Brazil is still magical, even in the knockout rounds
Watching a genuinely entertaining World Cup has been a bit of a weird experience. It's pleasant enough, but one can't help waiting for the other shoe to drop. And so while the group stages were busy being generally fantastic -- that the tired 0-0 draw is the rare exception rather than the expectation is a stunning development -- there was a nagging feeling that the knockout rounds might be different. Wait until the stakes are higher, Mr. Nagging Voice insisted. Then it'll go back to the slow, deathly dreck we all remember.
Four matches into the knockout rounds and we've had three knife-edge games, including two penalty shootouts and one 1-0 lead in the 88th minute turned into a 2-1 loss by full time. Even Greece against Costa Rica managed to be interesting (granted, that was mostly due to how ineptly both sides played), and in the one clash that wasn't particularly close we got that James Rodriguez goal to inject some joy into our lives.
The international game is dull, so the theory goes, because of two primary reasons. The first is that the games are so important that everyone involved is terrified of losing, and thus plays football designed to minimise mistakes and minimise the likelihood of conceding key goals. The second is that team cohesion at the international level is largely non-existent. At clubs, players train day in and day out with the same set of teammates under by and large the same tactical system. The World Cup isn't just a matter of throwing together a gathering of top players and hoping it works, but it's far closer to that pole than club football.
While the second point still stands, the first appears by now to be exploded. Teams simply aren't following the script. Rather than playing not to lose they're inverting the idea and playing for the opposition to lose, which means doing as much to impose themselves on the game as possible. The ideological battle in modern football has mostly been fought between 'anti-football' and 'tiki-taka', both of which are inherently stifling to the game as a whole, but we're not seeing any such extremes play out this time around (even Greece tried to attack, bless them), and the tournament is far more entertaining for it.
There are only 12 games left at Brazil 2014, and while at this stage in 2010 and 2006 everyone was hoping to get it over with and see which team we have to write nice pieces about and or hate with all of our hearts for the next few years, 2014 could go on for more or less as long as it likes without getting on anyone's nerves.
Wesley Sneijder lives on
Students of Wesley Sneijder -- Sneijdologists, they probably don't call themselves -- know that the Netherlands No.10 spends his life drifting between two extremes. One end of the scale, the good end, is called 'linked with Manchester United'; the other, less happy state of being is known as 'wait, he's only how old?'
He's had his moments on the international stage -- last World Cup he scored five goals on the way to the final -- but he's looked on the verge of retirement for much of this campaign. While his equally-experienced attacking colleagues Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have been enjoying themselves, Sneijder's been bumbling around behind them, scowling and pointing, occasionally taking a moment to punt a free-kick into the wall.
Yet however badly he's playing, there's one thing that virtually never deserts him: his ability to kick the ball very hard, and very clean. Not always in the right direction; not always to the right person. But a good slice of technique nonetheless. Robben frequently scuffs; van Persie occasionally shanks. Sneijder hits true. So even in his current shaky form, if you need somebody to smash home a dropping ball from eighteen yards, he's a handy person to have around.
It's a good job Guillermo Ochoa was marooned on the other side of the goal. If he'd tried to get in the way, he'd have been nothing more than a small expanding cloud of red mist and curly hair. There was a lot of frustration in that goal, and don't be too surprised to see a move to Old Trafford mooted in the next few days. For old time's sake.
Arjen Robben has an Arjen Robben day
For Mexico, heartbreak. For the Netherlands, triumph, with more than a slight tinge of sheer relief. The Dutch -- firm favourites for the semifinals in what seemed like easily the easiest quarter of the knockout rounds -- looked shaky for almost the entire first half, then went down a goal early in the second and found themselves scrambling to get back into the game under scorching, exhausting heat.
They did eventually, a Klaas-Jan Huntelaar penalty ending Mexico's resistance well into injury time, but they never looked particularly convincing apart from in the seconds surrounding Wesley Sneijder's scorcher of an equaliser. The defence, doubtless damaged by Nigel de Jong's injury and the subsequent use of Daley Blind in holding midfield, was at best a mess, and the attack seemed to rely on Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie doing magical things.
Robin van Persie was apparently going through a magic drought, so with that well dry, it was onto Robben. Broadly speaking, there are a few tricks in the Bayern Munich man's arsenal. He can run in behind on the counterattack. He can cut inside and shoot. He can cut inside and dribble and then shoot. And he can cut inside and fall over defenders. Repeatedly.
Robben chose that fourth option, and stuck with it all match. And in his defence, it's not exactly his fault that Mexico's centre backs dived into challenges all game. But it was somewhat exasperating to see this side reduced to sending the ball to a fast bald man in the hopes of a spot kick, even if it did eventually work. Perhaps the referee wanted to get out of the heat, unable to face the idea of running around for another 30 minutes extra time. Perhaps Rafa Marquez's lunge was enough to send Robben flying through the air like some kind of temporary orange angel. Perhaps it was a foul and a dive. Perhaps they all were -- this is Mexico's defence and Arjen Robben after all.
Whatever the truth of the matter, though, Mexico have every right to feel aggrieved. They did enough to beat a far more fancied team for 88 minutes and then imploded. It has to be someone's fault, so why not the referee's?
The best thing about this World Cup is that, if you didn't find one match brilliant, it will quickly offer up another in hopes of enticing you again. If every match on a particular day managed to be rather insipid, there's always tomorrow. In the early stages, at least. Of course, the flip side to this is that you're not really able to dwell on the magic of, say, James' incredible goals.
Yesterday's matches left plenty for people to discuss after the final whistle. There was Arjen Robben's dive, and then his non-dive to win the penalty that put Netherlands through at Mexico's expense. Greece put on their own little tragedy, or perhaps it was a comedy, by once again scoring at the death, only to get knocked out after a shootout. Keylor Navas was doing Keylor Navas things again. There were even water breaks! Officially sanctioned ones! Which may now need to be adjusted after Louis van Gaal foolishly opened his mouth regarding his change of tactics discussed over sips of Powerade!
In bullet form, on the proverbial paper, Sunday's matches were intense, interesting, intriguing. They also sucked away over four hours of life, leaving behind only vague memories. I'm pretty sure Dirk Kuyt's face had turned a worrying shade of magenta before fifteen minutes were out. Greece did that thing where they managed to mess up a five on two counterattack. But for the most part, nothing much happened.
The heat in Fortaleza contributed -- over 100 degrees Farenheit by the time the second half kicked off -- but that wasn't the only reason the majority of these minutes were a snooze. After Mexico scored in the 48th minute, Miguel Herrera's side didn't do much of anything, which wound up screwing them in the end -- had they taken advantage of the gaps behind Holland's defense and scored a second goal, they may well have been through to the quarterfinals. As for Costa Rica -- Greece, well, no one expected much from that. And while Greece didn't sit back as much as many anticipated, they still proved to be frustratingly incompetent when attacking. Would a little creativity have killed you, Fernando Santos?
But it's a new day. We've got two fresh matches to (hopefully) savor. And with any luck, we won't need to ever again think about the actual process that lead Netherlands and Costa Rica on to the next round.