We came expecting protests and chaos. But the lasting legacy of 2014 will be the recasting of international football at the pinnacle of the sport and a new Wunderteam from Germany
Thank you Brazil, and goodbye. It’s been … emotional. After 32 days, 64 matches, 171 goals, 182 yellow cards, 48,706 passes, 2,124 tackles, $4bn in revenue for Fifa, plus of course an unceasing spume of digital opinion, a tsunami of public weeping and a mountain of deep-fried cheese pasties, the 2014 World Cup has now left the building.
Quite a bit has happened along the way. A European nation has become world champion on Latin American soil for the first time. Germany joined Italy as Brazil’s nearest all-time World Cup challengers. Miroslav Klose has dethroned Ronaldo as the most doggedly devastating goalscorer in World Cup history. And the World Cup’s hosts and holders have never been so soundly thrashed as Brazil and Spain were here, and this at a World Cup that still managed to produce the most classically old-school semi-final lineup yet, a VVIP gathering of the oligarchical powers.
At the end of which, after a tournament that was eight years and $11bn in the making, those four weeks in summer can now begin the familiar process of separating out in the memory into a concatenation of enduringly vivid moments.
This was a World Cup of bold, rich flavours, a heavily sauced affair that was at times almost a little too pungent for its own good. Never have so many tears been shed by so many athletes in such stunning high definition close-up. Never has so much incident, outrage and media-fanned obiter dicta successfully intruded from the fringes. Above all it has been a deeply sensory, even rather sensual World Cup. Just as the global TV audience swooned over the action and the tournament’s heavily marketed poster boys – J-Rod, Leo, C-Ron, Louis van G – so travelling around Brazil’s cities and stadiums was a brilliantly engaging experience.
This was the first tournament South American fans have travelled to in such numbers on their own continent. In the days leading up to the final, the streets of Rio were duly thronged with sozzled and boisterous Argentinians, the same supporters who had removed their shirts and staged celebratory fraternal fist fights in the stands in São Paulo after the victory against Switzerland.
Even England’s own shortlived travelling support could be seen dancing through the wee hours next to the opera house in Manaus, all driven along by the basic late-night, outdoorsy warmth of Brazil itself, ideal host for a genuinely engaging World Cup in one of the sport’s grand old footballing heartlands. It might be best to savour this while we can. Russia is up next, followed by the irresolvable wrong turn that is Qatar 2022. The World Cup is going outside now. It may be gone for some time.
For the hackneyed footballing romantic it is even tempting to detect some basic infectious Brazilian quality – the air, the light, the memory of the poor old long-dead jogo finito – in the excitement of the early stages. Either way the first week of Brazil 2014 came slathering out of the traps in a furious real-time montage of goals and attacking play. Group stages just aren’t supposed to look like this, but here the players pressed and counter-attacked to the limits of their physical capacities from the start. Holland’s 5-1 destruction of Spain will remain one of the great World Cup results. Germany thrashed a spooked and depleted Portugal in Salvador. France and Switzerland produced a breezy 5-2 romp, and overall by the end of the tournament’s first weekend the opening 14 matches had produced 44 goals.
It couldn’t last. It didn’t. The first 14 matches of the next phase brought just 31 goals, boosted by the isolated absurdity of Brazil’s annihilation in Belo Horizonte, as the best teams began to grind back down through the gears. By the end of the tournament the vogue for swift counter-attack had already begun to congeal into a wised-up retreat into deep-lying mutual counter-defence.
During Argentina’s semi-final with Holland, perhaps the most cautious match of the tournament, Alejandro Sabella’s team at times played a kind of 8-0-0-2, with Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín stationed miles from their retreating defence, lingering in the distance like fielders at long-on and long-off. And yet it would be wrong to say possession football went out of fashion at Brazil 2014: quite the opposite in fact, as the two teams who made the most passes contested the final. Similarly tiki-taka didn’t die – passing and keeping the ball will never go out of fashion – but instead failed to turn up in the first place as the reigning champions played not just like a tired team, but like a listless, even rather bored one.
Instead the dominant style at this World Cup was a kind of jogo collectivo, the familiar high-speed hustle and closing down of space that defines elite European club football. Helped by an excellent ball in the Brazuca – no wobbly moments, no flailing frango-howlers here – and refereeing that let the game flow to a fault at times, the general standard was high.
Although there are always exceptions. England had arguably their worst ever World Cup, a tournament that lasted five competitive days and ended with Roy Hodgson’s quietly hopeful squad bottom of Group D having outscored only Cameroon, Iran and Honduras at Brazil 2014. There is a theory England were unlucky, that playing their first match in the great steaming saucepan that was the Arena Amazônia mortally wounded them ahead of Uruguay four days later. This is wishful thinking.
England were just not good enough, exposed by playing two teams at the group stage of the same calibre that more often eliminates them in the knockout rounds. The players were short on small details – a lack of concentration in defence and precision in attack – but to blame the details is to avoid the great sweeping backstory of structural underachievement.
As Philip Larkin wrote in As Bad As A Mile …
“Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm.”
Or in other words, the lads came up short – and will do the same again if nothing changes.
It was fairly clear what marked out the best teams at this World Cup. The more successful nations were those with coherent, productive domestic leagues, where the national association has a benevolent handle on how players are produced what the style and structure is going to be. Costa Rica, Holland, Germany, Belgium and Argentina benefited from players produced by a coherent domestic system, rather than the chaotic short-termism of England or, as it turns out, Brazil.
Indeed the only time the Premier League seemed tangibly present at this World Cup was when Luis Suárez bit Giorgio Chiellini in Natal, the familiar engines of drama and sentiment revved up and the English joined in the party, like teenagers at the disco leaping up at the end of the night when the DJ finally relents and puts some heavy metal on.
And what about the hosts anyway? In the end Brazil 2014 was both a PR disaster and a triumph, a shared sporting nightmare and a shared success; a triumph of stadium building fatally undermined by the spectacle of inadequate roads, housing and basic infrastructure that surrounded many of these high-spec space capsules.
Inside Brazil’s wet-paint mega-stadia the experience was slick enough, the staging spectacular, the relentless toadying, schmaltzified handshakes for peace, white doves of Blatter and all the rest of it familiarly inane. For this success no credit whatsoever must go to the spendthrift politicians and discredited organisers of Brazil 2014, but to the workers responsible for somehow sweating the whole thing into place and to the army of local volunteers who brightened and eased and smoothed what delays and hitches – the vanishing staircase, the neurotic fear of adequate signage – did show through.
As for the host team there is a separate treatise to be written on that extraordinary semi-final meltdown, when Brazil’s players didn’t so much lay the ghost of Barbosa from 1950 as become entirely possessed by his vengeful spirit – We Are All Barbosa! – stumbling about the pitch like boggle-eyed zombies. And a sense this World Cup witnessed the long-anticipated death of “Brazil” itself, the packing away for good of that historic warm-spirited football of the imagination, long since concreted in beneath the layers of professionalism and physicality.
Brazil has been criticised for the homogeneity of the crowds inside its stadiums, something that was always going to be the case from the moment it became clear only 400,000 of 3.3m tickets would be made available to ordinary Brazilians at affordable prices. Otherwise the crowds were just what you get at large scale sporting beanos everywhere: a collection of rich people.
Talking of which, even Fifa managed to emerge from this World Cup relatively unscathed, albeit from a position of already being pretty heavily scathed in the first place. In an interesting twist this was, in a sense, the tournament at which footballing chicanery came home, the culture of opaque wheeler-dealering having been entrenched at Fifa in the first place by the discredited Brazilians João Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira.
Football’s governing body remains a source of head-scratching bewilderment whatever the successes of this gripping World Cup; a tournament that beneath its many layers of drama and obfuscation confirmed that for all the noisy excitements of club football there is a purity about the international game that remains its distinct and distinguishing feature.