World Cup with blemishes

How good, vibrant and dramatic a World Cup has it really been? How great an advertisement for the great game? The longer it went on, the more obvious and all too frequent were the blemishes. Nothing new, of course! Practically all World Cups have them. By Brian Glanville.

Would there ever be a greater football shock at Belo Horizonte than the 1-0 victory of a semi-professional, virtually anonymous USA team over an England side full of stars? After 64 years, the answer is arguably yes. The 7-1 thumping, the utter humiliation of a limp and outplayed Brazilian team by a casually dominant Germany will live astoundingly in football memory. How good were Germany? How bad were Brazil?

After all, the Germans hadn’t won any of their previous games with such ease. And Brazil hadn’t lost at home for 12 years. True, they lacked the major organising influence of Thiago Silva, obliged to watch and suffer from the stands, at centre back. True, they were without their one real attacking star, Neymar. But the goals they gave away were largely suicidal. Positional play went out of the window. Huge spaces were left. 7-1; and that Brazilian one coming when the game was all but over. It was a collective Brazilian surrender. Germany were irresistible on the day; but Brazil by the same token were pitifully inept. Does anybody understand soccer?

That said, what of the World Cup in terms of logic and some kind of rationality?

How good, vibrant and dramatic a World Cup has it really been? How great an advertisement for the great game? The longer it went on, the more obvious and all too frequent were the blemishes. Nothing new, of course! Practically all World Cups have them. In 1954, in Switzerland, for example, there was the so called “Battle of Berne”, the quarterfinal in which the Hungarians and Brazilians almost literally did battle. As for the final, it has now been well established that the German team, which beat Hungary, had been doped. Algeria and Germany did, at least on this occasion, have a straightforward, indeed an enthralling, game, but raised poignant Algerian memories of the so called ‘Anschluss’, or shameful agreement between Germany and Austria, when they met to allow the Germans to win the game against a passive Austria 1-0, so they both went through at Algeria’s expense in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. And when in the 2014 competition France played Germany, shocking memories were evoked again of the brutal unpunished assault by the German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher on the advancing French defender Patrick Battiston, in ’82 again, which could have cost him his life.

This time, we had, alas, the sordid affair of Luis Suarez biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. That the Uruguayan star should try to deny it was bad enough but arguably even worse was his despicable about-turn to admit it and apologise, seemingly at the behest of Barcelona, who has now acquired him.

Especially distressing on this occasion was the disgraceful way the refulgent star of the Brazilian attack, Neymar, was brutally kneed in the back by the Colombian Juan Camilo Zuniga, breaking a vertebra and carried out of the Cup on a stretcher. Zuniga wasn’t even yellow carded by an abysmal referee, the Spaniard Velasco Carballo, whose ludicrously permissive officiating made such an offence all too probable.

His ineptitude was something of a mystery, since, overall, he has an impressive record of officiating. Yet his permissive attitude — he didn’t give a single yellow card till over an hour had been played, with plethora of harsh offences — surely paved the way for Zuniga’s appalling unpunished foul. No denying, the Brazilian manager Big Phil Scolari, whose own team was hardly guiltless, not least in the treatment of Colombia’s outstanding attacker the 22-year-old James Rodriguez, was justified in complaining that Neymar was “hunted down.” He himself had ordered his players not to be “too nice,” and their rough treatment of Rodriguez, a major new star after his performance in the tournament, was often lamentable.

By a great irony, it was the usually guiltless Rodriguez, who got a yellow card for an unexceptional foul, but gave away the free-kick whereby David Luiz scored Brazil’s spectacular second goal. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, as we know, and one recalls that in his days as manager of Brazilian club Gremio, Big Phil was notorious for telling his players to commit “tactical” fouls outside the penalty box.

On the subject of Brazil, it seemed extraordinary that a country with its traditions couldn’t find a better centre forward than the ineffectual Fred. In the past World Cups, Brazilian centre forwards had dazzled. Back in 1938 there was Leonidas, he of the acrobatic bicycle kick, top scorer of that tournament in France. Had the Brazilians not crazily and arrogantly left him out of the semi-finals versus Italy in Marseilles, they would probably have gone on to win the final. In 1950, there was the elusive and prolific Ademir. In 1958, manager Vicente Feola, could choose between the emerging young Jose Altafini, whom he thought to be immature, and Vava, who took over and scored two goals against Sweden in the final. When Brazil won the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles they had the dynamic brilliance of Romario. Then came the equally prolific Ronaldo, scoring twice in the 2002 final against Germany, which made up for his devastating experience four years earlier, when on the day of the final against France he succumbed to a seizure and should never have been allowed to play at all, let alone stay on for the whole game.

And in this World Cup, we had the disgrace of Cameroon evidently lying down to die 4-0 against Croatia with the experienced Barcelona and ex-Arsenal player Alex Song getting himself sent off for a gratuitous foul. No such suspicions concerned the sterling display of Ghana, but the alarming news leaked out that the country’s chief executive had agreed to fix matches in the future.

Overall, you can call it the tournament of anticlimax. Holland began with a bang, and if they have hardly gone out with a whimper, their devastating 5-1 win in their opening game against Spain had been followed by a series of narrow hard fought if not always hard earned victories. They own a great deal to their incisive midfielder Wesley Sneijder. In the breathlessly narrow 2-1 win over an unlucky Mexico team in Fortaleza, his was the 88th minute volley, which dramatically equalised and saved the Dutch from an early exit. It took a penalty two minutes later, after Arjen Robben, yet again, had fallen in the box, to bring victory.

In the quarterfinals, Holland could do no better than a goalless draw against a surprising and spirited Costa Rica, prevailing only on penalties, though Sneijder’s free-kick came back off the post. Robben himself admitted diving in the first half against Mexico, outside the box, but insisted that when he did gain that penalty, he had been genuinely fouled.

As for Argentina, their debt to Lionel Messi was enormous. It’s been said that in the tournament he has not been as ubiquitous and penetrative as in his best days for Barcelona, but surely a better comparison would be with the previous World Cup in South Africa, when pushed out on the left wing by manager Diego Maradona, his contribution was limited. In Brazil, he has been invaluable to his side, gliding past opponents to score vital goals, such as he did to beat Iran 1-0 in the 90th minute. Providing the exquisite pass, which enabled Angel di Maria on 118th minute to score the decider against a valiant Switzerland, so different from the team, which had crashed to France, conceding five goals in its initial game. Magically elusive!

Germany has been effective rather than inspired. It was surely significant that they needed to bring in their veteran striker Miroslav Klose to win important victories despite their array of young talent. The USA punched bravely above their weight.

But, overall, a far from historic tournament.