Well that was fun, wasn’t it? Previous World Cups have kind of come and gone from my consciousness: I was 8 for Italia ’90 and have very little recollection of it at all; I remember snatches from USA ’94, largely a grudging admiration for Taffarel; France ’98, a blur of blue and enormous jealousy that my sister was in Paris on a French exchange for the final; Japan and South Korea ’02, drunkenly going to first year university exams having watched games that started at 7, and manically cheering Senegal as my sweepstake team, especially after that win; and Germany ’10, revelling in that Spanish team. But, having started to write about football and, more importantly in many ways, become part of a community who talk and think about football, this is the first World Cup where I’ve really inhaled it, really been carried by the highs and lows of such a glorious celebration of football. So I thought I’d do a quick look-back.
A good place to start would be the piece I did in The Football Pink: Issue 4 – The World Cup Edition, which was a group-by-group preview. And boy did I get some things wrong.
Here were my picks for progression and possible stars:
Group A – Brazil and Croatia; Mateo Kovačić
Group B – Spain and Chile; Eduardo Vargas
Group C – Colombia and Japan; Luis Muriel
Group D – Italy and Uruguay; Mattia Destro
Group E – France and Switzerland; Xherdan Shaqiri
Group F – Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina; Miralem Pjanić
Group G – Germany and Portugal; William Carvalho
Group H – Belgium and Russia; Sofiane Feghouli
From Groups A, B, C, D, F, G, and H, I got one of two right. Arguably, the conservatism of my choices reflected the fact that from all of those groups, save perhaps C, F, and H, the other teams to emerge were surprise packages: Mexico had a woeful qualifying campaign and seemed riven with internal strife, united only by the utter brilliance of Herrera; Holland destroyed Spain in the second most surprising result of the competition and played far better than many thought possible; the USA made it out of a tough group with superb collective effort and canny management. Greece, dour and taciturn as ever, surprised everyone with their success, if not the means by which they achieved it. Costa Rica were the stand-out overachievers in terms of their limited resources, but a monumental defensive effort, superb pressing game, and tactical nous saw them through in the face of anyone’s expectations. I should perhaps have given Nigeria greater credit, especially with Enyeama in goal, but I didn’t think they were the best African team and felt that Bosnia’s individual creativity would push them through. Algeria were another joyful surprise, tough but enterprising, maximising individual talent against a solid team tactical approach.
In terms of individuals, one is always taking a chance, but the emergence of young players came in other areas than the ones I had anticipated. Kovačić, like Croatia, flattered to deceive. Given limited playing time, Croatia’s lack of fluidity and creativity could have been altered by an increased Kovačić presence. Destro was named in the initial 30 man squad by Prandelli, but then dropped. Muriel played in qualifying but did not make the final cut. However, Vargas was excellent, scoring against Spain and playing well otherwise. Feghouli was superb in a surprisingly successful Algeria side. Pjanić played well but Bosnia were ultimately unsuccessful. Carvalho looked fantastic in his cameo against the USA and then played well against Ghana. Shaqiri excelled, especially with his hat-trick against Honduras and man-of-the-match performances in that game and against Ecuador.
This, then, was a World Cup of glorious surprises. The performances of some unheralded teams and players, the drama of certain games, the staying-up-late-on-a-school-night joy of the post-midnight matches, all made this a wonderful competition. Was it the best ever? An unanswerable question, in my opinion, as it suggests an objective measure for what is surely a subjective experience. For me, though, the answer is yes, not solely for the games, the goals, the goalkeeping, but because it was the first World Cup I enjoyed as part of a football community. Going with a couple of other football writers to watch a Colombia game in Seven Sisters or a Belgium match on the Charing Cross Road, having a group of people to discuss things with on Twitter about matches who knew what they were talking about, doing World Cup special Illustrated Game pods, and just revelling in the excitement, the humour, the sheer fuck-me-ness of it all, elevated this World Cup to top spot for me. So, to finish up, a few highlights:
My team of the tournament (4-3-2-1): Neuer; Zabaleta, Yepes, Vlaar, Lahm; Mascherano, Matuidi, Cuadrado; Kroos, Rodríguez; Müller.
Honorable mentions: Navas, Garay, Yedlin, Medel, Aranguiz, Messi, Sánchez.
Goal of the tournament: Tim Cahill’s effort against Holland, because he isn’t a Messi or a Neymar and because of who it was against. Runner-up has to be Rodríguez’s turn and volley.
Player of the tournament: Manuel Neuer, because in a tournament of excessively sublime goalkeeping (and a few examples of woeful ineptitude as well), Neuer set the tone for sheer excellence. Tactics are built from the back forwards, and Neuer’s ability allowed Germany’s whole system to work. His distribution was absurdly good, and he made crucial saves when needed.
Team of the tournament: Two teams stand out here, Australia and Colombia. Australia played well above their level and showed commitment, tactical acumen, and provided stern tests to everyone they played. Despite not winning a game, they can be hugely proud of their World Cup. Colombia stole my heart. I would give honourable mentions to Algeria, the USA, and Chile.
Personal highlight: Too many to mention, though try Howard versus Belgium, Holland versus Spain, Germany eviscerating Brazil, watching Colombia in a Colombian bar, developing a man-crush on Daley Blind, and Gary Medel. Just Gary Medel.