What Zlatan missed


World Cup 2014

Photo by himanisdas, http://www.flickr.com

Zlatan told us it wouldn’t be worth watching without him. In the aftermath of his country’s play-off defeat to Portugal, the self-deprecating Swede said: “one thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.” Yes, Ibrahimovic, of course, you are the only talented footballer on the planet, the only one worth paying attention to. You’ve heard of a little guy called Messi, right? He’s not bad. While most of us spent the month in front of the TV, I wonder if Zlatan spent it in front of the mirror – “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greatest of them all?”

It’s a question that loomed large over the tournament. Could Messi confirm himself as indisputably the best? Could he elevate himself to the level of Pele and Maradona? (or just Diego Armando Maradona – the most naturally talented, the most thrilling, and simply the greatest footballer of all time in my opinion). The Messi plot line was at the heart of the story of this magnificent World Cup, remaining a cliff-hanger until his final free kick soared high and wide.

The leading character in the drama was the Brazilian nation itself. The organisation of the event was mostly chaotic and not infrequently shambolic. Protesters expressed understandable frustration at the mammoth sums being spent on a sporting tournament instead of basic services and infrastructure that would benefit the poorest citizens of Brazil. It’s certainly true that the ‘legacy’ will be of little use to them. The Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, on the edge of the rainforest, would have been called Arena da White Elephant if it had been named honestly.

Despite the concerns and the protests beforehand, the people of Manaus and the rest of Brazil embraced the World Cup, produced the carnival atmosphere that the world had hoped for, and put on a quite spectacular show. The Brazilian nation provided a carnival; the team provided a circus.

There were signs in the opening game that this Brazilian side would struggle to pull off the high wire act they were attempting. Croatia outplayed them for long spells (full disclosure: my wife is Croatian and I was supporting the boys in the tablecloth tops). Brazil huffed and puffed their way back into the game after going a goal down early on. Neymar was the ringmaster but the support acts looked timid, a bit overwhelmed.

Then the Japanese ref gave them one of the dodgiest penalties I’ve ever seen. As far as I’m aware, football in Japan is a contact sport just as in the rest of the world. Neymar scored from the spot and that was more or less that. Oscar put a gloss on the score line with a late toe-poke.

Some pundits, already intoxicated by all things Brazilian, suggested that it was in fact a special technique honed on the futsal pitch, but I’m from Scotland and I know a toe-poke when I see one (it’s more likely that Oscar learned the technique from watching re-runs of the greatest toe-poke of all time – scored by the legendary Davie Narey for Scotland against Brazil in the World Cup of 1982).

Overall, the game was a positive and attacking start to the competition. Pre-tournament fears about safety in Brazil proved unwarranted but it was a little concerning that after a mere 70 minutes of football, some 4 million Croats (and a few honorary ones) had already been robbed. Brazil – Croatia set the tone for the group stages and a flurry of goals, drama, and jaw dropping incidents (in a very literal sense) followed.

It’s debatable whether the jaws of Spanish fans have returned to their original positions after their 5-1 humiliation by the Dutch. Casillas dropped clangers all over the place; Pique looked considerably piqued by his inability to catch any of the flying Dutchmen, and Xavi was less than his usual savvy self. Beaten. Battered. Beleaguered. Spain passed the buck more than the ball and the era of tiki-taka was declared over.

Rather than Shearer in the studio it might have been helpful if Lineker could have turned to a physicist to comment on Van Persie’s goal and determine whether anything in the laws of physics needed to be reassessed.

The next heavyweight all-European contest saw England take on Italy in the white elephant of Manaus. The Italians boxed clever and won this rumble in the jungle relatively comfortably. Pirlo was peerless, Balotelli was markerless, and Rooney was defenceless against accusations that he hadn’t bothered to do any defending. He did provide an excellent assist for Sturridge though and after the game there was little despair in the England camp or among supporters. Sterling had looked lively and in patches the side had carried a reasonable threat.

In hindsight however, it’s possible to conclude that these were 2 poor sides that made each other look better than they really were. England – Uruguay always looked like it would be a huge match and so it proved. Suarez was passed fit and as so often, his mere presence menaced the opposition defence. One composed header and one lash of his right boot meant that Rooney’s first World Cup goal counted for nothing. Suarez had given the world a gentle reminder of how dangerous he can be.

Elsewhere in the group stages, Argentina were being carried by their talisman. No wonder he looked tired. Messi scored in all 3 group games and displayed glimpses of his genius. The Argentine tactics appeared to be to give him the ball so long as he was marked by no more than 4 players. Having done so, his teammates then stood back in expectant admiration.

Argentina collected 9 points from a relatively easy group but received far fewer points for fluency or flair. Even for Messi, it looked as though it was all proving to be rather an effort and his usual joyful boyish grin, which seems to express his sheer love of having a ball at his feet, was seldom seen.

Another to show superstar sparkle early on was Colombia’s James Rodriguez. A playmaker as well as a goal scorer, there is something reminiscent of Zidane in the balletic way he plays the number 10 role. His volley against Uruguay was the best goal of the tournament – the combination of vision, balance and technique was utterly superb (a similar combination in fact to Zidane’s Champions League final goal at Hampden in 2002).

The group stages fizzed with individual flair. Messi, Neymar, Rodriguez, and Suarez all produced moments of brilliance and all seemed to carry the weight and fate of their teams on their shoulders. It was starting to look like we should just play a game of ‘world cup’ like I used to as a kid in the local park with jumpers for goalposts – one goalkeeper and every man (or boy) for himself whereby a goal took you through, with one or two individuals eliminated in each round until just 2 remained to contest the final.

In that contest my money would have been on Messi but we’ve all seen such tournaments won by a poacher such as Klose (letting the others do most of the running and progressing with a series of rebound tap-ins).

The US earned credit for energetic and technically assured displays, watched enthusiastically by millions back home including President Obama on Air Force One (incidentally, how come other airlines don’t offer live sport?). Some were moved to suggest that Americans were finally discovering and embracing soccer but that does a huge disservice to the progress of the MLS in recent years including its fan bases. The sport is big in the country and it’s only going to get bigger.

The US managed to get out of a tough group which included Germany (quite a decent team), Portugal and Ghana. Here in Malaysia where I currently live, Ronaldo is the face of KFC (as well as many other products). I suspect he’s probably never actually sampled the delights of a Zinger Tower Meal and he didn’t taste much World Cup success either. He preened and postured as ever but produced far more perspiration than inspiration. Portugal went home early as a poor side.

The Ghanaians were also poor but they at least went home rich after the government sent a plane with $3 million in cash for the players’ appearance fees. The team had apparently insisted on cash and it is alleged that they threatened a boycott (at least of training) if it wasn’t forthcoming. Who says footballers are mercenaries these days?

The Cameroon and Nigeria squads were also embroiled in rows over money. The Cameroon FA in particular can consider its money poorly spent such were the dreadful performances that they received in return. The worst value for money though (remarkably, for the second World Cup running) was that paid to Fabio Capello by his employers.

In 2010 it was English pounds, this time it was Russian roubles. In both cases it was millions. The return on investment? For England, 5 points and then a hammering by Germany; for Russia, 2 points and a group stage exit. I think Fabio must now be pleased that the infamous Capello Index got cancelled by the FA.

The excitement of the group stages began to fuel a debate about whether this was the greatest World Cup ever (I think ultimately, like Messi, it didn’t quite settle this debate conclusively) and the knock out rounds were a mouth watering prospect.

So was Chiellini’s shoulder apparently, at least to Suarez. I’m a Liverpool fan and I could not be happier that he’s gone from Anfield and will no longer be bringing his very particular brand of shame upon the club. He is simply and straightforwardly a disgrace. A disgrace with what appears to be significant mental health problems and in that regard he deserves both support and care but he does not belong on a football pitch. I have a two year old with less biting-related offences than Suarez.

He is now banned from all football-related activities for 4 months, presumably leaving his Panini album incomplete. Even worse than his bite was the pitiful attempt at an excuse that followed. “After the impact … I lost my balance, making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent. At that moment I hit my face against the player, leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth.”

Really, Luis, that’s what you’re going with? How much are you paying your lawyer exactly? I can only imagine the calamities that must have befallen Suarez’s homework as a boy.

While we’re on the subject of disgrace, let us not overlook that master of football’s darkest art, Arjen Robben. The ‘art’ in question is of course diving and Robben is the great master of the impressionist era. I think I am like most fans in believing that diving is the biggest scourge of football today and the Dutchman has taken it to new heights, or should that be lows?

Either way, he goes up and then down very quickly, seldom forgetting a dramatic roll afterwards. It does not require an opponent to touch him to send him into spiralling agony, their proximity is generally enough. Following his side’s victory over Mexico he said: “I have to apologise. In the first half I took a dive.” This wasn’t much of a confession since I’ve never seen Robben play a half of football in which he hasn’t dived.

It was rare for him to admit it though. It was just sad that his admission didn’t result in him being banned for the next game. I’ve no doubt he would have spent the time off back at the hotel practising … by the pool.

The most imposing and influential Dutch presence at the World Cup was manager Louis van Gaal. The Netherlands’ reputation had taken a dive more spectacular than anything Robben has ever come up with when they kicked Spain out of their tiki-taka rhythm in the 2010 final.

Redemption was completed when the two sides faced each other again in their first match of the 2014 tournament; this time the Dutch pressed rather than kicked and broke with a speed and verve that did justice to their ‘total football’ tradition. The manager deserves great credit not only for the style of play but also for the unity he fostered among his squad, the lack of which has proved so costly in the past.

He gave a tactical tutorial, switching the balance of his side decisively at crucial moments. It paved the way for a late comeback against Mexico and van Gaal then made headlines in the quarter finals against Costa Rica by substituting his goalkeeper with seconds remaining of extra time. Substitute keeper Krul saved twice in the penalty shoot-out, vindicating his manager’s decision.

Van Gaal understandably received enormous praise for such an unexpected and unorthodox move. Like many brilliantly simple things, after they’re done you find yourself thinking why wasn’t it done before? It now seemed such an obvious thing to do. Well, apparently van Gaal was not in fact the first to try this idea.

Former Southend boss Paul Sturrock did it in the closing stages of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Southern Area semi-final against Oxford in 2013 and his side also triumphed in the shoot-out (another disclosure: I’m first and foremost a Dundee United fan and have surprised myself by getting 2 United references into this review).

Holland had made it through to the semi finals where they would face Messi and his assistants. Before that however, another European – South American clash provided one of the most astonishing matches of this or any other World Cup.

Germany had made smooth progress to the last 4, slipping into higher gears when required and always having enough acceleration to take them away from more sluggish opponents. Brazil had been swept there on a feverish wave of national pride and, more importantly, the composed skill of young Neymar, who had kept his head when all about him were losing theirs. One of those was Colombia’s Zuniga, who clattered into Neymar, breaking one back and millions of hearts.

If Neymar had played against Germany? If.

During the anthem, the Brazilians cried and prayed as they had done throughout the World Cup. But this was more tense, and intense. In Neymar there had been so much trust; without him there was only doubt. Fred, Hulk, and Jo. It sounds like an entry in the Eurovision song contest but they were Brazil’s attacking options now.

Oh and David Luiz as well, who wins the award for the defender who absolutely refuses to accept that he’s not a striker. Alas, he’s not much of a defender either. 11 minutes in and Luiz lost Muller at a corner. 1-0: how quickly doubt exerts its paralysing hold.

Soon, the Brazilians were frozen solid with fear. Klose netted a rebound tap-in to become the all time leading goal scorer at the World Cup. 2-0. Brazil exchanged anguished glances among themselves. Triumph and disaster, they may be two impostors but it’s hard to treat them the same.

Scolari had spoken of having one hand on the trophy; now he had both hands over his eyes. Barely 60 seconds’ worth of distance run and it was 3. Kroos. He added a fourth and Khedira a fifth before half time. Germany had scored 5 times in 19 minutes – against Brazil, in Brazil.

The locals wept and all over the world people asked: are you watching this? Is this really happening? Incredible.

The Germans stopped at 7, content to save themselves for the final. Oscar scored what would normally be described as a consolation goal but by then, he, his team, and his country were beyond consoling. If Neymar had played? Germany still would have won. They were the better team with better players and a much more sophisticated style of play. Brazil had just been reminded what the beautiful game looks like.

The Scottish FA took to Twitter with a quick “reminder that our first #EURO2016 qualifier is vs #GER in Dortmund in September. Good. #naeborra.”

In the other semi final, Argentina beat the Netherlands on penalties.

Both sides were primarily concerned with stopping the other and did so to good effect, none more so than Mascherano who was immense. Remarkably, when Messi struck his penalty in the shoot-out it was the first time he’d touched the ball in the Dutch box in the entire match.

Reports that Argentine coach Sabella’s initial list of penalty takers had Messi down to take all 5 are unconfirmed. Cillessen demonstrated why he got substituted in the previous round and why he has never saved a penalty in his professional career.

Argentina headed to the Maracana for a repeat of the Italia 90 final (the first World Cup that I can clearly remember and a special one for me for that reason), and we all hoped for better than that incredibly disappointing game which ended with Maradona sobbing amidst German jubilation.

The final was billed as the collectivist brilliance of the German team versus the individualist flair of Messi. These were caricatures though. Yes, the Germans were an outstanding unit but they also had brilliant individuals and plenty of flair in Muller, Kroos, and indeed Neuer. Messi’s individual genius has always been directed toward the collective effort – he is not a man who plays for himself.

As the tournament wore on, he had looked more and more worn out; conserving what little energy remained in a bid to make one or two decisive contributions. Argentina’s semi final victory was largely a result of discipline, the dispelling of doubt, and the indefatigable Mascherano.

Before the final Messi’s father suggested that his son was suffering from exhaustion (I certainly was by that stage as most of the matches kicked off in the middle of the night here in Malaysia). Earlier in the tournament Argentina’s coach Sabella had said that Messi gives his team “water in the desert.” The question was: how much did he have left to give?

Not all that much in truth. For most of the final Messi was a peripheral figure. Yet still, he could have won it for his side. He should have won it for his side. Just into the second half and he was presented with the chance that he and all of Argentina must have dreamed of – time and space to compose himself, only Neuer to beat. But he rolled the ball wide.

From that moment on the Argentinians looked as though they feared there was no water to be found in this particular desert. The Germans seemed stronger and fresher (unsurprisingly given that they’d only really had to play for about 20 minutes to beat Brazil). Gotze came off the bench, freshest of all.

In extra time, lungs screamed and legs ached. Gotze appeared to float over the ground while the rest of the field looked as though they were staggering through sand. With seven minutes left he drifted into the box and absorbed Schurrle’s cross on his chest, turning as he did so. As the ball dropped, he stretched out his left foot and let his swiveling momentum guide his foot to the ball and the ball across the goalkeeper into the far corner.

Gotze was in almost the exact same spot from which Messi had missed. The Germans were thoroughly deserving champions and undoubtedly the best team in the tournament. Argentina had the 3 best chances of the match though and didn’t hit the target with any of them.

Messi was awarded the golden ball for the best player of the tournament and trudged up the steps to receive it with an embarrassed and dejected grimace. He is the best footballer since Maradona but he was not the best player at this World Cup. Kroos, Muller, Schweinsteiger, Rodriguez – all were more deserving candidates.

In the BBC studio, Alan Hansen was doing his final piece of punditry before retiring, probably still in shock at the ‘terrible defending’ he had witnessed by the Brazilians just days before. It seemed as though Rihanna had used the tournament to audition for his job, tweeting various insights such as ‘man they know better than to give Suarez that much room bruh!’ during Uruguay versus England. I now wonder if she wrote Umbrella as a tribute to Steve McClaren.

So that’s more or less what you missed Zlatan; an extraordinary month of football and definitely worth watching.