Sunday, at the historic Maracana Stadium, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Germany beat Argentina 1-0 to crown itself world football champion, making history by adding a fourth cup to its trophy trove and by being the first European side to win the cup in the Americas. The tournament was one to remember.
The road to the final was littered and festooned—littered with the debris of unmet expectations, poor officiating, and ugly tackling, and festooned with a few expected standout performances and many that surprised us as they came from unexpected participants.
Pre-tournament, the talk was about the strongest three and the host, the supposed favorites, Spain, Argentina, Germany, and Brazil. At tourney’s end the best playing teams ended up being Costa Rica, Holland, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and champions Germany.
We also expected Neymar and Lionel Messi to compete for top player honors, Cristiano Ronaldo to make his mark, and Franck Ribery to cap his stellar European campaign. Messi, who did receive the Golden Ball as the tourney’s top player, was his magical self for the first round and mostly disappeared in the knockout round. Ronaldo was too injured to play a significant role for his team, and the injured Ribery never made it to Brazil. But Colombia’s James Rodriguez, Holland’s Arjen Robben and Germany’s Thomas Muller shone brightly in this cup.
We had hoped that in Brazil we would be spared the officiating quagmire we slogged through during so many matches of this year’s heated La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League competitions, and World Cup qualifying rounds. Unfortunately, the cup’s refereeing was often every bit as appalling.
Finally, we were hoping for something new, surprising or inspirational. We got a bit of each. Goal-line technology works and is not intrusive. Football can finally be said to have high caliber practitioners in in every continent on the globe. We were inspired to see the likes of Costa Rica coming out first in a group that included Uruguay, England, and Italy. And we had a few instances when a match or two seemed to encapsulate the cup and the state of football.
The cup began with a whimper, which turned into a tough roar, included a pretty goal, but ultimately turned on an officiating call, all on June 12th in the Brazil-Croatia opening match. Many of the cup’s main themes were foreshadowed for us from day one.
The Brazilians dominated possession, the Croatians had he greater scoring chances on counterattacks. This cup was dominated by 3-5-2 formations, a variation on Spain’s previously successful, midfield-heavy, 4-5-1, and many goals were denied or scored by teams bent on attacking only on the counter and only from the opportunities afforded by their game-long defensive stances.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s unorthodox take on rosters and tactics was on display from game one which showcased a Brazil without offensive creativity, save Neymar, relying on crosses into the box against the tallest team in the tournament.
The cup’s opening goal was an own goal by Marcelo, presaging the self-inflicted wounds the hosts would suffer as the tournament progressed. Fast-forward to the 7-1 semifinals demolition by Germany, or the equally dominant 3-0 defeat by Holland, and see how inept a roster Brazil proposed and how many miscues by haplessly ill-placed Brazilian defenders resulted in goals that might not have been scored otherwise.
It was Neymar’s rough second half foul on Luca Modric that ended up affecting the Real Madrid star for the duration of the tourney. Thereafter the cup featured many ugly fouls and a number of players stretchered off the pitch never to return. Tough play allowed by the officials led to Neymar’s ultimate injury via an unnecessary foul, toward the end of a game already decided, by a member of the team FIFA felt fit to award the tournament’s Fair Play trophy.
It was Neymar’s pretty goal that closed out the game’s first half at 1-1, a fair score had it ended at that. Several games were decided via late goals in this cup, none more often than those played by Argentina. Many of the host’s neighbors’ games were decided via a little late Lionel Messi magic when a fairer ending would have been a draw. Neymar’s magic goal in this match was achieved via a trademarked Messi move--by kicking on the run, ahead of the expected timing, and between the defender’s legs as he shielded the goalkeeper’s line of sight.
For the majority of this game’s second half the team’s played each other as evenly as they were matched, until the 71st minute, when Brazilian striker Fred made his major contribution to his team this cup. He did so by fooling Japanese referee Yiuchi Nishimura into awarding a game-clinching “judgment call” penalty.
The idea of having officials from confederations different from those of the teams in the match seems an antiquated rule at this point. It is the refs from those specific confederations who know the players and their proclivities best and who are used to officiating important matches with the game’s premier actors—such as Robben, Fred, di Maria, and Muller—and the game’s top unsportsmanlike “stoppers,” such as Chiellini, Fernandinho, Pepe, Mascherano, de Jong, and Zuniga.
Louis van Gaal vs. the Americas
In a historic run that spanned the last group game through to the semifinals, Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, managed to defeat three of the best playing teams at the cup. The Netherlands beat Chile, sending them to a Group of 16 game against Brazil, and then eliminated Mexico and Costa Rica, before being bested by Argentina on penalties after a 0-0 draw. The Dutch came back in the third place game, against their fifth team from the Americas, Brazil, and beat them 3-0. The sum remainder of Holland’s last five matches—3 wins and 2 draws in regulation, 4 goals in favor, 1 against, four checkmates--encapsulated the state of football today.
In their 2-0 victory over Chile, Holland’s van Gaal played an ultra-defensive line-up, “marked” Chile’s superstar, Alexis Sanchez, mercilessly (six different Dutch players fouled Sanchez in just the first half), berated the inexperienced team of Gambian referee Bakary Gassama in order to keep them from focusing on Holland’s multiple transgressions, and then the coach sacrificed offensive star Wesley Sneijder to a defensive role, until the game was ripe for the Dutch Trojan Horse.
Having kept the potent Chilean offense off their game, and running them ragged with effort against the Dutch defensive wall for two-thirds of the game, van Gaal substituted the 5’7” Sneijder for the 6’2” Leroy Fer and told Fer to play offensively. The towering header Fer converted for the game’s opening score at the 76:24 made the second Dutch goal at game’s end unnecessary.
In another game that will go down in the annals of World Cup lore, more for its hutzpah and good fortune than for any replicable stratagem, van Gaal swapped goalkeepers just before his team’s penalty shootout with Costa Rica, unnerving the Central Americans and bringing in wider wingspan keeper Tim Krul to make the game winning saves.
In the Netherlands’ 2-1 win against Mexico, van Gaal noticed the way his opponent crowded the area around the goal with defenders but left the ridge of the box untended. He substituted for a taller forward, had him head back, away from the goal, on a corner kick, and placed sure footed Sneijder on the spot for the easy score. The second goal, off a very questionable penalty/dive performance by Robben, sealed the match for Holland.
The 0-0 game against Argentina was a calculated game of attrition and a gamble that penalties would go their way, but they did not and the Netherlands were out of cup contention. Their final game, the Netherlands’ emphatic 3-0 win over hapless Brazil, was the product of another simple strategy, look at what the Germans did and figure out how the Dutch could replicate the effort in their own style. It worked.
In short, successful football today has a simple formula. First, have some talent on your team, preferably four (or more) players, one each at defender, midfielder, and striker, and one extra to unbalance that symmetry. Second, play the refs as closely as your opponent. Third, have multiple avenues available to win, from straightforward play to play-acting, from 11-man defending to downright destructive or malicious tackling. Fourth, use a little bench hutzpah now and again to keep the opposition off their game if the prior three tactics don’t suffice. If you are going to go far, though, you will need a fifth ingredient, luck—just ask, well, Chile, Mexico, Holland, Costa Rica and Brazil.
Germany’s generation camps out
The Germans built their own camp from scratch in Brazil, and from its meticulously developed and maintained confines unleashed a potent generation of stars who melded and played as a team, took home the trophy, and may well be in championship contention for cups to come.
This German generation of stars (and their ages) should be committed to memory, the likes of the seldom used Julian Draxler (20), the absent Marco Reus (21), and the starring Mario Gotze (22), Andre Schurrle (23), Thomas Muller (24), Toni Kroos (24) Mats Hummels (25), Jerome Boateng (25) and Mesut Ozil (25), will be around for Euros 2016 and 2020, Russia 2018, and maybe Qatar(?) 2022.
The German football development project was designed to bring their stars to full ripeness in Brazil. It began with an overhaul led by current U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, back in 2000, after a disastrous Euro experience. The simple goal was to invest in better coaching, upgraded facilities, and a philosophical change toward developing technically proficient players rather than the classic Teutonic bruiser-athlete. Mission accomplished—no kidding!
The German’s beat Argentina by having better technical players at every position save one. For South Americans, the globe’s top exponents of technically superior football, this was a humbling experience. But there was more. The German triumph was the classic one every parent, teacher, and coach, wants to underline—team over star. Lionel Messi is the world’s best player, even though he did not perform as such throughout the cup, but Germany was the best team in Brazil, bar none. Hagel Deutschland! See you in 2018.