World Cups past
My first experience of World Cup football was the USA World Cup in 1994. I remember being mesmerised by Gheorghe Hadji, but as I was only nine at the time I was much more interested in getting a pair of his Lotto boots for Christmas than in-depth game analysis.
The ones that followed didn’t really live up to the expectations played out with your mates down the park. France ’98 was a decent competition: Owen scored that worldy against the Argies, Croatia spanked Germany 3-0, and then Zidane and Petite led the French to victory.
But 2002 wasn’t great. Ronaldo sported that dodgy haircut, Italy had four goals disallowed, and Brazil, predictably, dominated the entire competition.
2006 was an improvement at least. There were a few cracking goals (remember Philip Lahm’s opening goal against Costa Rica?) but they were few and far between, much to Blatter’s disappointment: “The football isn’t that bad,” he said, “but there aren’t enough goals – and when there are too few goals, the public isn’t very enthusiastic.”
Then there was South Africa in 2010. I don’t think there was a single memorable game. Most teams under-performed, the vuvuzelas droned incessantly, and the only interesting thing about the final was that psychic octopus predicting the winner.
This year, however, I’ve really enjoyed watching as many games as possible. I’m gutted I didn’t catch Brazil versus Chile first hand, as the Chileans’ work ethic has epitomised everything that’s been great about the tournament this time around. Despite the heat, the never-say-die counter-attacks of Chile, Algeria, Costa Rica and the USA have contributed to a whole host of gripping games. As a result, large footballing nations have struggled to brush aside opponents that would usually be considered much weaker. The game between Holland and Costa Rica was a perfect example of this: it took a goalkeeping substitution and more than a little gamesmanship from Tim Krul to finally see of Los Ticos.
While it’s been a competition of stars with players like Robben, Rodriguez, Messi and Neymar (yep, you heard me right!) no one team has outshone the others yet, and this makes for an interesting round of semis. Brazil will miss Silva and Neymar a lot, but the Germans play such a high line that the disruptive play of the hosts and their ability to break at pace give Brazil a decent chance of progressing to the final. In the other semifinal, Argentina are still to hit top gear, while the Dutch haven’t played to the best of their abilities since they murdered Spain in the first game. I genuinely get a feeling, that the semi’s will see one of these teams completely click. Should be very exciting.
So far this World Cup has provided the perfect spectacle as we’ve seen attack outstripping defence, so there’s been a bit more action than usual. Underdogs like Costa Rica, Algeria and the USA have come to Brazil with the kind of fighter’s mentality that England should have had, and as a result they’ve played much better football and lasted longer in the tournament than we did. They’ve fought for every ball, worked as a unit, and while the USA squad might have lacked talent as individuals, what they did as a team was fantastic. They almost achieved the unthinkable, and that’s the story we should take from this World Cup: a little belief can go a long way. A team that plays to win is guaranteed to achieve more than one that’s struck by self-doubt and indecision.
With 159 goals already, the 2014 World Cup is threatening to take the record from France 98 for the total number of goals scored (171). This increase in goals has come together with a change in tactics. As Spain’s early exit has proved, the days of the false nine are over, and the sweeper is a thing of the past (unless you’re talking to Neuer). Many teams are playing with two or even three strikers, as Argentina did against Switzerland a couple of days ago with Messi, Higuain and Lavezzi, so we’re getting faster-paced games with more shots at goal than we’re used to seeing. I think Gerard Houllier summed up the tournament perfectly when he said, “this is my ninth World Cup and the best one in terms of quality football and entertainment. Some games are like basketball, end to end, like Germany and Ghana, and the USA versus Belgium. I was struck by coaches saying, ‘because we’re here, let’s have a go, whatever happens.’ It’s a shame England didn’t have the same mentality this time, we’re in need of some serious shake ups if we’re to even consider progressing out of the Euro’s in 2016.
The quality of the goals scored this time around is also setting a new benchmark. Here are my picks so far.
Messi broke Iran’s hearts with this sublime curling shot:
Rodriguez’s stunning strike against Uruguay had technique and class written all over it:
Van Persie’s header in the group stages is worth watching over and over again:
But the pick of the bunch is Cahill’s strike against the Netherlands. He didn’t try to smash it, just trusted his technique and got the correct positioning:
I reckon we’ll see a few more great goals in the final four games and hopefully the style and standard of this year’s tournament can roll over into France in 2016 and Russia in 2018. Lets just hope that England get a little bit better!