The whole point about a World Cup is that it is supposed to be a global event, not just a private rivalry between the continents of Europe and South America, so it was gratifying to see one of the goals of the tournament scored by Tim Cahill of Australia.
Cahill’s volley against Holland, coupled with Robin van Persie’s wondrous first piercing of the hitherto impregnable armour of Spain, would have been magical moments in any previous edition of the World Cup and it is pleasing to imagine future generations of South American footballers growing up in awe of such ability, just as Europeans once marvelled at the natural skill and dexterity of Pelé and Diego Maradona.
Brazil, who used to exert a near monopoly on prodigious feats with the ball, have so far proved disappointingly pedestrian. Other Latin American teams, most notably the staggeringly composed Costa Rica, Colombia, Uruguay and the thrillingly piratical Chile, have all caught the imagination more vividly, with Argentina doing enough to suggest they will grow stronger as the tournament progresses.
It is coming to something when Brazil are nowhere near the most eye‑catching side from their own continent at their own World Cup, though it is possible that playing in front of their own public is proving inhibiting, restricting instead of encouraging the normal verve and adventure. Either that or Luiz Felipe Scolari is getting his calculations all wrong.
There is nothing creative happening in the Brazilian midfield, where Fernandinho must be wondering what he has to do to get a game and the omission of the imaginative Philippe Coutinho is becoming harder to understand. And when Scolari sent on Jô to make an impact up front against Mexico, only for the misgivings of thousands of Manchester City supporters to be almost instantly confirmed, it beggared belief that such a populous and famous football country could not find a more reliable striker.
For all the host nation’s toil, at least the neighbours are living up to their reputations, with Lionel Messi scoring a typically classy goal for Argentina, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez combining irresistibly to expose England and Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile – “We played like rebels” – putting in a performance of extraordinary guts and vigour to bring down the curtain on Spain.
Yet in continental terms, what is still missing from a World Cup, what is missing from this one even more than in tournaments dating back to Italia 90, is any sign that Africa might be closer to fulfilling its potential.
Come on, you must remember Africa. That is the continent Pelé predicted would supply a World Cup winner by the year 2000. It did not, needless to say, indeed so far not even a last‑four finish, but, though Pelé has been repeatedly mocked for getting it wrong, he was speaking at a time when African nations appeared to be making rapid progress.
Cameroon surprised and delighted everyone by reaching the last eight in 1990, Nigeria briefly looked unstoppable in 1994 and again topped their group four years later, while in South Korea and Japan 2002, after Pelé’s deadline, Senegal went as far as the quarter-finals. Perhaps the decline started in 2006, when of five African contenders only Ghana made it beyond the group stage, promptly to lose 3-0 to Brazil, although the Black Stars (even cool African nicknames have fallen out of fashion) were unlucky to be knocked out in controversial circumstances in a quarter-final against Uruguay in 2010. That the hosts of that tournament, South Africa, could not make it out of their group did not augur well. The march of African football appeared to be slowing down. On the evidence of this tournament it could well have gone into reverse.
Cameroon, who play Brazil on Monday looking for their first points of the tournament, are practically stinking the place out. Already on their way home after two defeats, they had a man sent off in the 4-0 hiding against Croatia and were fighting among themselves by the end. When your own coach calls you “disgraceful” you know you have let the country down.
Ghana lost to the USA, ostensibly their most winnable game in Group G, Nigeria were unbelievably inert in drawing against Iran and, though Algeria did manage to take the lead against Belgium, they ended up pointless. Only Ivory Coast at this stage look a promising bet for the knockout stages and that is mainly due to the feebleness of Japan and Greece below them. It is as if, after two decades of spiking upwards, African football has flattened into a plateau. While teams will always reach the finals, thanks to Fifa’s qualification schedule, African sides capable of lighting them up are thinner on the ground than was the case 20 years ago.
Then again, after Manaus and São Paulo, why should anyone heed an English opinion on lighting up the finals? To say this country’s World Cup progress has also hit a plateau might be putting it too kindly. England have not entertained or achieved in any of the four tournaments this millennium.
They were thought to have hit rock bottom four years ago yet at least in South Africa managed to escape their group. English football also has mediocrity running right through it, an unpalatable truth exposed by proximity to genuine class acts such as Andrea Pirlo and Suárez, demonstrably capable of pricking delusional hopes on their own.
Roy Hodgson has improved the spirit in the camp, yet in terms of tournament results and performances England, too, are going backwards. Roger Milla was still playing the last time England actually got to grips with the finals. Just as the African onslaught never really happened, England at World Cup finals never really happens either. Maybe by the year 3000.