Like just about everyone else I have been watching the World Cup over the last few weeks. My abiding memories are of special football and a uniting event.
It didn’t start that way. Press coverage in advance of the tournament was almost all negative. The political debate about the expenditure was exaggerated by footage of riots in the streets and coverage, sadly, of the deaths in building some of the stadia. There was the usual scare story about crime and exaggerated pricing. This is off the back of the huge controversy anyway about the awarding of the Qatar and Russian World Cups. We are so used to carefully manicured confections that it was about time we got back to basics and had a tournament which was essentially about football and the joy of the game. I visited Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s when Brazil was at the heart of its own economic troubles. Cosmetically the city was at a low point. Christ the Redeemer was crumbling and there were arguments about whose responsibility it was to repair it. The Maracana was a vast decaying bowl that was riddled with health and safety issues and in desperate need of someone to adopt it. The crime rate was horrendous with mugging happening daily in the tourist areas. The magnificent beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema had hawkers offering drugs and prostitution to anyone looking vaguely touristy. The favelas were on the hillside and early mornings would see a steady stream of workers walking into the city centre to do their daily work. I remember doing some activities were ridiculously over qualified people were using their language skills rather than their professional qualifications just so they could make a living. The economy was broken with hyperinflation: the cruzeiro had been replaced with the new cruzeiro but people still carried enormous wads of notes and the exchange rate was published twice a day in the newspapers to try to keep up. I enjoyed the spectacle of the visit but didn’t enjoy the danger and vowed never to return. What struck me was the grim reality of huge numbers of people fighting to make a living – then as now Rio was not a glamorous city in the way Monaco or Hong Kong are. It has the spectacle but a very brutal day-to-day existence.
What better place to hold a World Cup? The energy and essentially working class nature of the country and the city echo the basics of the game itself. The money and glitz are European and most certainly English Premiership characteristics. Brazil is the real heart and soul of the game. From the kickoff the theme was of everyday folk who have done well for themselves through a talent for kicking a football. The Brazil team included the retro names (almost) of Fred, Jo, Bernard and Willian. The hope was for Neymar, Rodriguez, Messi, or Sanchez to single-handedly carry their countries to success. All started well with Italy, England and Spain crashing out in an ignominious fashion. The money in the game was unceremoniously dumped by passion and enthusiasm as the tone for the tournament was set.
There were certainly problems – as well as the undeniable poverty in some parts of the country there were also some organisational hitches. The traffic was apparently horrendous in many of the cities. It would be worth noting (and bearing in mind for the Olympics) that in May, due to heavy rain, there was a 342km traffic jam in São Paolo. You can blame many things on football but Brazil has previous when it comes to motorway congas.
Back on the field countries who were previously “minnows” and “no-hopers” – USA, Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia – were defying expectations and playing good football. There were spectacular goals galore as countries seemed to all want to join the party. There were some stereotypes pervading though; England go home without ever shining, the home team progresses without shining, South American and Latin American teams do well when the tournament is in South America… and Germany look really good.
The TV coverage is neatly understated. Of course all the games are shown but somehow the back stories and razzmatazz were kept under control. The weather played its part. Real celebrities hardly left the beaches in Rio de Janeiro. Poor old Glenn Hoddle looked like he could expire at any point in the humidity while Fabio Cannavaro and Clarence Seedorf seemed the only ones to truly cope in a suave European way. There were innovations this tournament. On a negative side the organisers seemed desperate to justify the expense of the goal line technology. As the ball rippled the back of the net a graphic showed the ball just across the goal line. There was the just the faintest whiff of horses disappearing into the distance. On a positive side the spray cans used to mark the position of the ball and the wall at free kicks were universally well-received – except by the prissy defenders in the wall who found the tips of their fluorescent sponsored Adidas boots tainted by the temporary paint. It’s nice to see that other things never change. I am pleased to report that TV cameramen can still pick out attractive young women amongst a crowd of thousands. They can also find tearful children and men wearing face paint and a wig.
s matches progressed we came down to the final four. On paper you could have almost predicted the outcome with Europe’s finest two facing South America’s giants. The first of the two games was seismic as Germany destroyed a Neymar-less Brazil 7-1. Young Neymar doesn’t look Brazilian but he plays like one. He looks fragile and urchin-like and even he met his match with a brutal knee in the back. His colleagues were overrun by a spectacularly powerful attacking force with Klose – a traditional centre forward who would have seen off the knee in the back without blinking – setting a new World Cup goal scoring record. Brazil as a nation was shell-shocked and could only watch as Luiz and Oscar had a crying competition. A record 33 million Germans watched the demolition on TV. This wasn’t how the fairy tale was supposed to play out.
In the other semi-final a different sort of hero was created. Mascherano kicked, slid, tackled and battled the Dutch through to penalties. He was magnificent throughout and capped his night with a diving block on Arjen Robben which he should never have been able to make until he actually did. It highlighted the hidden side of the World Cup. For every Neymar, Messi, Robben and Moller there had to be a Gustavo, Mascherano, de Jong and Schweinsteiger. Against Costa Rica, Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal substituted his goalkeeper in the last minute and was proclaimed a tactical genius when Krul saved a couple. Presumably the headlines changed when he ran out of substitutions to let Argentina through on this occasion.
It all set up a final which befits the stage. The Brazilians all donned Germany shirts to try and ensure their great rival wouldn’t add another star above their badges while Argentina attempted a mass migration to restore the balance. The sight of the Christ the Redeemer floodlit and looking down benignly on the huge Maracana saucer was magnificent. It seemed to depict the little known eighth day when God created football. The match itself was as expected. A drubbing was never on the cards. There were chances for Higuain and Messi while the Germans slowly built up a head of steam. The Argentines gradually slowed down to a walking pace while Schweinsteiger and Lahm kept battling. The game went to extra time before the heavily-manicured tousle-haired and shiny Goetze took a cross on his chest and, without it hitting the floor, volleyed it past the keeper. It was a fitting way to finish a great tournament which highlighted that all the glamour, egos and money are best reserved for selling t-shirts. Hard work, practice and team spirit win World Cups. It was great to see Neuer win the Golden Gloves award – a man who hated conceding the single goal in the 7-1 semi final win. Good too for James Rodrigues from Colombia to win the top scorer award. Once the final whistle had blown though there were a couple of reminders of what is wrong with the game.
Firstly the sublime and modest Lionel Messi was non-plussed to be awarded the Golden Boot for player of the tournament. The technical panel in their wisdom, not swayed at all by commercial interests, decided that he was the best player on show.
Less surprisingly Sepp Blatter found a way of ridiculing the selection process for World Cup hosting. He criticised the tournament in Brazil for not doing enough on diversity and homophobia. Thanks to his selection process Russia and Qatar will right that wrong! You couldn’t make it up.