Quality is high

Football remains a PUZZLING game. The Germans came into the tournament with little but home advantage to recommend them.

This has certainly been a World Cup of substantially higher quality than the 2002 tournament where mediocrity largely ruled. Germany may have reached the 2002 Final but that was largely by default and they never played football as well as they did to see off Sweden. Football remains a puzzling game. The Germans came into the tournament with little but home advantage to recommend them. They had been very lucky to escape with a 2-2 friendly draw against a Japanese team, which dominated them to such an extent that according to some German critics they might have conceded six goals rather than two.

As it was the Japanese faded away in the closing stage just as they were doomed to do in the tournament itself against Australia, so the Germans were able to scramble a flattering 2-2 draw.

They hardly looked much better in their first World Cup game against the modest Costa Ricans. The margin of the victory was 4-2 but the German defence looked seriously uneasy. Poland came next, a bleak team with few ambitions but to hold out. Yet Germany, with the blond striker Podolski throwing away chance after chance, got the goal which won them the game very late on, after they had brought in two excellent wingers of contrasting physique: little Oliver Neuville, whose goals have so often saved their blushes and who duly got the winner this time, and the hefty Ghana-born outside right, Gerald Asamoah who set up the winning goal with a typically powerful burst and cross.

When did things suddenly and radically change? In the next game, won in a canter against an Ecuador team, which, with two wins under the belt and the charge that they prevailed only in the breathless heights of Quito, had plainly been flattering to deceive. Suddenly Miroslav Klose, whom one had seen scoring four goals against feeble Saudi Arabia in Japan in 2002, was looking like the same centre-forward one saw that day, since when it has been all anticlimax.

Next time out against the Swedes, Germany with manifest new confidence — it was plainly a case of being all in the mind — scored twice through Podolski in quick time and the game was virtually done and dusted. Teddy Lucic didn't help Sweden by foolishly collecting a second yellow card. And after the German centre-back Metzelder had committed an idiotic foul barging Henrik Larsson in the back, that usually prolific veteran made an awful hash of the penalty.

The German skipper and midfielder Michael Ballack, now due at Chelsea, was ubiquitous and hugely influential. At times he seemed to be having a personal duel with the excellent Swedish 'keeper Isaksson but no more German goals came.

That evening one watched a much better game played with high technique at an enthralling pace between Argentina, favoured by many, and a Mexican team which had previously done little to suggest it could rise to such height of pace, technique and adventure. It even had the effrontery to take a very early lead when the captain and Barcelona centre-back Rafael Marquez slipped away to the blind side to head home a corner. Hernan Crespo soon rubbed that advantage out, but thereafter for much of the time the bold Mexicans were giving as good as they got.

In the second half, however, not least after that bustling, ever energetic striker Carlos Tevez came on, the Argentines found their touch and it took some resilient saves by the agile Mexican 'keeper, Oswaldo Sanchez, to take the game into extra time. When Argentina brought on the dazzling teenaged winger Lionel Messi their pressure increased, and the goal with which they eventually won was among the best I've seen in my 13 World Cups. A glorious achievement by Maxi Rodriguez out on the right, coolly chesting down the ball before hitting a superlative volley into the far top corner.

It would not be unfair, however, to compare with this gem the superb goal got by Joe Cole for an ailing England team against Sweden when he too, from the left, controlled the ball with his chest then hit a glorious volley past Isaksson. It was especially pleasing for one who has admired and championed Cole ever since seeing him excel as a playmaker for West Ham United's youth team. Typically, in the whole long history of English football, he, as an unorthodox talent, has found it hard to gain a regular place in the national team, like such players as Len Shackleton, Glenn Hoddle and even Paul Gascoigne before him. Now he figures as a right-footed left flanker not by any means a natural winger, any more than the one trick pony David Beckham is, but in his own way splendidly effective.

If only he had been used consistently in these past seasons!