The very special venue for the 2014 World Cup was Brazil. Football was coming home for the first time since 1950. In that World Cup, a tale repeated innumerably this year, the at that stage virgin Brazil had lost the unlosable 1950 final 2-1 to Uruguay in front of 200,000 Cariocas and the Brazilian nation had never forgotten it, or forgiven it. Brazil was the only elite country to have never won the World Cup at home, despite their record five other successes. After Brazil’s excellent 2013 Confederations Cup, the home expectation was high that 1950 could be avenged and the wound closed. The effects of this expectation would manifest itself on the inexperienced Brazilian team in disturbing ways.
Everything always ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end
Despite the success of Atletico and Real (ignored by the national teams in the former case and foreign-driven in the latter), Spain were finished. They had always mirrored the third club, Barcelona, who had wandered aimlessly the previous season and a half, Messi included. It was only the second day of World Cup 2014 when Spain were unusually ordered out to face the team they had just beaten in the 2010 final, Holland, their ‘previous’ match.
It all went to plan early, as Xabi Alonso put in a penalty and Silva missed a strong chance for 2-0. It was a minute before halftime. Then came a moment of beauty.
Left wing-back Daley Blind, the promising young son of a previous Holland international, launched a long pass from the halfway line on the left, similar to the pass Frank de Boer had sent towards Dennis Bergkamp in 1998, this one designed to land in the no-man’s land between Spain’s defensive line and their goalkeeper. It worked, finding Robin Van Persie alone in front of Casillas with a long, high ball falling towards him. The option seemed to be to control the pass for a difficult, high bouncing one-on-one with Casillas. Van Persie, however, allowed the ball to drop onto his head and expertly guided it over Casillas and into the far corner of the net. He landed flat on his stomach on the ground, a pose copied in photos by hundreds of Dutch the next day, including Van Persie’s very own grandfather. But that lasted only a moment, as he sprinted towards coach Louis Van Gaal for a camera-perfect, adrenaline-filled high five.
Ten minutes after halftime the ever fantastic Arjen Robben wriggled around the defence and squeezed a shot past two Spaniards into the net. The jig was now up for Spain and their previous untouchables, who then conceded goals with regularity. An aerial free kick fell into the hole between goalkeeper, attacker and goalpost and rebounded in in the manner of a pinball table. Then Casillas provided another graphic moment capturing his downfall when his childish error in miscontrolling a backpass straight to Van Persie gave the Dutchman an open net tap-in for his second. He passed the captain’s armband to Robben upon substitution and both had a moment mid-match to revel, a rare event in the close, tension-filled sport that is football.
Robben then sprinted half the field to chase a long pass, feint around the grounded, scrambling Casillas twice and drill into the corner of the net yet again. A small measure of revenge for 2010 had arrived in style for both player and team. The procession of chances continued until the end but the score stayed 5-1. “It could have been five,” Van Persie told the press, and then checked himself. “It was five.”
As for Spain, a set of speedy Chilean passes resulted in a wonderful opening goal and a 2-0 victory for Chile, condemning them to oblivion after only two games.
Brazil and Argentina carried upwards, kicking and screaming
At the beginning of the World Cup there seemed to be an intriguing myriad of teams who looked in form and who would contribute to the tournament’s momentum and fascination, and much excited commentary arose celebrating the tournament’s early weeks. Brazil, Holland, Colombia, Italy, Germany, France, Argentina and Belgium all appeared in with a shout. But without exception all the main players botched their second matches, and as the tournament went on it became obvious that not a single team had their stuff really worked out.
For the two favourites Brazil and Argentina, the tournament was specifically designed for their needs – Argentina, based in the placid southern Brazilian cities close to home, had a virtual bye to the semi-finals – yet disappointingly both countries of immeasurable skill were labouring and falling under their potential. The exceptions were their two icons, Neymar for Brazil and Lionel Messi for Argentina, who each scored four goals in the group stage and seemed intent on dragging their countries upward to success.
Argentina’s second game was disastrous. Novices Iran not only held the line but also strung together the two best chances to win the match in the bizarre but intriguing moments they left the trenches. It was injury time at the end of the match and it seemed that 0-0 would be the final result. Then Messi took possession on the right zone just outside the penalty box. He sidestepped a defender and in the solitary, tiny amount of space he had worked from the tight Iranian backline, curled an exquisite shot into the far corner of the goal for a last-minute victory. It was an indisputably iconic moment from the maestro, single-handedly winning a World Cup match lost for Argentina, but it would sadly prove to be his only such moment of the tournament. When he scored twice in the next game against Nigeria, as Neymar had likewise done two days earlier, there was the childlike thrill of disbelief that this was a World Cup in which Messi, the biggest star of all, had had years of expectation placed around his neck for these very matches, and he was delivering.
Yet neither he nor Neymar would score a single goal in the knockout matches, and neither did Arjen Robben, but Robben at least did not drop his standard. The only team to look out for by the end were Germany, who unlike the other one-man bands had a plethora of general attackers but were unsure of how specifically to use them.
The fantasy in a state of walking death
There was an intriguing second round in which five of the eight matches went to extra time with subsequent dramatics before a tempering, nothing of a quarter-final round in which the fake pretenders Colombia, France and Belgium faded without a shout in anger.
But it was these two matches in which the 64 year-old Brazilian fantasy died. For years my mental template for the 2014 World Cup final had been the image of a young, unknown stud ripping in a historic goal for the yellow-shirted Brazil early in the final and a cathartic mess of feeling following the team as they energetically swept towards victory with élan. Brazil’s two matches against South American brethren Chile and Colombia both ended in victory but they were hollow ones, performances that made it clear that, even if Brazil grafted to the final, my fantasy wasn’t going to happen. Real life gets in the way.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was back to enhance his 2002 success in this supremely important year. He trusted and stuck with his quickly moulded, successful 2013 team, but in the interim half of those players had gone out of form. It seems the cardinal rule in selecting a successful international side should be: ignore the past and go for the players in form. But he didn’t.
These two matches were strange copies of each other in that Brazil twice identically scrambled home from left-wing corner kicks a clumsy, early goal off the midriff of a centre-back, but on each occasion that was all she wrote for Brazil. Chile quickly tied their second round encounter and stretched Brazil in the second half. Then Chilean forward Pinilla would strike the crossbar with a long shot a few seconds before the penalty shootout, “One centimetre from glory,” as he would label the moment in a tattoo the next day.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Brazil had stuttered to a penalty shootout a full four matches out from the glorious reunion with the Maracana. Half of the Brazilian team were crying even before the penalties began. The long years of pressure were clearly overwhelming for the players, too much so. The penalties were a mess. Both teams missed two kicks headed into the final shots. But ironically, the guy most of the pressure was actually on, Neymar, on whose youthful shoulders it was win or bust both now and in a larger sense, shook off that pressure like a disdainful rapper dusting his shoulders and buried penalty number five. Chile’s fifth kick then rebounded from the inside of the post and Brazil lived, without glory but with plenty of emotional release.
The only consolation for Chile was that you’re not anyone until you’ve been involved in a few penalty shootouts, win or lose. Chile had arrived.
They and Colombia were dynamic new teams on the scene. Colombia, unlike Chile’s inability to convert manic possession into tangible moments, had lit up World Cup 2014 with goals. Their passing game was classical. In the centre of it was the tournament’s sudden new golden boy, in the process of being discovered game by game. James Rodriguez would score six goals to win the tournament’s Golden Boot, as well as energetically directing everything from the attacking central mid position. In his second round match against Uruguay, he chested a pass up with his back to goal and swivelled to score a volley from twenty-five metres out, putting himself on top of the scoring charts and introducing himself to the world.
Brazil defeated him in the quarter-final by taking it in turns to foul him whenever he got the ball. Once Brazil had taken their early lead, Colombia played like they couldn’t believe they actually had an opportunity to defeat their historical betters, playing beneath what they had exhibited their previous four matches and letting Brazil off the hook. The match was peppered with fouls and too stop-start for Colombian passing rhythm to take hold. David Luiz, a popular shaggy-haired Brazilian defender, completely out of the blue placed a long, thirty-metre free kick into the top corner after sixty-five minutes for 2-0, and Brazil were shakily able to hold out.
…But not before Colombia took retribution for Rodriguez’s treatment. A defender jumped into Neymar two minutes from time and kneed him squarely and forcefully in the back, breaking a vertebra and putting him out of the World Cup.
Germany were Brazil’s next opponents. Germany had begun the tournament in scintillating fashion, flaying Portugal 4-0. Since then, however, had been difficult matches against Ghana and Algeria and an uninspiring win over France. The Algeria game in the second round was a slow, interesting game against unknown, admirable opponents. Germany’s slow-footed defence, the Achilles Heel in 2012, had to be rescued on several occasions by goalie Neuer rushing thirty and forty metres from goal to swipe clear from Algerian forwards about to break through the line.
Germany still hadn’t found a settled lineup. Young attacker Mario Goetze began the tournament but was later dropped for old hand Miroslav Klose to find some direction in the forward line, who in his turn was dropped against Algeria. On the other wing Mesut Ozil in two years had fallen dramatically from being the team’s star to being carried by them, only in the starting line-up due to the sad late injury to livewire left-forward Marco Reus. Versatile captain Philip Lahm had been experimented in midfield until after the defensive reconsideration of the Algeria match.
But the foundation was there. Thomas Muller kept the attack purring whether as centre-forward or on the right, on his way to scoring another five goals at this World Cup (identical to 2010). Toni Kroos was the passer that, along with Muller, symbolised Germany’s postmodern approach. The defence had also been tightened since 2012, Hummels and Boateng covering each other. And as their match against Algeria entered extra time at 0-0, a new, left attacker with a blond, outsize cartoonish head named Andre Schurrle popped in to backheel Germany into the lead.
The end of the world
Like the Epic of Troy, the Brazil vs. Germany semi-final needs a long explanation of multiple back stories before one simply delves into the report on the final, unequal slaughter of a once great city. Brazil has always been the most classic football nation on Earth, strolling to victory in three World Cups with carefree, ball-playing soloists Pele and Garrincha in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1982 and 1986 World Cups a similar approach saw them unexpectedly lose in two epic quarter-finals. They consequently decided that artiness was antiquated in the modern world. Their 1982 team had been full of passers but light on in either penalty area, where the goals are scored and the game is supposedly won. Modern Brazilian teams, those that won the trophy once more in 1994 and 2002, had evolved as an opposite reaction to the tears of 1982, with the effective players now on the outside ring rather than inside. There were now no creative players in midfield but rather on the left and right defence (the only two players with natural space in front of them); hard defenders and central midfielders, strong goalkeepers and skilful forwards put in charge of winning the game on their own (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Romario, Ronaldinho) while the others sweated it out.
That was all well and good if the forwards kept chugging along from the 200 million-person conveyor belt, but the last great Brazilian attacker had been Kaka, a full seven years ago. Brazil’s cachet was then taken by Spain, who proved that miniscule passers could succeed in the muscled modern world. That information came too late for Brazil, who had long ago stopped teaching their midfielder kids how to play with the ball.
The talent had unbelievably run out. Players selected for Brazil were often now thuggish and defensive. But their name and aura from the glory days continued to live on, encouraging subsequent Brazil line-ups that they just had to show up and their history would win the games for them.
Neymar’s injury had put the nation in a flux. The emotional side of their tournament, which had taken over against Chile, now engulfed them. The crowds at Brazil games had contributed to this in a positive way. FIFA, having refused Brazil permission to sing the second verse of their national anthem, witnessed the Brazilian crowds continue it anyway in each of their matches, a cappella. Scolari spent the days before the semi-final randomly talking about how the national anthem should be sung in schools. Ever camera-ready Neymar appeared on TV, his specialty, with a heartfelt message to urge the boys on. Without him, patriotism and fervent desire would have to win the World Cup for Brazil in place of actual technique; as personified in the captain for the day, David Luiz, who had left his mark all over the Chile and Colombia wins.
Goalkeeper Julio Cesar had starred with the Inter team of 2010 but like half of the others in the Brazilian starting team had passed his use-by date by 2014. He was one of the premature criers before the penalties against Chile but had gone on to save two penalties. He and David Luiz held Neymar’s jumper up as they and the stadium in Belo Horizonte belted out another awesome rendition of the anthem, focused on who wasn’t there to play this match rather than who was. Captain Thiago Silva, their most competent defender, had also been suspended.
In the other corner were awesome Germany, resplendent in a new away strip of red and black horizontal stripes. It was only the second time they had ever played each other in World Cup history, with Brazil a slight favourite. While Brazil had lost key men, Germany had gained them, finally able to put in place their choice six attackers for the only time in the tournament: Khedira and Schweinsteiger in the middle; Kroos as the attacking mid; Muller, Klose and Ozil up front.
For twenty minutes it didn’t get any better than that match: Germany’s new Spain-like passers against 200 million loud Brazilians. This is the World Cup semi-final! We’ve been waiting a half-century for this!
Home sides usually begin with strong, frantic opening minutes. About five minutes in, however, there were signs that Germany’s passing was getting them into the match. And after ten they had a corner kick. Muller peeled off his marker David Luiz, who was expertly blocked by another German, leaving Muller free to control his volley softly into the net. David Luiz was more a composite player than a classy defender: he was often experimented in midfield with his clubs, but his passion (and, crucially, his partnership with the assured Thiago Silva) saw him through as a defender against lesser opposition.
The crowd were startled but continued to roar Brazil on for another ten minutes. Then, Kroos passed the ball Xavi-like through the defence into Muller, who left it for 36 year-old Klose. His shot was parried but directly back to him for a second try and a tap-in. He had broken Ronaldo’s record of total goals at the World Cup with 16, right in front of the former King up in the commentary box. A shame, really, as ‘Ronaldo, All-time Leading World Cup Goalscorer’ had a nice ring to it, but Klose’s determination to last beyond his salad days after he had seemingly missed the record in 2010 had to be commended.
110 seconds later, a ball from the right rolled in to Kroos at the top of the box. With expert technique, the new German attribute, he volleyed the loose ball home from outside the area. It was becoming easy. In the stands people were already looking at each other in disbelief and the cameras caught a few criers in the crowd, but straight from the kickoff a buzzed Kroos, with the cameras living in the past and still zoomed in on him, dispossessed a dallying midfielder, swapped easy passes with Khedira and tapped home a simple goal for 4-0.
It was all happening too fast to process. Given the historical baggage attached to this match, we had never seen anything like this. Three minutes and 40 seconds after that, in the circumstances a relative breather, David Luiz’s headstrong approach saw him charge out of defence to intercept the ball and not get there, emblematic of his whole night and his style in general, which left a huge space for Khedira and Ozil to raffle the chance identically to the previous goal. Khedira tapped in for 5-0. That was after 29 minutes.
The whole world was already discussing it online in disbelief. The crowd were too shocked even to boo.
The match was, of course, over, the rest an obligatory seeing out of the time. Matches like this are unique to football and not possible in other sports, in which the team being thrashed can ‘rally’ for an extended period of fake domination while not getting anywhere near the scoreline. After halftime Brazil rained a few shots onto Neuer’s goal but Neuer, in the tradition of previous German keepers doesn’t do sentimental favours. On came Schurrle to again simplistically tap in Germany’s number 6. Germany had been instructed at halftime to not showboat, to keep playing the game normally as a way of showing a form of respect. Ten minutes after Schurrle’s first goal Germany were playing the ball around in the classical manner of Spain 2012, and then a flying, clever touch from Muller leading the line found Schurrle in again who drilled into the roof of the net. 7-0.
Now they were booing, this Belo Horizonte crowd who superstitiously may not have the opportunity to see Brazil before them again for years, in the same way that in 2014 Brazil would never be reunited with their most emblematic city Rio de Janeiro, scene of 1950’s Maracanaço, unless they had made the final. As the commentator mentioned, it may not have even been worth the Brazilians trying to shoot in these closing minutes as a shot off target would simply invite more jeers. But then something is always better than nothing, marginally. Ozil, typically, missed when through on goal to make the score an even glossier 8-0 and Brazil sent the ball straight up the other end for Oscar, the other great young hope of Brazil alongside Neymar but who hadn’t been able to do it this tournament, to whip past a stagnant German defence to score at the end.
Scolari, who had led and encouraged the emotional connection to the fans, oddly huddled his team in the middle, where they dallied and tried to wave to the crowd but were ordered in no uncertain terms to get off the field. Germany, who had club teammates like doomed replacement centre-back Dante in the Brazil team, tried commiserating with them and kept it low key. It was a refreshing reversal of their arrogant moments in history.
The third-place match proved Brazil really were that bad – Holland coasted to an easy 3-0 win, which would be a historic scoreline if these defeats weren’t becoming repetitive.
Despite a title in 2002, perhaps Brazil could be consigned as a mere 20th Century phenomenon as innovators Spain and Germany took over the new one. Would Brazil be able to brag about their innate footballing superiority again after this performance? This game spelled the end of their aura. Would Germany have to suffer the same antiquated clichés about robots and penalty shootouts from English-speaking journalists?
So those two games are the basic reduction of the 2014 World Cup – Holland suddenly roasting Spain after four years of us getting used to Spanish slow cooking; and Germany 7-1 Brazil, a match that only needs to be explained by the fact that BRAZIL! AT HOME! LOST A WORLD CUP SEMI-FINAL 7-1! A year ago Brazil and Spain had been the cream of international football, now crashing to unthinkable thrashings.
The 7-1 made the narrow 1950 loss look more than respectable. As some said: Brazil had always been looking to this World Cup to provide a way to consign 1950 to the distant past. They’d done it.
And then there was Messi. If he led Argentina to victory he could remove the final doubts next to his status of greatness: his former inability to get it done at international level away from the Barca nursery. But he wasn’t doing it. Had he lost something from his supreme, superlative years up to the calendar end of 2012? Was he tired, slightly injured? His body language seemed slightly disinterested these days, as he and Barcelona had continued their passing but had lost their ability to penetrate. For Barcelona themselves the decline was definite, whereas for Messi merely relative: he continued notching up bags of thirty-something goals a year, but GPS measurements of key games revealed that he covered less ground than anyone else onfield bar the goalkeepers.
He had of course started the World Cup as if the Barcelona malaise were a blip, and at the end of Argentina’s umpteenth forgettable game against Switzerland he danced Ronaldinho-like through the Swiss defence to lay on the winner in the second-last minute, a carbon copy of that Brazilian play against England from 2002. But as each match went by we were clinging to tantalising, isolated moments that hinted maybe he would still deliver rather than definite confirmation: an assist against Switzerland; a curved through ball against Belgium.
Certainly, despite their other star names, the rest of Argentina’s line-up provided no other reasons to distract opponents’ exclusive stop-Messi plans or lift him from his single-handed burden. At least the maligned defence had come together, although their lack of credible opposition had helped. They and Holland had both slipped through the easy half of the draw. It was the second World Cup in a row this had happened for a perhaps in both years flattered Holland, sustained as they were by first Sneijder and Robben and four years later, simply Robben. At the tournament’s tail end, Holland played two goalless matches in a row and Argentina only scored two goals in four extended knockout games, damning stats whatever the customary World Cup revisionism trotted out afterwards. In the end the two were only separated by a desperate last-minute tackle by Mascherano on Robben and a pedestrian penalty shootout.
Still, Argentina were somehow in the final, after two decades of getting nowhere. As the Brazilians looked on in horror, the great pilgrimage of the plebs, streams of Argentine fans hurried across the border to Rio de Janeiro and camped out in expectation. And, whatever the way they had gotten to the final, once there they should have won it and with it, the World Cup.
We have now long been used to modern World Cup finals, in stark contrast to the original thirteen of them being goal-drenched classics, as extended 0-0s in which the suffocating psychology, the sense of a one-in-a-lifetime chance impairs any chance of a proper match breaking out. But this one was ok, better than the previous final. Argentina, fighting against the tide of history, Germany’s logical coronation and incidentally, against their actual on-field players, did a surprisingly adept job. Germany only really had one chance to score for the first ninety minutes, a corner kick headed against the post.
Instead those chances went to Argentina, working as a unit and annulling Germany’s attack if not necessarily their game. Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain was one of the old-style ‘pure’ goal scorers who contributed little except popping up for goals, a position slowly becoming obsolete by the modern desire for players with an all-round game. He had spent a prolific but fruitless half-decade as Real Madrid’s main forward, but had eventually been tossed out of that Garden of Eden and now had a scruffy, bearded appearance that reflected his new lack of on-ball sharpness. He’d had but one moment of glory at this World Cup, swivelling a winner in the early minutes against Belgium, Argentina’s last goal of the tournament a full five hours before its denouement. Here in the final he had perhaps the worst match of his life. First he ineptly scuffed an open-goal chance far wide when a backpass had given him all the time and space in the world. A few minutes later he tapped home a cross and began maniacally celebrating – but had been offside. A friend remarked, “I don’t think Higuain’s with it today. As a striker, the first thing you do in that situation is look over at the linesman.” His day unceremoniously ended by being brutally bodychecked by German keeper Neuer.
In typical Argentine tradition they shot themselves in the foot at halftime, removing energetic forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, the main impetus of the final to that point. Messi then missed his moment for immortality a few minutes later, jinking partially through on goal but putting his usual bullet shot fractionally wide. In a freak statistic, Argentina would not record a single shot on target in this narrow loss, more an indication of their suspect finishing than a lack of opportunities created. They squandered three one-on-ones. The same thing happened to substitute Palacio in extra time, through for a third time but lobbing the ball over Neuer and wide.
The first two footballers born in reunified Germany had been Mario Goetze and Andre Schurrle, the umlaut brigade. They were not starters by the end of this tournament, but Schurrle had proven extremely useful in cameo, scoring three goals. Goetze, 22 years old, could consider his tournament a disappointment, but both were penetrative, valuable substitutes to be able to bring on, in stark contrast to the paucity of class on every other teams’ lists.
First, in extra time, Goetze intelligently slid a pass through to Schurrle, who was saved. Then, in the 113th minute, Schurrle produced a winger’s surge past two players, something not seen so often in these days of passing and more passing, and on the run centred brilliantly in to Goetze, open a few metres from goal. Goetze mirrored the brilliance by chesting the ball up and seeing it rebound in front of him a body’s length way. He threw himself backwards and horizontally to reach it and hit the sweet spot with his left foot, delicately angling the ball to the right of the goalkeeper. It was a wonderful tournament-winning goal.
For young Goetze, life was now glorious. The biggest moment of his life had already happened. And it was only the beginning…