The World Cup is over, Germany emerged victorious, and alas! we face four agonizing years until the next edition, which’ll be in Russia, which by then will hopefully be under the supervision of a kinder, gentler autocrat.
The final was an good game, though not high-scoring as I’d hoped. Germany controlled most of the action, as expected. Some feared that Argentina would play a negative game, sit back, generate little offense, but they got some good chances to score in regulation. The stat sheet shows ten total shots, same as Germany, though ze Germans got more on frame. Despite the same final score, this game was much better than the last time these two met in the final. God, that game was hideous. I’ll come back to it shortly.
I saw a few thingies on the internet billing the final as “Messi vs. Germany”. As much as I celebrate Messi’s talent, this Argentina team was not a bunch of slouches plus a superstar. This was a good collection of players– not 1986 good, but certainly better than 1990– that probably needed better coaching earlier in the tournament. Messi had an average game; he crossed a few from close in that just missed the target, or slipped just past the post. A commentator called his final free kick, which sailed over the bar, “selfish”. That wasn’t a fair comment at all. If Messi can score from there, if he has scored from there, and if he’d scored directly from a free kick earlier in this tournament, then I don’t get how “having one of the best free kick takers and shooters on Earth shoot the ball” is a selfish decision. He didn’t score. That’s all.
I’d have to think a while longer about whether this was the best World Cup I’ve seen. The first round was easily the best first round I can remember, despite Italy’s humiliating exit. There were more goals than we’ve seen in ages, the US advanced (and would have clinched it after two games if not for Ronaldo), we finally saw the goal-line tech in action, and we saw the 10-yard spray in action. Love that stuff. No more WWE-style scooching closer to the ball when the ref has his back turned. I was pleased with FIFA’s willingness to tinker, though they could certainly do more. And some more after that.
The knockout stage was good; the four best teams made it to the semifinals, and yes, I include Brazil in that, because “making it to the semis” is different from “actually playing in the semis”. The Brazil that won its group and won its first two knockout games was one of the best teams in the tournament– that is, as long as Neymar was on the field. Without him, the team just plain quit. It is apparent that Neymar’s greatest impact was psychological. It shouldn’t have been, because Brazil always has talent, and should never think they have to rely so heavily on just one player. Their collapse reflects poorly on the players, but lies squarely on the coach, and it’s good that Scolari and his entire staff resigned.
I don’t know if this year’s knockout stage was my favorite. I’d probably have to go with 1990. West Germany, Italy, and England were chock-full of stars, and though I was rooting for Italy, I could live with either ze Germans or the Last Good English Team winning. But what heightened the drama was Argentina’s run to the final that year. Maradona was an out-and-out villain, and Argentina played very negatively, but it worked. They finished third in their group and barely advanced (Maradona used the “Hand of God” to stop the Soviets from scoring), they squeezed past Brazil in the second round (there’s reason to believe that Argentinian trainers put tranquilizers in Brazil’s water bottles– I’m not making that up), and they beat Yugoslavia and Italy on penalties. It was ugly to watch, and it was disturbing to see such blatant, vicious, cheating bus-parkers get closer and closer to the final. And in the final, it looked like it could happen again: despite missing four suspended starters, being outshot 15-1, and getting the first red card in a World Cup final ever, Maradona and his partners-in-crime were just a few minutes away from getting to extra time when the ref gave West Germany a PK. Ze Germans scored, and won 1-0. The PK was a bit of a gift, but at least it saved us all from the horror and travesty of watching Maradona lift the World Cup again.
…I’m still bitter about Italy losing that semi.
Anyhow, back to the present: pretty darn good World Cup. Congratulations to ze Germans for winning the title and for being deserving champions; congratulations to the Argentinians for a valiant and proud effort. Hopefully FIFA will keep tinkering and improving the game, hopefully the US will return to the knockout stage and go even further, hopefully Italy will get its act together. And hopefully this Cup will get more American fans to keep watching– Champions League, Premiership, MLS, whatever– and will get more American kids interested in playing.