No one can say the Germans did not deserve to win the 2014 World Cup: they remained unbeaten throughout, destroyed the hosts along the way, and then saw off those other historic guardians of South American football, Argentina, in an engaging final strewn with missed chances. They also spared us penalty kicks en route to becoming the first Europeans to triumph in South America. The best team won in a hyped tournament in which none was outstanding.
Let’s not forget the all-important third place play-off. While Louis van Gaal griped that it was a “meaningless” match that shouldn’t be played, just a little research would have told poor Louis that the joyous Turks (in 2002) and the proud Croatians (in 1998) took a radically different view. Because actually, achieving third place in the world is no mean feat, even for these haughty Dutch losers. And you’d imagine that Brazil had nothing at all to play for, what with its global football reputation so suddenly in tatters. By recent results, losing 3-0 to the Dutch was no mean effort by the hosts.
So, who were the other winners and losers at the 2014 World Cup finals? (We can largely leave England aside here, perennial failures: no change there). The Spaniards and Italians suffered surprisingly badly and left early and embarrassed. Did they turn up at all? And I guess all of us are losers, ultimately, because of the diminished and disgraced Brazil, wrapped for solace this week in those once saintly and all-conquering golden shirts. To the delight of some, the hosts have been shown to have footballing feet of clay. In fact, to be just like the rest of us.
The roots of this slump is, of course, the relentless drip, drip draining Europeanisation of the major South American football powers, a process defined by the way dead-hand coaching and systems increasingly trumps talent. Teenage Brazilian starlets are now hoovered up – and often spat out – by Europe’s elite clubs. The world game looks and feels increasingly homogenised, and is often replica dull as a result. Brazil tried to play like they imagined South Americans should, but seemed instead like hollowed-out pretenders as they were pounded by the Germans.
Other World Cup losers have arguably been us, the “ordinary” fans. At home we have endured weeks of pundit babble and TV stadium shots of mass fancy dress, ubiquitous Mexican waves, beautifully coiffured and toothsome young women, and manicured, often tearful, children. Belgium fan Axelle Despiegelaere even briefly landed a L'Oreal campaign job after her Brazil photo-op went viral. For these part-timers with so many air-miles to cover, seeing oneself flicker on the magic stadium screen apparently cures all football ills.
All this, and the sight of the largely black Ecuador team watched by groups of exclusively white, well-healed fellow nationals – there were plenty of other examples in Brazil – are eloquent statements enough of current trends. We all know that an essential disconnection now exists between the global festival that is the FIFA World Cup finals and a sport we used to call, apparently without irony, “the people’s game”.
Undaunted by these contradictions, this weekend tens of thousands of Argentinians hiked, ticketless, to Rio for Sunday’s final. They wanted simply to breathe the air of their national heroes and to be present in Brazil just in case the best of all things happened – a world title won on humiliated enemy soil. Their tears had some value even if they were locked outside by the legions of the unattached, the corporates and the global sports tourists of the Maracana who no doubt enjoyed Sunday’s spectacle as it unfolded. Praise where praise is due: some of these hangers-on even managed to get back into their seats on time for the start of the second half.
But not all is so gloomy. Elsewhere, there have been welcome signs of new football life in these past few weeks: the other World Cup winners of 2014. The Mexicans, Colombians and even the Australians delighted; the Ghanaians and the Algerians frightened the life out of the ultimately victorious Germans; and even the ruined Greeks surprised. And what about that gallant US side, showing loads of spirit and buckets of skill.
In fact, the USA may well be the ultimate winners of 2014. The thriving US game may yet be needed to bail FIFA out of its Qatar 2022 nightmare. The Yanks as hosts and potential world soccer challengers in eight years’ time? What, with all those willing sponsors, new markets and TV money? You really think so? Remember, you (almost) heard it here first.