The 2014 World Cup which I was fortunate to attend for 17 days will be remembered for a variety of reasons – on the positive side for the sheer quality of much of the football, some truly outstanding goals and a number of enthralling games particularly in the early stages.
On the negative side concerns and protests regarding whether Brazil could afford and be ready to host the World’s second biggest sports tournament were reinforced by a heavy police and army presence at all games. And for a while it seemed that the bizarre action of the world’s most gifted natural striker Luis Suarez when taking a bite of the Italian defender Giorgio Chielini, would be the defining memory of the 2014 World Cup.
But without a doubt the 2014 tournament will now be associated with one game – and not the eventual triumph of Germany over Argentina in the final game. Even though the writer had money on Germany to beat Brazil based on my observations of the earlier games the result Brazil 1 Germany 7 still looks surreal, certainly unlike any other in the tournament’s history and one which in 90 minutes probably answered the question – was this a World Cup too far for Brazil?
As far as my presence was concerned it had all started two years ago when my friend Jeff and his family were visiting the UK from Perth Australia. Jeff worked for Casterbridge Tours in our early years 1980 and 1981 and again in 1985 when he and I, Mark and Tony combined to undertake a two car three month Sales tour in the USA and Canada.
Jeff, Tony and I took the opportunity to get together in the UK about 14 months after Tony and I had sold Casterbridge Tours and Jeff suggested
‘We should go to Brazil for the World Cup’
a proposal that I enthusiastically endorsed without having any idea of the time involved in trying to co-ordinate the travel plans and footballing aspirations of four individuals on three continents let alone the complexities of the FIFA ticketing allocation procedures. First we had tickets, then FIFA cancelled them as my Debit Card expired between allocation and payment and then the English FA intervened and gave us 24 hours to decide which games we wanted!
Somehow it all came together in the end and in mid June I flew into Sao Paulo to join up with Tony who had arrived a day earlier, Jeff who had arrived a week earlier and David, a fellow Tour Operator who had joined in our plans and ticket application and who was combining the World Cup with his annual four year reunion with three school friends.
Jeff had already been fortunate enough to attend the Holland 5 Spain 1 game which had set the tempo for the tournament. As well as showing that the magnificent Spanish team nigh on unbeatable for 6 years until last summer’s Confederation’s Cup were collectively now well past their sell by date the game was a wonderful spectacle of attacking football and featured one of the greatest goals in World Cup history when Van Persie equalised for the Dutch with an exquisitely timed looping header.
No one would suggest that South America’s largest city Sao Paulo would make anyone’s list of the continent’s most interesting destinations and on top of this it was grey, cold and wet – just like England! The bronchial infection I had picked up in an 8 day visit to the UK flared up and stayed with me for the remainder of my 17 days in Brazil but looking at the positives my overpriced but centrally located hotel did include a bed as well as four walls!
But no worries, after all we were there for the football and the next day made our way with surprising ease by suburban train to the newly built Arena de Sao Paulo, scene of the tournament’s opening game between Brazil and Croatia. I was unsure if England were playing in Red (Tony had bought us all Red England shirts) or White (I had bought a White England shirt together with Italian, Argentinian and Australian shirts from a street vendor in Germany 8 years ago – no nationalist me!) so I compromised by wearing a Green Yeovil Shirt and upon entering the stadium was immediately asked if I was the guy who had written ‘the book on Yeovil’. It’s a small world indeed!
The Stadium was impressive in scale but I heard many comments that it was surprising that a stadium used for a World Cup opening Ceremony and semi-final was uncovered at both ends and with temporary seating at the end where we were sat.
We were sat high up behind a goal towards the front of a large presence of England fans with a mix of Brazilian and Uruguayan fans in front of us in a game that was very much a must win for both teams. England having played well but losing narrowly to Italy in Manaus and Uruguay without Suarez had previously lost surprisingly to Costa Rica.
I had always hoped to go to the England Italy game in Manaus if for nothing else because of the sheer incongruity of watching a game between two European footballing superpowers (?) play each other in the middle of the Amazonian jungle! However a combination of the ticketing screw up with FIFA and the fact that I had tickets for the Nadal – Djokovic French Open Men’s tennis final at Roland Garos made me decide that it certainly be a game too far so I passed on the option.
Sadly, as it happened, the Manaus game turned out in retrospect to be the highpoint of England’s miserable World cup experience and the England vs Uruguay game was a thoroughly dispiriting experience.
On the footballing front Suarez returning from injury to haunt England, where playing for Liverpool he has courted controversy on an almost ongoing basis, was always a story waiting to be written and so it proved as two opportunistic goals from Suarez all but eliminated a toothless England from the tournament.
I must admit I expected England to get out of their group and suspected Suarez might not be fit and would not be a factor against England. So what do I know about football? And just as well I had gone to Brazil to savour the atmosphere rather than as a fervent England supporter!
Of course I would have liked to have seen England to do well but the behaviour and mindset of the England fans around us was just appalling and most seemed incapable of making any comment about the referee, opponents, England Manager or the negative performance of any England player without including a four lettered reference to female genitilia!
When Suarez opened the scoring beer rained down over our heads directed at the Uruguayans below but mainly landing on bemused Brazilians who has been cheering for England!
Drunken England fans insisted on goading Uruguayan supporters during half time but worse was to follow – directly in front of us sat a husband and wife (late 50s) together with their daughter and son in law late 20s. When Rooney finally managed to score his first World Cup goal and equalise the daughter insisted on walking along the row to goad, gloat and taunt the Uruguayan fans who eventually had enough and emptied a glass of beer over her. She laughed and her father decided to head into the Uruguayan contingent to ‘sort them out’ and had to be restrained by his wife, perhaps the only one in the family who had not come to Brazil to get involved in an altercation!
In short the attitude of the England fans where we were unlucky enough to be seated was best described as ‘Neanderthal’ and it has to be said at a total variance from anything else we saw in Brazil. The typical scene was for fans of all nationalities being happy to mingle, chat and photograph each other. This small section if England fans in Sao Paulo was not typical but sufficient to make me wonder – Is this a trip too far for me?
An amusing follow up to this occurred on the way back to the hotel that evening after dinner when we popped into a Pharmacy to be recognised as England fans by the genial owner who was quick to show he was wearing a Liverpool shirt and was an England supporter
‘Me like England – England – Hool – i – gan! Yes?’ And of course he wanted a photo with another England fan (sorry hooligan) as he repeated over and over ‘England Hool – I – gan!’
Sadly the only word a Brazilian Pharmacy Manager in Sao Paulo could associate with English football was ‘Hooligans’ and the culmination of a lifelong interest in football was to be welcomed to Sao Paulo as an ‘England Hooligan’! I guess that says it all!
Tony and Jeff had missed Suarez’s winning strike as they had left the game 10 minutes early to fly to Salvador to watch France and Switzerland the following day but back at my Sao Paulo hotel I had met John Baker, Deputy head of a NSW Primary school and fanatical Australia supporter who had taken advantage of Australia’s generous long service leave options to spend two months travelling around South America with his son Philip and combine it with watching Australia’s games in the World Cup.
This was another Casterbridge reunion as John too had worked as a Driver/Tour Guide for us back in 1983 and we had met up a few months earlier in Sydney for the first time since the early 90s. Like many overseas fans John’s son Philip turned out to be a walking encyclopaedia on all things pertaining to the English Premiership!
The following day the three of us went to the Sao Paulo Fan zone to watch Italy play Costa Rica because if Italy beat Costa Rica and subsequently beat Uruguay there was a chance England may just qualify for the next round with a final game victory over Costa Rica. Now we were somewhat clutching at straws here but I was texting my Italian friend Gio in Thailand offering a variety of inducements if he could galvanise Italy into a winning performance but alas it was not to be as the ‘minnows’ Costa Rica were deserving winners and England were out! The jubilation of the Costa Ricans in the Fan zone was probably the high point of my stay in Sao Paulo as the city centre was fairly uninteresting and uninspiring save for some interesting graffiti.
David, Jeff, Tony and I all had tickets for the final England game against Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte but it was now a meaningless fixture – it was perhaps a World Cup too far for those England supporters coming out just for this and subsequent games – as there were not going to be any!
Jeff’s application to buy a series of tickets for all the Salvador games turned up trumps again as he and Tony watched an exciting 5-2 French triumph over Switzerland (my pick to win the group) whilst John, Philip and myself managed to spin lunch out over almost three hours to ensure we got a good table to watch the game in front of the TV at a nearby restaurant but my bronchitis was taking a hold and I coughed myself to exhaustion and sleep at the table!
The following day I bade farewell to John and Philip at Sao Paulo airport and flew to Belo Horizonte and watched Argentina undeservedly triumph over a brave Iranian side (who had chances to win the game) on a big screen at the airport thanks to an injury time winner from who else but Messi.
Belo Horizonte is almost Brazil’s third largest city and was the scene of England’s infamous 1-0 defeat at the hands of the USA in the 1950 World Cup and after tortuous negotiations concerning the fate of the funds we had wired we had finally secured what turned out to be a fairly tiny and uninspiring apartment in an apartment building in the suburbs. We assumed the owners had moved out to accommodate us for their World Cup payday (we paid about £270/$450 per night for our 4 night stay) and the apartment had the world’s slowest wi fi but served its purpose – to be a base in a city where hotel rooms were close to £300/$480!
I had no regrets at moving on from Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte seemed scarcely more interesting as a city destination but at least had the advantage of sunshine! In truth I spent most of the first two days in the apartment trying to recuperate whilst Tony and Jeff watched games at the Fan zone or in local bars.
The game we had come to see was now a meaningless fixture as Costa Rica had qualified for the next stage and England were already eliminated and manager Roy Hodgson made it an opportunity to give all of his squad players who had yet to play in Brazil an outing – the 0-0 draw was predictable, uninspiring and far from a ringing endorsement for the future prospects of England’s national side.
Indeed the game will probably be best remembered for providing the final appearances in an England shirt for both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, two outstanding club performers who had both failed to truly impose themselves on the international scene despite long careers in an England shirt.
The highlight of our stay in Belo Horizonte was probably in a downtown market Bar after the game when we watched the highlights of the Uruguay Italy game in absolute disbelief when it became clear that for the 3rd time in his career Luis Suarez had resorted to biting an opponent!
The following day Tony, Jeff and I flew to Rio where we had a pleasant surprise as the apartment that we had rented close to Ipanema Beach was clean, comfortable, spacious enough, had a large TV and fast Wi Fi and a friendly English speaking gay Manager called Leonardo – what more could we want!
The words Rio, Ipanema, Copacabana and Sugar Loaf mountain instantly create images of one of the world’s most famous and exotic cities although for all of us the trip was about experiencing the football and World Cup atmosphere. Jeff for sure was determined to maximise his World Cup experience so the day after we arrived he made a day trip to Brasilia as he had a ticket for the Portugal and Ghana game whilst Tony and I had a leisurely day in Rio and spent the evening in the vibrant neighbourhood of Lapa famed for its aqueduct, one of Rio’s most famous landmarks, energetic nightlife and samba clubs.
We spent four days in Rio and were joined by Tony’s daughter Tess who had unfortunately been mugged in Cusco Peru. At this time the World Cup progressed from the Group Stages to the Elimination matches for the 16 teams left in the tournament. England was not the only high profile European casualty as holders Spain, Italy, Ronaldo’s Portugal and Croatia also failed to survive the group stages. We watched games in local bars and at the huge fan zone on
Copacabana beach and there was no doubt that Brazilians had embraced the tournament – as long as Brazil were involved! I watched two Brazilian games on TV in our apartments at Belo Horizonte and Rio and the neighbourhood would erupt in cheers, whistles, firecrackers and rockets whenever Brazil scored! It seemed everyone was wearing a Yellow shirt and usually with the number 10 of idol Neymar on the back – it appeared he carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders!
Rio was full of football fans from just about everywhere with and without tickets ,many coming just to savour the atmosphere, and I enjoyed chatting with Mexicans and Indians studying in Detroit who knew more about Cricket and English football than I did – and I have written a book about the subject!
It may not have been a sightseeing trip but we made sure we saw the essentials, queuing for hours on a ‘rest day’ to take the cable car up Sugar Loaf mountain (every football fan in Rio clearly had the same idea!) and also to admire the view over the city from the iconic Art Deco Christ the Redeemer Statue. There can be no doubt that Rio is certainly one of, if not the most, spectacularly located cities in the world.
I was less impressed with the beachscapes and despite all the hype about the beauty of Brazilian women I was underwhelmed in this regard but I did think without a doubt the women on the beaches wore their bikinis with more panache and aplomb than anywhere else I have visited – or was it that the local style seemed to be the briefer the better!
I had read much about the poverty of the famed favelas or shanty towns that are a common feature of Brazilian cities and I made a solo visit to the Favela of Cantagalo located above Ipanema and Copacabana . This was apparently one of the first Favelas to be pacified and had even received a visit from the Brazilian President . How reassuring! If it was not safe enough for the Brazilian President I was going to have a problem wandering around on my own but in fact it seemed no different from a suburb in any third world town and nothing like the poverty one would find in Nepal for example. On the other hand I noticed there was a large and visual armed police presence and as the closest Favela to the tourist areas of Ipanema and Copacabana perhaps it had been gentrified to impress visitors like myself. Certainly when Jeff and Tony made a later visit they were quite appalled by the sections they visited.
As far as the football was concerned I had a ticket for the Round of 16 game between Colombia and Uruguay whose preparation appeared to be based on a siege mentality of the rest of the world is against us as their team was now shorn of the suspended Suarez. (Apparently the biting incident was nothing more than a fabrication of the British and Italian medias – ‘Bite? What Bite?’)
However when I arrived at the famed Maracana stadium it transpired that I had misplaced my ticket! It seemed I had put down my ticket at the Metro station when showing it to get access. Several searches of my bag confirmed I did not have it and I did not have either the inclination or energy to try and talk my way past the non-English speaking security (You lost your ticket? – Of course, come on in!) so I made my way back to the apartment partly quite sanguine and philosophical as I am always putting things down in public places and walking off (my ipad twice in the last month alone!) so I only have myself to blame and partly pissed off with myself.
However as my Bronchitis was on its third revival and I felt like shit I was content to watch the game on TV and head to bed.
A trip too far? Probably and I was already exploring the possibility of flying back to Europe a week earlier than planned to recuperate if I could change my ticket.
As it happened I stayed on and Jeff and I flew north to the Afro-Brazilian city of Salvador where we were set to watch two games and we were based in a Slovenian owned beach front Posada, or small Inn, about 25 km north of the city centre.
Our first match in Salvador was Belgium vs the USA – the last of the 8 games in the round of 16. Without a doubt the young Belgian team were one of the strongest European squads and seemed to have cover in depth at every position typified by the fact that Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku had lost his starting position to an even younger striker, Liege’s Divock Origi. And by all accounts the USA were the best supported visiting team in Brazil having purchased over 140,000 tickets from FIFA and had impressed with an impressive performance against Portugal in the group stages.
What followed was one of the outstanding games of the tournament with Belgium having the bulk of the possession and chances but the USA counter attacking effectively and never out of the game. The 90 minutes ended at 0-0 largely down to the heroics of Everton’s American goalkeeper Tim Howard who after extra time had made a record breaking 16 saves and become a new national hero in 120 minutes as the game was watched by record crowds throughout the USA. Always an excellent goalkeeper I had never understood why he had been released by Manchester United after a blip in form following an outstanding first season but for sure he had a game for the ages in Salvador.
At the end of 90 minutes I turned to Jeff and commented ‘There was more attractive football played in any 10 minutes of that game than the combined 180 minutes of the two England games we saw!’
And in fact it was to get better as Belgium took a two goal advantage in extra time and everyone assumed it was over only for the USA to score a great goal and then lay siege to the Belgian goal as the Belgian’s looked all but out on their feet. The USA had their chances and it seemed everyone was willing them on (including yours truly who had money invested on Belgium!) but although they came close it was Belgium who held on to triumph 2-1 after what was perhaps the best to date of many outstanding games in the tournament.
After the game we met up with Adriana who had been Jeff’s Landlady when he had stayed in Salvador after he first arrived in Brazil. Adriana was fluent in English having lived in London for seven years and was undertaking a survey for an Australian university comparing the honesty of different nationalities at the World Cup and I was paid £3/$5 to answer a questionnaire but given £6/$10 to see if I was honest enough to give the overpayment back. However I got to keep it either way!
Now you tell me why this survey could not be undertaken in the ethnic suburbs of Melbourne rather than two Australian academics flying to Brazil, attending many games and paying £6/$10 to maybe 4000 interviewees. What a ridiculous waste of money and only a government or an academic could come up with such an impractical model for ‘research’.
I did not want to keep the money but Adriana had to dispense it so we used my ‘payment’ for a taxi to the Pelhourinho or Old Town where we discovered the night life and party atmosphere that we are all familiar with from images of the Carnival festivities in Brazil.
The narrow streets lined by historic houses, churches and public buildings were a riot of people, colour and music with every street full of chairs and tables from the overflowing restaurants. Every street was a fresco of flags and bunting and as Adrianna commented ‘This is when I am so proud of my country. You will not see this atmosphere anywhere else.’
The streets were full of football fans – and primarily behorned Belgian devils and Americans draped in the Stars and Stripes commiserating and congratulating each other and the entire atmosphere typified all that is good about the World cup and was a far cry from the Neanderthal English fans we had endured back in Sao Paulo – hopefully they were back in their cages where they belonged.
We had three more days in Salvador before attending the Holland – Costa Rica semi-final and I spent them largely around the hotel watching games on TV and Wimbledon on my Ipad but we decided to go back into Salvador with our Slovenian landlord and his attractive Brazilian wife
to watch the Brazil Colombia quarter final at the Fan zone.
Or so we thought!
The reality was the crowds approaching the Fan zone were similar to the crush of 80,000 trying to get into the Pyramid field at the Glastonbury Festival and we all got separated and I watched the game at a street closed to traffic and even pedestrians so restaurants could fill it with dozens of tables. I secured a place behind a crowd barrier but less than 15 feet from a TV so had a great spot to savour the atmosphere and watch the game. I was perhaps one of less than 5% of those not bedecked in Yellow and in truth I had not been impressed by Brazil to date so had backed Colombia to make the semi-finals!
It appeared our TV feed had a three second delay so an explosion of cheering from the far end of the street told us when a Brazilian attack ended in a goal. It was a great atmosphere (even if one had money on Colombia) and one ecstatic fan picking up that I was not quite subscribing to the party atmosphere insisted on giving me a beer to join in the celebrations. As it happens my only other prior taste of Beer was at a football match (Arsenal clinching the double at White Hart Lane in May 1971 when at half time I queued for a soft drink to find only beer was available!) and I kept the can in my hand for 20 minutes feigning sips, smiling when Brazil attacked and trying to look sympathetic when Neymar was stretchered off! Eventually I felt I could dispense with the still full can!
Everyone was happy with a 2-1 victory that put Brazil in the semi-finals but not without a cost as Brazil’s inspirational captain Thiago Siva picked up a Yellow card and would be suspended for the semi-final and Neymar, the outstanding player on the team was seriously injured and destined to play no further role in the tournament. After the game we met up with Adriana and discussed the implications of a possible Brazil Germany semi-final on her on-off long distance love life with her German boyfriend!
I experienced an interesting coincidence en route to second game we watched in Salvador (the Holland Costa Rica quarter final) as it turned out that Bruce, the Canadian I was sharing a taxi with had grown up in Bayford Somerset
‘Do you know it Michael?’
‘I should Bruce as I have lived within 5 miles of Bayford for most of the last 35 years!’
It turned out Bruce’s father delivered milk to Templecombe where I had established Casterbridge Tours in 1979 and Bruce was also a Yeovil supporter who had obtained a ticket to watch Yeovil’s triumph over Brentford at Wembley 14 months earlier! He had flown to the game from Canada and I had flown in from Thailand!
Costa Rica were well organised as a unit and had some outstanding performers in the World Cup notably Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell and goalkeeper Keylor Navas and despite a lot of Dutch possession and pressure Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, Wesley Schneider et al were unable to penetrate Jorge Pinto’s disciplined team. In the last minutes of extra time I noticed that the Dutch were warming up substitute goalkeeper, Newcastle’s Tim Krul and commented to Jeff ‘They are going to change their goalkeeper for the penalties!’.
And indeed it was this masterful substitution and/or stroke of inspiration from Louis Van Gaal (Manchester United fans must have been delighted at what they saw in Brazil!) which tipped the balance and sent the Dutch through to a semi-final against Argentina and the proud ‘Ticos’ home to Costa Rica despite being unbeaten in both normal and extra time of the 5 games they had played. Not bad for the so called ‘minnows’ of a difficult group D that had included England, Italy and Uruguay.
So after 18 days in Brazil I returned to Europe and watched the final 4 games on TV in England before continuing to Switzerland and it was the semi-final game between Brazil and Germany that was destined to be the defining game of the tournament, the decade and even of the last generation.
It is impossible to understate the importance of winning this tournament for the Brazilian nation – from the politicians who had invested so much and wanted to justify their decisions and to the people, for so many of whom football is everything, the life blood of the nation.
For most of the nation this tournament was the opportunity to provide a catharsis and wipe the slate clean after the traumas of the last time that Brazil had hosted the World cup in 1950. On that occasion in the final match of the tournament and taking the lead against neighbours Uruguay in a game they only needed to draw to win the trophy, Brazil succumbed and lost 2-1 in front of over 200,000 spectators.
No matter that Brazil had subsequently given the world more pleasure than any other nation and some of the greatest teams to have played football notably the Brazilian teams of 1958 and 1970. No matter either than Brazil had subsequently won the World Cup an unrivalled five times. Winning the World Cup on home soil was unfinished business to remove the blemish of 1950 from Brazilian history – indeed after 1950 the team had changed its team colours from White to Yellow to enable a new beginning and to forget the past.
No one had any inkling that a result was coming that would make 1950 almost acceptable in retrospect,
The pressure had already been showing on the players who clearly felt the weight of the nation on their shoulders. Players in tears during the singing of their national anthem before games, increasingly irrational and dogmatic statements from coach Luiz Scolari that they would win the Cup and his critics could go to hell had already led to debates on the mind-set of the players and coach. Clearly the tension was getting to the players and I had thought that David Luiz’s contorted reaction after scoring against Chile was akin to someone on the edge of a breakdown.
I am a great admirer of the energetic and enthusiasm David Luiz brings to a game when playing in midfield but he is not and never will be a central defender and I continually told all and sundry who cared to listen that no team with David Luiz as a central defender was going to win the World Cup but I like everyone else watched on in absolute amazement as a Brazil with David Luiz as both captain and central defender conceded five goals to a rampant Germany in the first 30 mins.
This was unheralded – Brazil had not lost at home in a competitive match for over 40 years – and it was almost embarrassing to watch as the Brazilian team imploded with Yes, poor David Luiz the most culpable. At half time the players trooped off the pitch looking as if they wanted to be anywhere but on that field and I felt Scolari was going to be pushed to find 11 volunteers to turn up for the 3rd place game. And what half time motivational talk does a coach come up with when his team has a 5 goal deficit!
The eventual result of Brazil 1 Germany 7 left more than the hopes of a nation in tatters. In 90 minutes an era had ended – an era where every football fan around the world associated Brazil as the nation with the most outstanding players, as often as not the best team and for sure the team which played the most attractive football.
History alone will judge whether Brazil as a nation can recover from this absolute humiliation and indeed whether some of the players will ever play to their full potential again with the scars left by failing to carry the burden of a nation’s expectations.
There can be zero doubts that this was a World Cup too far for the Brazilian team who turned out to be a rather average squad of players (once Thiago Silva and Neymar were removed from the equation) who were erratically led by Luis Scolari and quite incapable of handling the pressure and the unrealistic hopes of a nation.
It turned out the latter stages of the tournament was quite lucrative for me as once the semi-finals were decided I put my money on a Brazil and Argentina final at 3/1 and when Argentina eventually defeated Holland with penalties that resulted in a £600/$1000 pay-out.
Surprisingly the bookies made a shell shocked Brazil favourites to beat Holland in the 3rd place playoff game but I could not see any way Brazil would recover from the disaster against Germany and so it proved with Brazil continuing where they left off against Germany and going behind in the opening minutes.
Remarkably Scolari had persisted with playing Luiz, in tears after the 7-1 defeat by Germany, as a central defender and predictably within 20 minutes he had made an elementary mistake to present Holland with a second goal and the Dutch ended up easy 3-0 winners. Brazilian football was officially at its lowest ebb ever and I was £300/$500 richer.
At the semi-final stage I had finally made a decision and backed Argentina to win the tournament but with Messi still not recapturing the form that has seen him as the dominant player in Europe over the past 5 years and with Germany producing a performance for the ages to defeat Brazil it seemed to me that anything other than a German victory would be devaluing the significance of their historic win over Brazil so I changed horses putting my potential £800/$1300 return on Argentina onto Germany.
An Englishman backing Germany? I am afraid so but clearly they were the best team unit and deserved the trophy for their performance against Brazil if nothing else. And so it proved.
Argentina had their chances, not least a squandered open goal missed by Higuain early in the first half and a shot from Messi narrowly off target early in the second half with the towering German goalkeeper Neuer for once beaten.
However it was fitting that the extra time winning goal that finally decided the winners of a competition typified by attractive football was a goal of sublime quality scored yet another of the young and technically gifted fine attacking midfield players produced by the apparently endless conveyor belt that is the German development program. This time it was Mario Gotze (22) but it could just have easily been Toni Kroos (24), Julian Draxler (20), Thomas Muller (24), Andre Schurrle (23), Mesut Ozil (25) or Sami Khadira (27).
One is left with an inescapable feeling that is a team with the depth and youth to ‘kick on’ that could and probably should win the next European and World Championships. Indeed perhaps there was more significance to the decimation of Brazil than we appreciate and the baton of world dominance for decades to come has been passed from Brazil to Joachim Low’s Germany.
As the team that delivered a historic and era ending performance in the semi-final it was also fitting that Germany also made history by becoming the first European team to win the World Cup in South America. And most Brazilians gained some consolation in being spared further ignominy in not having their fierce rivals Argentina lift the World Cup in Brazil’s own back yard! That would have been the ultimate humiliation for this proud football nation.
And I was happy as in the last 4 games I had recouped all my prior losses and even made a small profit on the tournament.
So how will history remember the 2014 World Cup and was it indeed a World Cup too far?
Certainly not for Germany and nor for teams like Holland and Costa Rica who clearly surpassed their expectations and who significantly raised their profiles on the Global footballing scene.
It was also a World Cup that will be remembered for some outstanding games and goals. It was almost as if from the opening game onwards most teams were dedicated to trying to replicate the attacking football that for so long was the hallmark of the great teams of the host country and there was not a single draw in the opening eleven games and only four draws in the first 28 games.
Throughout the tournament the goalkeeping was of an extraordinary standard. Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa produced 4 stunning saves against Brazil, Chile’s Claudio Bravo has subsequently signed for Barcelona, Costa Rica’s Keylor Nevas won three man of the match awards and kept three clean sheets for his unbeaten team and surely Algeria’s Rais M’Bohli is not destined to play in Bulgaria for much longer after a string of outstanding saves against Germany. Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama was as impressive in Brazil as he has been playing for Lille in France’s Ligue 1 and with the USA’s Tim Howard, Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois and Argentina’s Sergio Romero all performing creditably Manuel Nauer’s award as the outstanding goalkeeper of the tournament was a prestigious accolade indeed.
The performances of the so called ‘minnows’ showed that any team that qualifies for the World Cup does so on merit – Algeria held eventual winners Germany until extra time in the knock out stages, Costa Rica delighted everyone, Iran should have held Argentina until Messi tipped the balance with a wonder goal in the closing minutes, the USA are a long established top 20 team and despite three defeats Australia pushed Holland to the very limit and performed creditably in all their games.
So as far as the football was concerned – the World Cup delivered quality performances in spades and was certainly not a World Cup too far.
And I suspect it was not a World Cup too far not for the majority of happy and exuberant fans who attended – the coming together of so many nationalities to enjoy a shared love of football can only be a positive experience. This was reinforced by the neverending displays of weird and wonderful national costumes which would never fail to attract groups of other supporters for joint photo shoots.
But certainly it was clearly a World Cup too far for the likes of Spain, whose team has grown old together and unlike the Germans has not been rejuvenated by young blood, and for England whose technical limitations were clear to everyone for whatever reason. There is certainly no shortage of theories – the lack of emphasis on technical skills, a lack of personal discipline and dedication in our young but well paid players, the lack of opportunities for English players in the Premiership.
And sadly as I have documented above it was certainly a World Cup too far for the Brazilian team which had too many mediocre players and defensive weaknesses to compete at the highest level let alone with the added burden of a nation’s expectations. In fact the writing was on the wall two years ago at the final of the London Olympic tournament when an overconfident Brazilian team with Neymar, Oscar, Thiago Silva and Hulk were defeated in the final by an adventurous an attractive counter attacking Mexican team who again defied the Brazilians in the Group stages of this World Cup.
It was certainly a World cup too far for three of the World’s four superstars because whilst Arjen Robben was consistently outstanding and used his blistering pace to a telling effect Christiano Ronaldo was clearly handicapped by injury as was Luis Suarez by his own mental frailties.
And despite surprisingly being named Player of the tournament Lionel Messi was far short of the remarkable standards he has maintained in Europe for the last 6 years although this last year we perhaps saw the first indications that burn out or injuries had taken their toil and he clearly was not as effective in the latter stages of this World Cup as his nemesis Maradona was for Argentina in 1986.
And it was probably a World Cup too far for me personally – rushing from Canada to Antarctica to Argentina to Australia to Thailand to England to France to back to England for a flight to Brazil in the previous 5 months meant I was travelled out and the chest infection I picked up made everything that little bit more difficult so for me it was probably the wrong trip at the wrong time.
For whatever reason I found Brazil interesting but did not really warm to it as a travel destination I would enthusiastically recommend like Argentina,
Switzerland, France, Thailand, Nepal, Australia and Canada etc.
Whilst it was certainly a World Cup too far for the Brazilian team the more important question is whether it was a World Cup too far for the host nation.
There have been various estimates that the costs of hosting the most expensive World Cup in history have been could be as high as $14b for the Brazilian government and people have rightly asked whether such expenditure could have been better invested for the benefit of the Brazilian people which like many emerging nations still has great inequalities of wealth and millions living in poverty.
Most of the protests concerned the cost and number of stadiums built for just a limited period – the Arena Amazonia built in Manaus where England played their opening game at a cost of $500m can host 41,000 spectators and is being left to a community where the average attendance for the local football team is just………….1,500 fans so it is easy to understand why there was a lot of concerns and protests about expenditure on stadiums with questionable long term viability. So as Brazil insisted on building more new stadiums than FIFA required it could be argued it was indeed a World Cup too far as far as the cost to the Brazilian economy is concerned.
But what about the raised national prestige, feeling of self-esteem and higher profile of a nation as a result of hosting a successful World Cup? Did it make a difference to South Africa? Will it make a difference for Brazil?
Despite all the concerns about overruns in costs and delays in construction the Stadiums I saw all appeared pretty serviceable and certainly the rail/metro systems and feeder buses coped efficiently with getting high volumes of people to and from the stadiums which was no small achievement. Furthermore at no point during my stay in Brazil did I feel threatened, insecure or unsafe despite all the pre-tournament publicity about protests and safety concerns. There was always a very high and visible police and army presence at all the game venues.
The tournament pretty much went off without a hitch although I always got the impression it was a fairly close call between working well and falling apart which was rather like the last minute construction of some stadiums which in some cases barely made it without the normally required safety checks.
This was typified at the Belgium USA game where there were the normal high levels of security outside and within the stadium and around the pitch. However when a spectator ran onto the pitch during the game no one seemed to know what to do! The bemused offender was clearly expecting a moment of fame being chased around the pitch by security personnel but they seemed at a loss as to know what to do next. No one appeared in charge and no one knew how to respond! There were hundreds of police but no one made a move so the offender leisurely trotted around the field shaking hands with as many players as possible! It must have been fully 60 seconds before 3 security personnel raised themselves into action and ushered him off the pitch and eventually out of the stadium although at first it appeared they were trying to take him back to his seat!
Of course the World Cup was in many ways a learning experience and dry run for the Olympics due to take place in Rio in 2016. The Olympics is a far greater and more complex undertaking than a world Cup which just involves 64 games. Rio will have as many in a day for many days and that requires a lot of organisational expertise.
After the London Olympics where I attended almost 30 events I found myself caught up in the Euphoria and thinking about a follow up visit to Rio in 2016. But now, despite Rio being a spectacular location I think on balance it is not an event and location that will attract me and one of the reasons was the sheer difficulty of communicating.
I have to stress that I am far from a ‘Little Englander’ who expects everyone to speak my language wherever I go but one of the comments I heard over and over again from fellow fans was how surprised they were to discover so few English speakers in Brazil. This is not the same as being disappointed people did not speak English (why should they?) but surprise that in an event of such magnitude which attracted visitors from around the world there were so few English speakers to advise and assist.
This was evident throughout Brazil from Day 1 when even at the FIFA ticket booth at Sao Paulo Airport where arriving visitors picked up their tickets there was no English speaker to assist and like it or not any organiser of an international event knows that the most common language to communicate with the maximum number of incoming visitors is always going to be English.
This appeared to run through the entire fabric of the nation from Hotel Receptionists using Google Translate or sign language to communicate with visitors and it was a rarity to find a restaurant with an English translation to the Menu. And in 2016 there will be significantly more venues and events to where stewards will be required to provide assistance.
And on a logistical front I would hope FIFA reverts to keeping teams in localised regions for their group games when the World Cup arrives in Russia in 2018 or will fans be criss crossing nine time zones from St Petersburg to Vladivostock to follow their teams?
Of course that will not be a problem if the World Cup is held as planned in Qatar in 2022 but surely that ludicrous decision can be overturned, if not by FIFA then by fans worldwide putting pressure on the Global brands that sponsor the World Cup and whose reputation will be sullied by association with an event if it is shown to have been awarded as a result of illegal and/or improper actions.
And as for Brazil in 2014 let me revert to the beginning of this article – Was it a World Cup too far?
In footballing terms despite the implosion of a proud footballing nation I think not because the tournament was a fine advert and festival celebrating the world’s most popular sport.
For me personally it was a World Cup too far as I would have enjoyed it as much in an armchair with a large screen TV! (Heresy!)
But most importantly was it a World Cup too far for Brazilian football, the Brazilian people and the Brazilian economy?
I think that is a question that will only be answered after 10 years or more when we can properly evaluate the legacy or otherwise of Brazil 2014.
In short – the verdict is out.
© Michael Bromfield 2014