Brazil 2014: the gift that kept on giving
Tuesday, 15th July 2014 at 18:20pm
After 31 days of glorious football action, the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil has come to an end and as we look back over a tournament that began on June 12 in Sao Paulo as the hosts came from behind to beat Croatia and ended with Mario Goetze's winning goal at the Maracana in Rio, it is safe to that Brazil 2014 played an absolute blinder.
Having lived through seven World Cups that I remember - I was alive for 1982 and 1986 but remember nothing from the first and very little if any from the second - it was by far and away the best finals that I have watched.
There was so much to be enjoyed - attacking football, colour, enjoyment, enthusiasm, passion, great goals, heroic goalkeeping displays, controversy, upsets and more; Brazil 2014 really was the gift that kept on giving from the start right until the very end.
It's even more remarkable when you consider the run up to the finals was beset problems surrounding the building of venues - as happens so often before a major sporting event, think Greece 2004 and Delhi 2010 - plus the increased number of protests regarding the cost of staging the finals when many Brazilians felt that money could have been spent on improving the lives of the country's people.
Once the first ball had been kicked in Sao Paulo, however, much of that dissipated, much like all the negativity that was projected in the run up to London 2012 did.
Brazil and Neymar getting off to a good start did much to lift the mood and the conspiratorial amongst us would suggest that Fifa picked a referee that would ensure that was the case. Personally, I think much more blame could be attached to the Croatian goalkeeper Pletikosa for a quite frankly abject display.
Whatever the reason, the finals and the hosts were off and running and there was no going back!
That first game gave way to the most incredible group stage and football that seemed to be played at a tempo that simply wasn't expected at Brazil 2014.
Many people predicted that the games would be played at a slower pace due to some of the temperatures around Brazil and early kick off times but they couldn't have been more wrong.
The majority of games were played at breakneck speed but also with levels of technical ability to match and all matches, with one or two exceptions, were an absolute joy to watch. It was as if the teams were seduced by the idea of playing a World Cup in the country that gave us jogo bonito and wanted to try and play football that epitomized 'the beautiful game'.
In just the second day we had the Netherlands decimating the defending champions Spain in an enthralling display of counter attacking football led by the brilliant Arjen Robben, Colombia brought Group C to life with some stunning football as we saw the rise to prominence of James Rodriguez.
France and Switzerland played out a hugely entertaining 5-2 match, Costa Rica shocked Uruguay and Italy, Germany thumped Portugal as Pepe lost his mind again, the USA finally fell in love with the World Cup and turned in some thrilling performances, Lionel Messi lit up Argentina's opening three matches and Algeria became the first African team to score four goals in a single match.
Spain were set packing after just two games by Chile, Tim Cahill scored one of the great World Cup goals, Xherdan Shaquiri scored the first left footed hat trick in World Cup history, Miroslav Klose equaled Ronaldo's goal scoring record and Guillermo Ochoa produced one of the greatest goalkeeping displays in recent memory, singlehandedly keeping out Brazil.
The list of fantastic moments just went on and on.
It was a tournament for great goalkeeping displays. Manuel Neuer underlined why everyone considers him to be the best goalkeeper in the world, Keylor Navas and David Ospina were both outstanding in helping their teams reach the quarter-finals. The aforementioned Ochoa performed heroics as did Vincent Enyeama of Nigeria and Tim Howard of the USA, who made a record 16 saves against Belgium.
There were characters everywhere, most notably the Mexico manager Manuel Herrera who repeatedly got over excited and Louis van Gaal, who underlined his reputation as one of the smartest and most arrogant managers around!
The goal celebrations also seemed to reflect the environment the football was being played in. Colombia's dancing troupe were particularly impressive, while Robin van Persie's high five with van Gaal also stood out as the games seemed to be played by free spirits determined to have fun in the samba nation.
The one celebration that truly stands out for this writer, however, is the one performed by John Brooks after his winning goal against Ghana; his look of utter joy that turned to utter disbelief when it suddenly sank in that he'd scored the winning goal for his country at the World Cup finals - a wonderful moment.
As they did at London 2012, tears flowed on a constant basis - mainly from the Brazilian players, it must be said! I remember listening to a podcast prior to the tournament and one Brazilian football expert said that Brazilians do cry a lot, men and women, and they're not afraid to do so and we certainly saw that as Neymar, Julio Cesar and many others turned on the waterworks during national anthems, after victories and of course those final two humiliating defeats but they certainly weren't alone.
The free flowing football of the group stages gave way to more pragmatic approaches in the knock out rounds but it didn't stop the games being in any way less thrilling.
Brazil's penalty shootout win over Chile was a wonderful game of football, as was the van Gaal-inspired Dutch come-from-behind win against a desperately unfortunate Mexico. Rodriguez stole the show in the all South American clash between Colombia and Uruguay, scoring an astonishing individual goal and applying the finishing touch to a brilliant team move.
Nigeria and Algeria pushed France and Germany in their respective round of 16 matches, while the Belgium vs USA game was an absolute classic that I think I could watch again and again and again.
More drama in the last eight as Brazil overcame Rodriguez and Colombia but lost Neymar and Thiago Silva in the process, Germany edged past France, Argentina snuck past Belgium, while the Netherlands required penalties to finally extinguish Costa Rica's World Cup dreams. Even that was more dramatic than usual as van Gaal brought on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen, who then saved two Los Ticos spot kicks.
Then came the game that sent shockwaves around the world - Brazil 1 Germany 7. The hosts inexplicably making a martyr out of the injured Neymar before Germany tore the Selecao to shreds in front of a disbelieving audience and reducing David Luiz - one of Brazil's heroes up to that point - to tears and surely causing PSG to shed a tear wondering why they'd made him the world's most expensive defender!
The final itself was an enthralling encounter - the German machine against Messi the magician and, of course, the team won out against the individual with the winning goal coming once again from a substitute.
It was in many ways the World Cup of the substitute, with many a game changing moment coming from a sub. Andrea Schuerrle epitomized the role of the substitute the best, making a number of notable appearances from the bench but there were other examples such as Romelu Lukaku against the USA and Klaas Jan Huntelaar who scored the winning penalty against Mexico in the round of 16.
Brazil 2014 gave us some jaw dropping goals: Rodriguez's chest, turn and volley against Uruguay, Cahill's volley against the Netherlands, van Persie's incredible header against Spain, Messi's goal against Bosnia, Luiz's mind boggling free kick against Colombia, Jermaine Jones' equalizer against Portugal - so many glorious moments.
The first game aside, the standard of refereeing was also high. Many complained about a lack of yellow cards in the latter stages but personally I found this a refreshing change. It is all too easy to get booked in modern football and referees being asked to be less trigger happy when issuing cautions was a real plus.
The use of goalline technology - provided you're name's not Jonathan Pearce or Richard "I told you this technology wasn't 100%, oh I've got us another angle" Keys - worked perfectly and the introduction of the vanishing spray is now surely a must at all levels of the professional game. One small squirt of a can, they eradicated players encroaching at free kicks - well done!
And finally, the fans; they were magnificent. They travelled from far and wide, and in huge numbers to make this carnival of football even more special.
Neil Atkinson, the presenter of the excellent The Anfield Wrap, commented before the finals that all World Cups should be played in Latin America and after witnessing - sadly from afar - the good-natured fun, passion, colour and joy that was had in Brazil, I must say I agree with him if only because it would mean I wouldn't have missed out on the chance to enjoy a finals in Brazil at some stage in my life - huge error on my behalf.
There were negative moments to these finals - namely Luis Suarez and the ridiculous excuses given by him and seemingly the whole of Uruguay in defence of his actions, the occasional bouts of fan violence that seemingly went unreported and the performance of Roy Hodgson's England, who utterly stank the place out. They were, however, few and far between.
This was a World Cup for the football fan as not a single day went by when you didn't marvel at the TV and declare, "This is incredible; this is wonderful! This is the best World Cup I've ever seen!"
Fifa do a lot of things wrong, and the way they conduct themselves and bully people is nothing short of a disgrace, but they made an excellent call when awarding Brazil the right to host the 2014 and were rewarded with a simply magical tournament.
But let's not end by giving Fifa any credit. Brazil 2014 wasn't a rip roaring success thanks to Sepp Blatter, Jerome Valcke and the rest of the Fifa cronies, it was a success because of the players, the coaches, attacking football, great goalkeepers, and wonderful, colourful and passionate fans from all corners of the globe.
Brazil 2014 really was the gift that kept on giving and for that I simply say, "thank you".