Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Fourteen
There are some times when you just have to accept you were wrong. In the last issue I predicted a drab and frustrating World Cup. It wasn’t. It was an extremely good World Cup. It was easily better – more fun and higher quality – than the three that had preceded it and challenged 1998 as the best 32-team World Cup.
Some hailed it as the best World Cup ever, which seemed excessive, although such things are extremely difficult to quantify. Personally, I’d rank 1982 and 1986 higher, but I’m aware that’s at least in part because they were my first World Cups, tournaments of exoticism and wonder – football every day of the week, for weeks! – that were key to establishing the sport at the centre of my consciousness. More rationally, I’d argue that there was more drama in the later stages then: Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick and the elimination of Brazil, Toni Schumacher and France’s defeat to West Germany in Seville in 1982; Diego Maradona’s hand-ball and wonder-goal against England and Carlos’s cynical foul on Bruno Bellone in France’s victory over Brazil in 1986. But then you think of Neymar’s injury in Brazil’s controversial victory over Colombia in the quarter-final this time and Brazil’s subsequent capitulation against Germany in the semi-final and you realise that those are memories that will endure.
And that, actually, is part of what World Cups are about. At least as much as the quality of the football, what matters are the storylines. That’s one of the reasons Italia 90 retains such a grip on the imagination despite producing football of such crushing negativity that it forced Fifa to change the rules. There was Cameroon’s run to the quarter-finals, Italy’s operatic failure in the semi-finals, Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina scrapping their way through against all reason, a very good West Germany side and Yugoslavia’s final fling, as well as the English and Irish progress to the last four and last eight respectively.
This World Cup probably produced just as many stories: Brazil’s collapse, the Luis Suárez bite, the evisceration of Spain, Costa Rica’s progress, Neymar’s injury, the performances of Chile and Colombia, Lionel Messi’s weariness, this great German generation finally winning. And there were numerous games that verged on greatness: Brazil v Chile, USA v Belgium, Algeria v Germany, Germany v Ghana, Australia v the Netherlands. Being picky, perhaps you’d argue that none came after the last 16 and that, perhaps, was the tournament’s problem: after the last 16 there was a sense of lull. But at least it had great games – and games that were memorable for reasons other than coming late in the tournament. Were there any four years ago? I suppose you could make a case for Uruguay v Ghana in the quarter-final, largely because of the way it ended.
Then came one of the two games from the tournament that will live forever in the history of football: the 7-1. Both Germany’s semi-final win and Spain’s 5-1 defeat to the Dutch became too one-sided really to be considered great games – in both matches it became clear long before the end who was going to win, yet they retained an almost morbid fascination in seeing just how bad it was going to get; they were great performances, great results rather than great games. During both, there was a sense that this was a game historians of the future would be writing about, that there’s a chance that in 30 or 40 years I’d be getting a call from a TV producer asking me to film a short interview detailing my memories of what it was like in the stadium in Belo Horizonte. And, as a journalist, you can’t really ask for more than to be a witness of history.
So why was this tournament so much better than the three that had gone before? It’s a genuinely difficult question to answer. Much of what had undermined those previous three tournaments remains true. There is still an overwhelming focus on the club game. Players are still weary after the European season. International coaches still have minimal time to work with their squads.
What was different? The ball clearly made a difference: nobody complained about the Brazuka, and that in turn meant, not only that goalkeepers weren’t worried about it dipping or swerving suddenly, as the Jabulani had, but that outfielders were confident with it. Jonathan Liew convincingly argued in The Telegraph that there were fewer weak teams in Brazil than there had been in South Africa and that greater equality leads to better football as neither side is tempted simply to pack 10 men behind the ball. The trend for pressing football in the club game over the past six or seven years, in fact, meant that a number of teams, at least in the group stages, committed men high up the pitch without the organisation they would have at club level. The result was space behind defences that was exploitable, which in part explains why there were so many goals early on.
But beyond that, it’s perhaps simply the case that tournaments develop a mood that becomes self-perpetuating. Attacking football bred attacking football. Lesser teams felt empowered to attack their supposed betters and, for a while, a collective frenzy settled on Brazil.
The one negative from a tactical point of view, systematic fouling aside, was what SoFoot magazine termed the NBA-ification of football. For a while, this was a World Cup of the individual. A number of teams seemed to insist on one star player: Neymar for Brazil, James Rodríguez for Colombia, Lionel Messi for Argentina, Arjen Robben for the Netherlands… That may be good for marketing purposes but it’s not healthy, particularly when a team becomes tactically and emotionally reliant on one player to the extent that Brazil did.
The comparison with the NBA, of course, ties in with Fifa’s bizarre directives involving kits, asking teams to play as far as possible in one solid block of colour, either pale or dark. That meant such aberrations as Argentina, England, Colombia and Germany wearing white shorts, while Italy wore blue shorts, Portugal deep red and the Netherlands orange. Fifa has seemingly offered two explanations: that it’s for maximum contrast on HD televisions and that it’s to make the lives of officials easier. Neither, really, stand up to scrutiny: if grainy black and white televisions could handle traditional kits, surely HD televisions shouldn’t have a problem? And, equally, referees have coped for years with traditional kits – and seem not to have a problem in the Champions League with, say, red-and-white stripes against deep red-and-blue stripes as in last season’s quarter-final between Atlético and Barcelona – so why should modern referees at international tournaments be any different? It’s all very strange and apparently pointless.
Or perhaps that’s just a grumpy old man talking, wanting things to go back to how they were when he was five and just realising how compelling football could be. Give me sweaty demi-mullets, captions in Spanish and a brilliant but doomed Brazil, rather than gelled tufts, homogenised captions in English and a mediocre but doomed Brazil.
It wasn’t Spain 82, but it was far, far better than feared. In fact, it’s a mark of how good the World Cup was that the return of the Champions League and domestic football seems to have come with a slight sense of anti-climax. It’s over-corporate and over-long, but this was a tournament that redeemed the World Cup.