Neymar was supposed to define this World Cup and now the Brazilian has. Or rather his injury has. The tournament’s poster boy has been cruelly taken out and now there is a gaping hole on the home country’s bedroom wall. Which is sadly fitting, because a prominent theme of this World Cup has been absence; a vacuum where quality should be.
Getting carried away during the helter-skelter group stages was understandable but proclaiming this the ‘best World Cup ever’ can now be seen to have been premature. Draw up a list of the world’s most entertaining players and weep at how many of them did not make it to Brazil or arrived in a state that made them look like astronauts trying to take giant leaps for mankind on the well-trodden surface of the local bouncy castle.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Radamel Falcao, Marco Reus, Gareth Bale and Franck Ribéry had to stay at home. Sergio Agüero quickly got crocked, Yaya Touré was injury-worn and grief-stricken and Cristiano Ronaldo looked more patched up than a thief at a Nicorette factory. Luis Suárez tore a knee ligament but recovered just enough to knock out England before getting himself booted out – which, admittedly, is a tale with a certain beauty but, on balance, it would have been better to see one of the world’s most thrilling strikers fully fit and happy to let his feet do the biting.
Even the surprise package, Costa Rica, had to play with more inhibitions than usual due to injuries to Bryan Oviedo and their top scorer, Álvaro Saborío.
Of course, no World Cup can ever welcome all the top players – and the performances of James Rodríguez, Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben have shown that some of the elite have turned up and turned it on – but 2014 has still suffered from a shortage of ingenuity. It is hard to escape the suspicion that one of the reasons that goalkeepers have hogged so much attention is because of the dearth of outfield flair.
The lack of individual brilliance has helped cause and compound the lack of great teams. Some units have certainly tickled us – Mexico, Chile, Algeria, Colombia and France – but their limitations were quickly exposed and, in the case of France, the affection was only fleeting. Ultimately what those countries showed was more promise than prowess and that has contributed to the feeling that this is a tournament of transition. We have not witnessed the emergence of a great team – rather, thanks to Spain, the unravelling of one.
There has still been lots of fun, of course. The group stage offered drama and thrills. At times it served up the excitement of a Bruce Willis movie; but it never came close to a Casablanca. Some of the most impressive teams in that stage – such as the USA, Australia and Iran – were more gutsy than good.
The semi-finals look mouthwatering but the fear is that image is bogus, like pictures of a succulent steak on the windows of a greasy spoon. After all, they pit nowhere-near-the-best-ever-Brazil against nowhere-near-the-best-ever-Germany; and nowhere-near-the-best-ever-Holland against nowhere-near-the-best-ever Argentina. So let no more talk be heard of this being the best ever World Cup.
Which is not to say that Brazil 2014 has been bad. The World Cup is never bad, at least not if we are talking exclusively about sport. And this edition has been a darn sight better than the previous ones this century. But, from the vantage point of an armchair at least, it does not bear comparison with, say, the wonderful 1982 edition, a fact neatly reflected by how unsatisfying, relatively speaking, the France-Germany and Germany-Algeria remakes turned out to be after the hopeful build-ups.
1982 had classic clashes between great teams: such as France-West Germany in the semi-final or Brazil-Italy in the second round; devastating demonstrations of superiority like Hungary’s merciless 10-1 tonking of El Salvador or Brazil’s elegant destruction of talented Scotland and Soviet Union sides; plus a bumper crop of marvellous goals and baroque villainy; and Northern Ireland beating hosts Spain and Algeria blowing away West Germany, both shocks a class above Costa Rica’s defeat of Italy this time.
1982 dished up some rotten fare, too, of course, but there is no room to recall most of that when we have plenty of good memories to be getting on with. Even lesser tournaments than that have bequeathed matches to savour: Romania-Argentina from 1994, say, or Germany-Italy from 2006. Over which contests from 2014 will historians coo? The most memorable match of the tournament so far has been Holland’s thrashing of Spain but that cannot be classed as an epic meeting of lords of the ball, more a freakish re-adjustment of lenses.
Thirty-two years ago the quality became more rarefied as the tournament progressed, whereas the 2014 tournament is in danger of petering out. We need a glorious set of semi-finals and a conclusion at least on a par with Italy’s victory over West Germany in 1982. Failing that, as Scott Murray explained , we need Argentina to lift the World Cup at the Maracanã by hook or, perhaps even better, by crook. That would certainly leave a legacy to relish.