the World Cup for the fourth time overall but for the first time as a unified nation, to follow West Germany's treble of wins in 1954, 1974 and 1990.

In doing so, they went from zeroes to heroes, and from chokers to champions, at long last putting aside the ghosts of Fabio Grosso, Fernando Torres, Carles Puyol, Mario Balotelli and every other obstacle that stood between the Jurgen Klinsmann-Jogi Loew long-term project and its worthy reward.

But it was not easy. This year's grand showpiece match rather disappointingly fell into the category of most knockout games in this World Cup: class eventually telling in a contest characterised by its goals, or lack of them.

Only the astounding thrashing of Brazil by Germany produced more than three goals per game following the first round of Brazil 2014, reducing what once promised to be among the highest ever goal averages at a World Cup to 2.67 - on par with France 98 and its 171 goals in 64 games, but below USA 94's 2.71.

And when considering the latest high-profile battle between Europe and South America in retrospect, it isn't hard to see why. With stakes heightening and matches becoming all about survival rather than goal difference and points, fear of losing regularly overtook daring to win. The result was, unsurprisingly, a slightly nervy Argentina and a seemingly overawed Germany scrapping with one another in the first half in the Maracana Stadium.

It is arguable that had they really believed in themselves and been more thoughtful with their attacks, Argentina could have been comfortably ahead by half-time. Although Germany dominated possession and were unlucky not to score themselves when Benedikt Howedes' close range header bounced off a post, Gonzalo Higuain had already fired wide with only Neuer to beat, and later mistimed a run to find himself rolling the ball past Neuer in a clearly offside position when he didn't need to be. The second half continued in a similar pattern, with players like Toni Kroos and Lionel Messi missing when you would have expected them to at least hit the target. Still, the replacement of the unfortunate Christoph Kramer (who had, in turn, stepped in at the last minute to replace Sami Khedira) with Andre Schurrle at least gave the Germans a little more attacking impetus.

And it was substitutions that eventually paid seven minutes from the end of extra time. Schurrle at last found space on the left flank, delivering the right cross for fellow substitute Mario Gotze to beat Sergio Romero from a tight angle. It had not been as brutal as the final of South Africa 2010. But, as had been the case four years ago, the Golden Boot contenders - in this case, Messi and Thomas Muller - were overshadowed in an exceptionally tight battle settled by a solitary goal from the deserving side close to the end.

Persistent, precise probing paid, for the purer football. And while short of being a brilliant team, the Germans at last showed that they did not, after all, lack the guts and the muscle for the games that really mattered. No longer would this gifted squad always promise, but never deliver - and that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, we must spare a thought for the poor Argentines, who all had faces like thunder at the end of the contest. To too many of them, it must have felt like the same kit, but an all-too-familiar outcome in a marginally cleaner but longer match than that filthfest in Rome in 1990. Marcos Rojo resembled Diego Maradona back then. Some tried in vain to put on a happy face as the Germans celebrated with their WAGs. It was all too much. And the consolation of the Golden Ball for Messi counted for little. He - and Argentina - had run out of steam, the general effect of a too restrictive, predominantly defensive game plan.

But the right team won. Just. And Mario Gotze rightly joins Helmut Rahn, Gerd Muller and Andy Brehme as World Cup goalscoring heroes while a fourth star now rests on top of Germany's football crest for all to see.


It is a fitting finale to a fine tournament that has ultimately promised more than it delivered. Brazil 2014's status as a very enjoyable World Cup should not be in doubt, but that it is being acclaimed in some quarters as the "best World Cup ever" speaks more of its recent competition (2002, 2006, 2010) than the tournament itself. It brings back that old food analogy: when you've been starved of a decent meal for so long, you'll regard the next "good" meal you get as a "great" one.

But it has produced countless memories. Several of which are worthy of "awards". And here are a handful of my own:

Germany, for adding resilience and toughness to go with their already proven flair. It helped lead them, in the end, to the ultimate prize. Honorable mention for their second round opponents Algeria.

FAVOURITE TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT? Colombia. The most revelatory nation of this World Cup, blessed with a fearless attacking strategy, lots of goals and the finest No. 10 of them all. The absence of Falcao was forgotten... at least until they paid the poorest Brazil side in recent memory a little too much respect. Honorable mentions go to the spirited, well-organised Costa Rica and the never boring United States.

MOST UNDERRATED? Mexico and the two "honorable mentions" above. All three escaped from difficult groups to push technically superior opposition all the way in the knockout stages.

MOST OVERRATED? Croatia, Ivory Coast. Classic cases of gifted generations with the inability to deliver when it counted; in other words, they had all the gear, but no idea.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS? Where do I start? Spain's "Golden Generation" running out of steam in the most embarrassing manner? Holland starting with a bang before gradually deteriorating? A gutless Russia? Portugal, for relying too much on Cristiano Ronaldo (ditto Uruguay, and Luis Suarez)? France and Belgium, for being subsumed by unexpected timidity in the quarter-finals? A restrictive Argentine system eventually exhausting Lionel Messi? Alternatively, every Argentine attacking player barring Messi, especially Gonzalo Higuain? Every African nation bar Algeria? There are so many contenders, but I think the winner has to be Brutal Brazil and their midfield of clones. It's said one man doesn't make a team, but if you let him, as Brazil clearly did with Neymar, then you're in trouble...

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISES? Colombia, Algeria, Costa Rica, the United States and France (at least until the quarter-finals).

FAVOURITE GAME? Germany's 7-1 rout of Brazil has to top the list here. Honorable mentions for Holland's trouncing of Spain and the second period of extra-time in Belgium vs. USA.

FAVOURITE PLAYER? James Rodriguez of Colombia. An outstanding No. 10 in a field of already proven No. 10s.

MOST ADMIRED PLAYER? Tim Howard. His series of saves in the competition epitomise just how well he has bounced back from falling down the pecking order at Manchester United, once upon a time. Honorable mentions for Javier Mascherano for keeping Argentina ticking, and Miroslav Klose for breaking a certain record.

FAVOURITE GOAL? Rodriguez vs. Uruguay. Honorable mentions for Tim Cahill's volley against Holland, Robin van Persie's looping header against Spain and David Luiz's free kick against Colombia.

FAVOURITE CELEBRATION? Van Persie's celebration against Spain and any of the Colombian celebrations against Greece are favourites, but it is John Brooks' celebration for the USA against Ghana that really lingers. Forget overstatement; you knew that goal meant a lot to him. You just knew.

MOST AMUSING INTERNET MEME? Yes, we were disappointed in him at the time (and still are), but you have to admit the former Liverpool striker with plenty of bite gave us plenty of funny material to work with.

It's been quite a month, hasn't it? And on that note, it's time to consign Brazil 2014 to the record books and look forward to the new football season. For now....

Congratulations Germany!
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(Also published at Pulp Interest in July 2014.)

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