FOR a moment there I was worried. Everyone was going Brazil nuts.
The Brazilian manager, the players and the fans, obviously, but also our pundits who watched as the worst Brazil team in living memory bumped and at times bludgeoned their way ever nearer to their dream date at the Maracana, raising barely a canary-yellow peep to question the desperate lack of flair.
It was as if the experts in the studio were drunk on Brazil, along with the commentators and some of the pressmen sending despatches from the samba-shake spectacular. Yes, there would be the occasional quibble from sound judges, but no one seemed to want to upset the hosts of The Best World Cup Ever (© just about every member of the laminate-pass legions). For me, this was summed up when Alan Shearer – usually a gruff, no-nonsense adherent to the credo that only those who’ve played the game really know what they’re talking about – leaned back in his chair, flexed those over-developed thigh muscles that have become such a part of our small, stuck-at-home lives these past four weeks, and declared: “If I’m honest, Brazil winning keeps the tournament going for us here.”
I was worried because it looked like Travesty Brazil could do it. Win the World Cup on emotion and little else. Nothing remotely shimmering to remind us of Gerson or Socrates or Ronaldinho. Brazil turning up for a World Cup without a playmaker was sacrilegious and grounds for having the tournament stopped. But all we got every time was a yelled anthem, lots of praying, big, ankle-bootee hoofs to nowhere in particular (cheered to the rafters), thuggishness (they started the aggro against Colombia which ultimately did for Neymar), followed by even more mawkishness. But then Germany sorted them out.
Honestly, I wasn’t anti-Brazil. Marcelo blootering the ball out of play under no pressure with 22 minutes left was anti-Brazil. You can’t be anti-Brazil if you once wore that beautiful shirt every day of the school holidays, a 19s 6d purchase from Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. If this incarnation had suddenly turned it on like the previous ones then fair play to them. But they didn’t, they couldn’t.
They weren’t a team, just Neymar and ten others, and it’s sad we’re still talking about them when there were good teams at this World Cup right from the start. Halfway through, the pundits seemed to sign a beach-bar pact: “This is a World Cup of sides being over-reliant on one true shining star, e.g. Neymar, Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben Reliant – there are no teams.” This was rubbish then – remember Chile and Mexico, wee guys, big hearts, great all-for-one ethic, and also Colombia and Costa Rica? – and it’s rubbish now. Argentina have become less and less dependent on Messi’s goals or him having a great game (the semi-final was his poorest) and other players have stepped up. Germany, in terms of team goals, produced one of football’s greatest-ever displays against Brazil. Those by Miroslav Klose and Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos’ second all came from unselfish, the-group-is-all play which few of us ever see on gloomy November afternoons when the burly, hapless striker is so desperate to find the net.
Maybe what the pundits meant was there weren’t any outstanding teams, but the aforementioned didn’t half entertain us along with France (no mutinies this time), USA (the epitome of sum-is-greater), Australia (outrageous volley, Tim Cahill), Algeria, even Iran and almost everyone apart from Cameroon, Honduras and England.
This has been a terrific World Cup for righting the club-country imbalance in favour of the latter. As it should have done, because Brazil is the home of great football – just not played by the host nation this time – and everyone should have been keen to perform. England swears by its domestic league like no other nation so it’s hardly a surprise that they paid such a high price here.
Maybe all international football should be played in Brazil in future – now there’s an idea. Drawing a line in the grass for defensive walls was a great idea; allowing tackling to return to its 1970s rumbustiousness rather less of one. Although this, and the fundamental Brazilianness, must have contributed to so many goals, a record at one stage, and encouraged those with views of the Copacabana to acclaim the tournament the best-ever, before the traditional tightening-up during knockout.
One thing, though: never has picking a team of the World Cup been so tricky.
Some super players have to miss out – as do previously unsung ones, some who’ve outperformed a few of those familiar faces from the commercials; respect Cardiff City’s Gary Medel – but I’ve tried to spread the love around, going for those who’ve entertained me the most.
The early goal-fest might have inferred lousy ’keeping but Manuel Neuer, Guillermo Ochoa, Keylor Navas and Tim Howard have all been brilliant, so how can I possibly choose between them? I could play Neuer as sweeper behind Mats Hummels because I don’t think he’d let me down. But that would squeeze out one of Chile’s doughty three-man backline – any of them, they were all compact trojans, little big men who might have reminded you of those trapped Santiago miners of a few years ago with their ferocious spirit. I’m determined to get at least one Chilean into my XI and probably it should be Alexis Sanchez, whose grooming regime and fussiness over the height of his shorts (highest in the competition) don’t immediately suggest hard work, but he was everywhere in their campaign and still found the time to outshine Neymar up top in the Round of 16.
Up top, where it matters – where passing really matters. There are lies, damned lies and World Cup stats. Before the Germany horror-show, David Luiz was in FIFA’s team of the tournament based on “tracking technology and data analysis”, whatever these are. The methodology obviously took no account of the recklessness, thuggishness and self-aggrandising “super-passing” which were evident to most of us before 7-1, and to everyone afterwards.
Yes, Chile were the team I enjoyed watching the most – after Mexico. Lazy British previews of them concentrated on Javier Hernandez but he was required to watch from the bench while Giovani dos Santos and Oribe Peralta buzzed around to highly inventive effect. What a pity against the Netherlands that Miguel Herrera succumbed to Pekerman’s Disease – named after Jose Pekerman when he managed, and mis-managed, the Argentina of 2006 – where a coach decides to defend a lead too early. And what a pity, too, that we saw no more of Herrera himself, who inspired my favourite World Cup tweet, courtesy of Irvine Welsh: “He looks like the steward on the door of the Hibs Club who won’t let you in unless you buy a book of raffle-tickets.”
Argentina ’06 scored my all-time favourite World Cup goal – Esteban Cambiasso against Serbia finishing off a 25-pass move – and by the way that’s not an anti-Brazil choice, knocking out Carlos Alberto’s from ’70. Favourite this time was James Rodriguez’s first for Colombia against Uruguay. Favourite tackle – Javier Mascherano on Robben on Wednesday night. Favourite stadium – the stupendously steepling Arena De Sao Paulo, though I’ve been nowhere near the Copacabana, just Edinburgh’s Comely Bank watching in 2D as usual.
Most depressing moment? It would have been that Marcelo clearance into oblivion until Friday’s footage of a still-distraught Neymar talking about his injury. As he spoke in front of a board that was a blizzard of sponsors’ names, a computer tablet out front flashed up even more of them. Give the boy some peace – but give the rest of us one more fabulous game which could yet confer best-ever status on Brazil ’14. The heart says Argentina but the head says Germany.