Sport World Cup

Friday 22 August 2014

Gripped by a feast of positive football

Happy memories from Brazil will last long into the future

Paul Wilson

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

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Colombia's James Rodriguez

A consensus was being reached, in the days before Germany redefined what might be possible in a World Cup semi-final, that while entertaining, open and full of surprises, the 2014 tournament was falling short of being considered the best ever. No great technical innovations, you see. No new way of playing, no new football faces announcing their greatness on the world stage, no strength in the closing rounds to match the all-European last four in 1982 and, above all, no single team as scintillating as soaraway Brazil in 1970.

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All true, and still applicable now after the seismic shudder in Belo Horizonte. While the 2014 tournament gets to claim one of the greatest upsets of all time, arguably in any sport, and for that reason alone will be remembered for decades, the extinguishing of a myth can never elevate a major event in the way that the making of a myth or discovery of a new sporting phenomenon has done in the past.

So let's not kid ourselves. The only true football genius at work in today's final will be Lionel Messi, and we knew about him already. Even without prior knowledge you can tell he is a genius because without him a stubbornly ordinary looking Argentina would not be in the final. Messi is poised to lead the Albiceleste to greatness. Should the script turn out that way, should Messi's brilliance overcome Germany's elegant efficiency and team strength, even the doubters would have to concede this World Cup has a story to tell after all.

Yet is that not an old-fashioned, overly romantic way of looking at things? We seem to want Messi to fit into the Pele or Diego Maradona role of individual redeemer, a talent conspicuous enough to prove that a continuous thread of greatness still runs through the game at the highest level. What if the Germans prevail, the team with no heroes? Would the first European side ever to win a World Cup in South America end up being damned with faint praise, on account of Brazil being so shambolic at the moment and Argentina allowing themselves to become over-dependent on Messi?

As a consequence of the semi-finals, Germany are favourites to win, and a month ago that prospect would have caused no little excitement in Europe. Now it is almost as if a German victory would confirm the tournament as pedestrian and unremarkable, so let's have a little perspective. For a start, while Brazil have been a disappointment as hosts it is emphatically not the case that South American football is in decline.

Argentina have not really clicked but are in the final. Chile and Colombia were among the revelations of the tournament, while other Latin countries such as Costa Rica and Mexico also impressed. Uruguay were too good for England and Italy.

Second, this Germany is undoubtedly, already, one of the great World Cup teams. It really was like watching Brazil on Tuesday evening; Juninho was the first to say so and a succession of Brazilian commentators have said it since. They play football the way it should be played, the way Brazil used to want to play it. There are no extravagantly gifted performers in the team, just an interchangeable set of skilful and willing athletes who know their roles and play an 11-man game. Spain provided the template, Germany do it with a little more dash and directness, based on a solid defence and the excellence of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira in midfield.

The woeful Brazilian collapse in Belo Horizonte must have left France feeling a whole lot better about themselves. They too had been suffocated by the control the Germans exert on a contest, unable to play their normal game or find any attacking rhythm, though at least they kept their shape, kept the score down and escaped with their dignity.

To talk of Teutonic consistency and efficiency is to invite a visit from the cliché police, yet the undeniable, statistic-backed truth is that something within Germany's psyche is just very good at World Cups. Granted they will never capture the imagination in a colourful blaze of glory like Brazil in 1970, indeed, they might have just posted a result to end that 44-year infatuation. Until everyone who remembers Pele in his pomp has died that will always be the World Cup to end all World Cups anyway, but what the Germans have achieved in the 12 years since their last final is still commendable. From a high level, they have kept improving, kept coming back, fine-tuning the system, using Bundesliga-bred players and Bundesliga coaches, knowing they have a successful structure in place and keeping faith with it.

The only consolation for England, with a Premier League that actively handicaps the national team, is that it provided some of the incentive. Back in Euro 2000 in a putrid game in Charleroi, an Alan Shearer header was enough to see a poor England side under Kevin Keegan beat a poor German side under Erich Ribbeck. Both teams failed to negotiate the group stage, but the German authorities decided an unpalatable low had been reached, and invested heavily in youth facilities and coaches that would pay dividends a decade later.

It was more or less a force of habit, that saw Germany reach the World Cup final in 2002, because the reconstruction was a long-term project, though it is just about possible to say that in terms of World Cups Germany have never looked back since that 5-1 thrashing by England in Munich in 2001. Since then, Germany have reached the last four of every World Cup and made it to the final twice.

That same result was the biggest false dawn English football has known. Whatever the result tonight, Brazil 1 Germany 7 is unlikely to mislead in a similar manner. The Germans are the real deal. Their football culture is admirable in every way, right down to preventing rich foreigners from seizing control of their clubs. England's is a sham that World Cups continually expose, but let's not blame the messenger for that. From Algeria to Australia, Colombia to the USA, this has been a feast of positive football.

Who cares whether or not it ranks as the best ever? For the last month, the world has been gripped.

People have been talking about football for all the right reasons, memories have been planted that will last a lifetime. What more could reasonably be asked? Where 2014 stands in the history of World Cups is for history to decide, for the present a much simpler question will suffice.

Did the tournament feel like an unwelcome extension to an already long season, or was it a treat that rekindled enthusiasm and appetite for the resumption of domestic competition? After tonight there will be a hole in everyone's schedules where football used to be. The Premier League comes riding to the rescue on August 16, and it usually only takes a couple of games for a World Cup to be forgotten. Recollections of this one might not be surrendered quite so willingly.

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