Monday, July 21, 2014

Final Thoughts on the World Cup

The World Cup is over and we are stuck waiting four more years to see if Russia can match the excitement Brazil offered, certain the beautiful shoreline scenes will not be seen again for some time. Even with their failure as a national team, all the fears surrounding the host’s ability to serve up great football were quickly put to rest with one of the highest scoring group stages in history and few of the problems many thought might beset this grandest stage of world sport. The best team won, Messi failed to supplant Pele and Maradona at the peak of the pantheon of football and there were plenty of other surprises along the way. Here are my final thoughts:

1. Bavarian Supremacy: Germany finally lived up to their potential and answered their critics, winning the World Cup for the first time since the ugly victory over the same Argentines back in 1990. It was a display of power and timely scoring that brought the crown back to the European superpower, though some luck was involved as well. Argentina had three wonderful chances to go ahead in regular time, with Higuian and Messi’s misses the most memorable and painful for the South Americans. And Algeria had several chances to knock them out early, though their failure to put them away cost them in extra time. But a team full of world class talent, spread across Europe, was able to find that moment of brilliance in the hands of their most diminutive star, Mario Goetze, after gliding past Brazil in one of the most lopsided victories in the history of the knockout stage. This was a team built to win now and they didn’t disappoint, though the future also appears bright with so much young talent likely to still be around in four years. They will miss the all-time leading goal scorer Klose and the leadership of Lamm, but still have a solid foundation with the best goalkeeper in the world, Neuer, an incredible midfield and some of the best forward in the world. Look for them to be the favorites to win the Euros in two years.

2. Messi’s Miss: Lionel Messi had a good tournament; there is little question of that. He was the key player in the Group Stage and set up two goals that got them through to the finals, but when he had the chance to lead his team to victory, the shot went wide and the chance passed. Messi didn’t have a bad final, with several moments of brilliance peppered in among many others where he was anonymous, but failed to finish the job and will now stand as not only the third best player in history, but the second best in his own country. Four years from now he can right that final lacuna in his otherwise otherworldly CV, but it will be even harder as some of his best supporting cast might be shipped off to pasture by then. It was a great tournament for Argentina, and there is no shame in losing to this German team, but one can’t help but realize they had a real chance to pull off a huge upset in the final.

3. U.S. Ship is Rising: The United States seemed to be DOA when they were assigned to the Group of Death. And yet a late goal in the opener against Ghana, an impressive draw against Portugal (that was 30 seconds from being a win) and a disciplined 1-0 loss to Germany all bode well for their future. They then played in arguably the game of the tournament against Belgium and had a chance to steal the game when a chance to score fell to them in the dying seconds of regulation extra time. That miss took the wind out of their sails, however, and two quick goals meant the road back was all but impossible, until a late goal made that possibility seem real. They fell just short but a series of younger players showed their talent and this could be a team that could go further in four years, particularly if they sort out their troubles up front (the loss of Altidore certainly hurt). The biggest question might be around Michael Bradley, who will have to improve his performance on the biggest stage if they are to take the next step.

4. British Blues: The stories out of England after they fell out of the competition after only two games were downright apocalyptic. And yet one can’t help notice the young talent coming through the ranks that challenges the biggest perception of this team – that they lack the tactical nous and technical abilities to compete at the top of the game. But with Sterling, Lallana, Rodriguez, Walcott (who missed the tournament through injury) and Barkley, this could be a team for the future (I don’t include Jack Wilshere, as he appears to have taken several steps backwards since his injuries and I wonder if he will ever live up to his potential now). England should be disappointed in the performance of their stars, including Wayne Rooney and Stevie Gerrard, as well as the defensive lapses that allowed four soft goals in in their first two games, but the future looks a lot brighter to me.

5. A Bridge to Far for Belgians and Brazil: Brazil will look back at this World Cup with both pride (for their role as hosts) and horror (for losing their last two games by a combined score of 10-1). Their victory over Columbia 2-1 was their best game of the tournament, but also the ugliest – resulting in the tournament-ending injury to star Neymar and the suspension of defensive bedrock Thiago Silva. Those two absences meant they were huge underdogs against the German machine, but the level of capitulation left many scratching their heads and wondering where the team from a year ago went (having won the Confederation Cup). The future of Brazilian football is now a big question mark, with Scolari gone and some of their more solid players getting older. The team can rebuild around Neymar, but who else? They lack a quality central striker, mettle in the center of midfield and defensive discipline (with one wondering how in the hell PSG was snookered into paying so much for the mercurial David Luiz). The opposite can be said of Belgium, who performed below the level many predicted but gained the international experience their young star-studded team needs to make the next step in the future. Eden Hazard will have to figure out how to translate his club form to the international arena, as will several others, but it was clear that the loss of Benteke could not be covered over by a less-than-impressive Lukaku. The most surprising thing about this team is the veritable collapse of Fellaini, who now appears to be a shell of the player who excited England with his play for Everton before the horror that became his first season at United. Maybe he can rediscover his form in his next adventure, but for now he appears to be a player running in revers

So a short respite from football is at hand, though the EPL season is less than a month away and we are in the midst of the silly season – of transfers and meaningless preseason friendlies. But congratulations and condolences to Brazil in equal measure! I can’t wait for Russia …

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