Has the World Cup been that good?
The 2014 World Cup final will decide not only who are the champions, but also whether this tournament has been any good or not. We have been told over and over again by journalists and TV pundits that it's been wonderful -- the best in living memory, full of drama and thrills and stars and great goals. But those pundits and journalists are all tanned, relaxed and frequently filmed sitting round a table by the sea. There can be no doubt that they have all had a wonderful time. Their hosts have been generous and warm, and by all accounts there has been a party atmosphere in every city. But what about the rest of us, those who can only judge by sitting at home in front of the TV?
There have been great moments and great goals, of course. There always are. But World Cups have to stand and fall on their knockout games, and the business end of this one -- with the exception of one extraordinary, earth-shaking match -- has been average and occasionally deeply depressing.
It's true that only two of the sudden-death games were goalless, and both of them featured the dismal, cynical, life-sapping Dutch. Not only have they hardly crossed the half-way line since their extraordinary 5-1 win over Spain, but they have now failed to score in their last World Cup final, semifinal and quarterfinal -- six hours of football. But in every single match in the round of 16, the favourites beat the underdogs narrowly without ever playing very well. One of those games, Belgium vs. the USA, was probably the best World Cup match of the 21st century; the rest of them were mostly on the dull side.
Three of the quarterfinals were non-events and though the fourth, Brazil vs. Colombia, had moments of excitement, it also was brutal. When James Rodriguez was pictured weeping at the final whistle, you couldn't help but wonder whether the tears were caused by disappointment or by frustration, because he was kicked out of the game.
The refereeing in this World Cup has been robotic: Officials had clearly been given three instructions and they made a great show of obeying all of them. The first was to make sure that all players knew where to place their hands when standing in the wall -- big deal -- and the second was to separate wrestling opponents before a corner was taken, without ever doing anything to stop the grappling when the ball was in play. The third was to keep their cards in their pocket during the first half. That's what did for Rodriguez and, later in the game, for poor Neymar -- a tougher line on fouls from the start would have prevented the ludicrous, dangerous tackle that put him out of the World Cup.
It's an impossible job, of course, because the vast majority of international footballers are terrible cheats. They pull shirts, they leave their foot in, they pretend to be injured when they're not, they pretend they've done nothing when they have hurt someone, they contest every single throw-in, corner, free kick. Until players and coaches take some responsibility, then referees have no chance.
And yet the tournament has thrown up one of the most extraordinary 30 minutes that football fans -- sports fans -- have ever seen. Unlike anything comparable, however -- maybe Bob Beamon's jump in '68, or Cassius Clay beating Sonny Liston -- it wasn't uncomplicated fun. I know a couple of people who couldn't bear to watch, and left the room because they were squirming too much. The Brazil vs. Germany game was much more like a fox hunt -- the part where the fox gets ripped to pieces, not the reportedly jolly chasing part.
And it was Brazil whose flesh was being torn from its body; Brazil, for several generations of football fans, are the reason we watch World Cups in the first place. Even when it turned out that they weren't very good or when they didn't get very far in the tournament, we always hoped that they would show us something or somebody new and amazing. In the 1970s and 1980s, pretty much every Brazilian team was a surprise, not least because the players spent their careers in Brazil, and nobody in Europe or anywhere else outside South America knew much about them. Pele played for Santos, Zico for Flamengo, Eder for Atletico Mineiro. They did things that we had never seen, partly because we had never been given the opportunity to see them. Those days are gone -- all the best Brazilians play in Europe now -- and the names on this Brazilian team sheet were not only familiar but uninteresting. Some of the players we already knew were inept. Inept Brazilians, playing in the World Cup, in Brazil!
As an Arsenal fan, I am used to seeing horrific capitulations. We shipped four goals in the first 20 minutes at Anfield last year, four in the first half at Stamford Bridge, eight at Old Trafford in 2011. But everyone knows why Arsenal get beaten so savagely: the manager plays too many attacking midfielders, never sets his team out tactically so that it can stifle the opposition.
Brazil had one truly creative attacking player and he was injured for the Germany game -- surely the corollary of that is some kind of defensive solidity, the ability to nullify? And if not, then what was the point of any of those players? What happened on Tuesday night was a televised nervous breakdown and the end of a long era that began in the 1950s: Nobody will ever look at Brazilian football in the same way for a long, long time.
Thank heavens, then, for Germany, as nobody has said very often. They have kept the cheating to a minimum, they have tried to score goals in every game and they have played with panache, even though they are apparently doomed to be described, at least in England, as "ruthless" and "efficient" until the end of time. (The Spanish play tiki-taka but the Germans will always be a machine, no matter how many Mesut Ozils and Thomas Mullers and Mario Gotzes they produce.)
International football is actually all about glory. There's money in it for Sepp Blatter and his mates at FIFA but it's not a serious business like European club football; livelihoods and futures don't depend on the result. Why try to grind out a nil-nil draw and win on penalties when the whole world is watching? Why not try to score more goals than the other team? How many Dutch fans, people who remember Cruyff, Van Basten, Gullit and Bergkamp, would have got much pleasure from another final appearance, maybe another goalless draw, maybe even the trophy itself?
Certainly the rest of the world will forget this current team as quickly as possible. If the Germans play as they have done and win the World Cup on Sunday, then the glory will be theirs and this World Cup will have been, as the experts sipping drinks on Copacabana Beach keep telling us, worthwhile.
An English novelist and screenwriter. Nick is best known for his seminal football memoir Fever Pitch, as well as his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy.