Thank goodness for Germany. In crushing Argentina by four unanswered goals on Saturday, once again they filled the 2010 World Cup with a spirit of freshness and optimism while elsewhere, as three other teams emerged to contest this week's semi-finals, a sense of injustice and disillusionment threatened to devalue the tournament.
Holland won through against Brazil after a largely joyless encounter disfigured by countless fouls, big and small, and the sort of theatrical responses that are now a standard part of many footballers' repertoire. By next Sunday night Arjen Robben may turn out to be the individual star of the tournament that Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney and – thus far – Fernando Torres so failed to dominate, but the automatic melodrama of his fully choreographed plunges to the turf is as irritating, even alienating, as the original offences provoked by the Dutch winger's penetrative skills.
As for Brazil, every four years they play their opening match and someone says, "Now the World Cup has really started." When they left South Africa over the weekend, however, they took with them only a fading memory of the panache with which Maicon took their first goal of the competition against North Korea three weeks earlier, a brief moment of explosive flair that was never to be repeated. Against Holland they wore their anonymous blue shirts, which somehow made it worse.
Ghana departed a few hours later, seeming to unite two billion Africans in dismay as their match against Uruguay ended so controversially. The pan-African support for the Black Stars was no piece of convenient propaganda. A fair amount of first-hand research suggests that after the elimination of the Bafana Bafana in the first round, all South Africans – young, old, black, white, rich and poor – switched their support to the team from West Africa, while visiting fans from the continent's other countries exhibited the same enthusiasm for Asamoah Gyan and his team-mates. This may be hard for Europeans to comprehend, but it was nonetheless real and Ghana's traumatic defeat appeared to sadden South African fans almost as much as their own team's failure.
Many commentators have noted that 999 footballers out of 1,000 would have done as Uruguay's Luis Suárez did in the 122nd minute when he raised his hand to block a goal-bound shot, but that does not make his instinctive reaction the right one. Poor Gyan's inability to convert the penalty that would have made them Africa's first semi-finalists turned this into the biggest distortion of justice at any World Cup since West Germany eliminated France in the 1982 semi-final after Harald Schumacher's assault on Patrick Battiston.
Almost as sickening was the sight of Suárez wildly celebrating Gyan's misfortune in the tunnel, when under the laws of the game he should already have been banished to the dressing room. It was a spectacle whose distastefulness was compounded by the victory parade at the end of the shoot-out, when the young striker was carried around the pitch in triumph on the shoulders of the team's reserves. A little sympathy for the losers might have been appropriate at that point, but he then started talking about "the real hand of God". He is a good footballer but he is not Diego Maradona, or entitled to claim the same moral exemptions.
Maradona himself probably regained much of the sympathy of those previously unable to shake off a dislike engendered by that unpunished handling offence back in 1986. Reincarnated in the unlikely role of Argentina's head coach, he made every training session fun, every press conference a hot ticket and, until Sunday, every match a potential feast of spontaneous attacking football. After their first two matches, a friend in England, having noticed how bulky he seemed on the touchline, suggested that perhaps beneath the shiny grey suit and the shirt and tie he was wearing the full Argentina strip, ready to emerge like Superman late in the second half to play the decisive part.
Against Germany, they certainly could have used him. Playing in a style entirely dependent on individual dynamism, Argentina suddenly went flat and gave the most opaque performance in a World Cup match since Brazil allowed Ronaldo's dizzy spell on the morning of the 1998 final to create a sense of collective insecurity. But Argentina's similar lethargy had a very different source, which was Germany's remarkable success, the result of magnificent teamwork, in neutralising the individual threats posed by Messi, Carlos Tevez, Angel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín and, later, Javier Pastore and Sergio Agüero.
Maradona's side were attempting to emulate the approach that brought them the title under César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo. "Argentina can't play in a different style," Maradona said afterwards, with a note of defiance. To triumph, however, that style requires some almost superhuman force to power it, provided in 1978 by the fervour of home support and in 1986 by Maradona himself. Not even Messi, nullified by German mass-marking as effectively as he had been by Internazionale in the European Cup semi-finals, could provide that sort of extra ingredient.
His plight was made clear as early as the 27th minute, when, with Germany a goal up, he retreated so deep into his own half to pick up the ball and initiate an attack that only the three team-mates – the two centre backs and the keeper – were between him and his own goal. Like Tevez, Messi was reduced to hitting wishful shots from long range when he should have been concentrating his efforts on getting into the penalty area to receive the ball.
He is 23 now, no longer a child, and his apparent inability to impose himself on games such as this may prevent him from ascending to the platform occupied by Maradona, Di Stefano, Pelé, Cruyff and Zidane. Then again, Maradona himself was already 21 when Argentina performed badly in Spain in 1982, before fulfilling his promise and emerging into true greatness in Mexico four years later.
Later on Sunday the match between Spain and Paraguay was notable for another piece of unpunished cheating and for the goal with which David Villa reaffirmed his potency. Before Barcelona's new recruit pounced with typical avidity on the rebound from Pedro Rodríguez's shot against the post, however, his team-mate Gerard Piqué had grasped the Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo at a set-piece with a series of hugs and hauls that were correctly punished, only for Iker Casillas to save Cardozo's penalty kick.
A super-slow motion camera, operating at 1,000 frames per second, revealed the full grotesque extent of the offence committed by Piqué and identified by the vigilant referee, Carlos Batres of Guatemala. A similar excuse to that presented on Suárez's behalf, drawn from a sort of footballing realpolitik, could be entered in defence of Piqué. This kind of offence, it might be said, occurs unspotted at virtually every corner-kick or free-kick aimed into the penalty area in every match. Well, so much the worse for football, making it time for Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini to get to work on outlawing any sort of contact with the hand on opposing players.
But now we have our final four, a selection that makes fools of those of us heard airily proclaiming, less than a week ago, that this was "a South American World Cup". But who, then, could have imagined that the winners of 1930 and 1950 would be that continent's only remaining contenders? Now it remains to be seen whether Uruguay's hunger to revive old glories, or the rediscovered self-confidence of Germany, three times winners, can prevent Spain's artistic forwards, with Villa providing their cutting edge, or Holland's spirited exponents of football without pretensions from taking the next step towards inscribing a much-needed new name on the list of champions.
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