“How good was that?” Anyone who watches sport on British television will be familiar with the Question Asinine asked by interviewers after a game. In the case of this World Cup, we can say already, "Very good indeed."
This is one of the best tournaments even those with long memories can recall, endlessly exciting and continually surprising, with a feast of great goals, and almost more of great goalkeeping. Apart from anything else, the epic Thibaut Courtois v Tim Howard match, aka Belgium v USA, showed that an amazing save can be as good to watch as an amazing goal.
It’s also served its original purpose, almost to a fault. When the World Cup was begun in 1930 it had a specific objective, to bring together what were then not so much the most as the only important soccer-playing regions, Europe and Latin America. The first tournament was held in—and won by—Uruguay, with 13 teams participating, eight Latin American sides as well as the United States (which came third), and four from Europe, who made a long sea journey from Genoa to Montevideo. Rumania played at the insistence of King Carol, who chose the team himself, but the snooty English didn’t bother to turn up.
Of this year’s last 16, half were from the Americas, again including the good old US of A, six European and two African. And of the 20 World Cup competitions from the first to this years’s, eight have been held in the Western Hemisphere, and none of those so far has been won by a European team.
These musings are by way of looking back at the Round of 16 and ahead at the quarter-finals. The mighty fallen have been fun to watch, with three European former Cup winners, Spain, Italy and England, all sent home early. Even for this Englishman, I’m afraid it was a mercy to see England put out of their misery since no one thought they had any serious chance. But Spain were one of the favorites.
Although the two African teams have also gone home, no one watching their last matches could say that France—who didn’t score until the 80th minute—looked like an obvious Cup winner while beating Nigeria, nor Germany—who didn’t score at all in 90 minutes of regulation—while beating Algeria. That was truer still when the Netherlands beat Mexico.
Was there a neutral alive who wasn’t cheering the Mexicans, or who didn’t share their heartbreak when Sneijder equalized three minutes from the end, and then the wretched Robben “won” a penalty? Or who didn’t cheer Colombia against Uruguay, the US against Belgium, or even Switzerland against Argentina?
Even when the giant-killers didn’t slay the giants they ran them close. Who would have guessed that Argentina v Switzerland would be scoreless after 90 minutes? In the brief interval after the first half of extra time, I wondered if anyone told the Swiss the inspiring news that, at that very moment, far away from Sao Paolo, the No. 1 tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, had just been beaten at Wimbledon by a 19-year-old Australian, not only unseeded but languishing somewhere below 150 in world rankings. This is a year of surprises.
Now there are four European teams in the quarter-finals and four Latin American, just as they envisaged in 1930. Two European countries and two Latin American have never won. The Latin Americans may have an edge of home-field advantage, if only from climate, and the one thing that might have made you sympathize with the Dutch on Sunday is that, if you grow up in Holland, you can be fairly sure of at least one thing: you won’t often be playing football in 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
And yet: although it’s been a wonderful tournament with riveting games and splendid goals, is it great in the sense that any truly great team is playing this year? Our excitement is partly because so many games have been so close, which doesn’t suggest the dominance of any truly outstanding side. Of eight Round of 16 matches, five went into extra time, with two decided on the horrible penalty shoot-out.
And the trouble with the Latin American teams is that they’re one-man bands. Forgive an old geezer if he strolls down Memory Lane to make the point. The great Brazilian teams were those that won the World Cup in 1958, 1964 and 1970 (and should have won in 1966), and the greatest of all was the last. But there is this. Brazil 1970 was the finest side some of us ever expect to see, and Pelé the finest player. All the same, towering as he was, take away Pelé from that team and you still had Gerson, Tostao and Rivelino, all touched with genius.
Take away Neymar from Brazil 2014, and it looks quite an ordinary side, which is why I’ve doubted from the beginning that they really should be considered clear favourites. The same applies (or did) to Uruguay if you took away Suarez, to Argentina without Messi, and Colombia without the glorious young James Rodriguez.
So who’s going to win? As Kipling would have said, Gawd only knows, and ’e ain’t splittin’ on a pal. I shall watch France v Germany like a good European, in a spirit of communautaire neutrality, trying not to think of the grim centenary that approaches. But no neutrality in the next game: I would love to see James score and score again and Colombia triumph over Brazil. It could happen.
Much as one loves the delightful Ticos, it’s hard to see Costa Rica beating the Netherlands, although having thrashed the champions Spain 5-1, the Dutch then made quite heavy weather of beating Australia 3-2, so you never know. And since Messi has run into form at last, after a flat season at home and abroad, Argentina should beat les braves Belges, as we called them in 1914.
One postscript for those who haven’t followed the great Suarez comedy. After the suspension, the president of Uruguay called Fifa “fascists,” just about the only term of abuse they don’t deserve, Maradona said Suarez’s suspension was like sending him to Guantanamo Bay, and “Luisito” himself insisted that Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder had aggressively collided with his teeth against their will.
Now Suarez has fessed up, apologized to the “entire football family,” and said he will never bite so much as a choripán or pancho again. Only the very worst kind of cynic thinks that this display of humble penitence has anything whatever to do with clearing the way for a transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona...