/ 17 July 2014

God is still Brazilian

The Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro
The Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro

For 90 minutes and seven goals, in the semifinals in Belo Horizonte, God abandoned Brazil. But last Sunday, at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, the Almighty supported the World Cup hosts again. At least, the final result in favour of Germany suggested so. Argentina, Brazil’s archrival, was not spared.

In truth, though, the Germans didn’t need divine intervention in the final against Argentina.

Die Nationalmannschaft were compromised by the late withdrawal of Sami Khedira and the Germans dominated play, although not emphatically. Jérôme Boateng and Bastian Schweinsteiger shone for Germany, but Argentina, sitting deep in a 4-1-4-1 formation, stifled their opponents.

In spite of Germany’s obsessive ball possession, Argentina got the best chances, but Gonzalo Higuaín, incomprehensibly, Lionel Messi, uncharacteristically, and Rodrigo Palacio, desperately, all missed one-on-one situations with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Messi vomited during the game, possibly a sign that Alejandro Sabella had coaxed his team to the limit.

His German counterpart, Joachim Löw, had secretly remained confident of his team’s predisposition to win football’s ultimate prize. “Show the world that you are better than Messi,” Löw told Mario Götze when he was about to replace Miroslav Klose at the end of the second half. “You will decide the tournament. You have the quality.”

After 113 minutes, Götze fulfilled Löw’s prophecy. André Schürrle, another substitute, left three players in his trail on the left. He delivered a floating cross that Götze chested down before lashing a first-time volley, with unmatched éclat, past a flapping Sergio Romero. Götze gazed in disbelief and Germany would add a fourth star to their crest.

Flashes of genius
This game had neither been the cynical and ugly 1990 World Cup apotheoses nor the extremely cautious and tactical final at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium four years ago. Both teams – Germany in its 4-3-3 formation – played in their expected pattern. Germany pressed forward and Argentina relied on flashes of genius by Messi. Although tense and relatively captivating, this final, unlike the rest of the 2014 World Cup, did not hold as much drama.

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff and Fifa president Sepp Blatter were booed at the opening game but the media’s repeated prophecies of doom never materialised. Brazil was neither a criminal’s paradise nor a playhouse for violent mass protests, airport chaos and rabid dogs. Marcelo’s own-goal in the 11th minute set in motion a goal-filled roller coaster ride in the group stages, blurred by emotions and high-quality football.

Robin van Persie’s flying header past Iker Casillas was arguably the first round’s moment. The Spanish armada of tiki-taka football crumbled instantly. The reigning world champions went home, as did European powerhouses Italy, England and Portugal. They were not missed.

Jorge Sampaoli and Chile crafted a refreshing brand of modern football that combined tactical discipline with work rate and forward-thinking. Messi carried Argentina through the group stages with four goals. France and Karim Benzema crushed Switzerland in a breezy 5-2 game. Costa Rica merited its victories against Uruguay and Italy.

There was ugliness too. Colombian referee Wilmar Roldán and his assistants highlighted the often incompetent officiating at this World Cup by disallowing two valid Mexican goals against Cameroon. Ghana’s players prioritised money and the bonus dispute ended with John Boye kissing a wad of bills in his hotel. And Luis Suárez’s pathology made headlines.

This World Cup had a particular sensual Latin American flavour, not least because of the vociferous fans in the stands. In the second round, James Rodríguez, Colombia’s young star, demonstrated why he was the best player of the tournament with a stunning volley past Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.

Algeria frightened Germany and Costa Rica, and Greece went to penalties, Tim Howard stood in Belgium’s way, Chile paralysed Brazil, Switzerland’s Gökhan Inler and Valon Behrami neutralised Messi and Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama pushed France hard, but ultimately, the round of 16 – full of drama and close calls – yielded justified winners.

By now, goals had become a rarity. The safety-first approach didn’t change in the quarterfinals. A revitalised Germany, with Philipp Lahm back at right-back, edged out a tame France, thanks to Mats Hummels’s thumping header. Higuaín scored an early goal and so Argentina sat back deep.

Belgium never lived up to their billing as dark horses. Louis van Gaal’s masterstroke, bringing on his “shot stopper” Tim Krul, inflicted the cruellest of endings on Costa Rica in the shoot-out. In a cynical slugfest, often resembling a manhunt, Brazil defeated Colombia 2-1. Juan Zúñiga broke one of Neymar’s vertebra and, with it, Brazil’s dreams.

In the semifinals, the Netherlands and Argentina played an uneventful 120 minutes of cautious football. Both teams tried to nullify each other, with Javier Macherano a protagonist for Argentina. Arjen Robben’s speculative long-range drive was the Netherlands’ only shot on target. Romero ensured Argentina’s passage to the final, saving Ron Vlaar’s and Wesley Sneijder’s penalties.

The other semifinal was one of superlatives, but not in a positive sense for the hosts. The Germans showcased the best of modern football: plenty of ball possession, swift transitions, quick-fire passing, superb movement and lethal counterattacking. On July 8 at the Mineirão, Die Nationalmannschaft revealed its own superb version of the game. It made Brazilian football outdated, outmoded and irrelevant.

Germany were not to repeat its glorious football against Argentina, who with a limited squad showed Brazil how to handle a better opponent. Ultimately, the best team was crowned world champion, a fair accolade after Löw’s decade-long renovation of German football.

Götze (23) and Schürlle (22), who combined for Germany’s winning goal, are exponents of that. Youthful and dynamic, they will be the ones to beat come Russia 2018.