Not perfect, but still great. We'll miss Brazil 2014
We can't lie. This tournament wasn't all sunshine and lollipops. We witnessed some horribly officiated matches, found ourselves nodding off during a few games, and questioned the wisdom of playing late afternoon games in the jungle. If we never see another shot of Christ the Redeemer, clipped in while players were chasing a ball during the world's most important match, it'll likely be too soon.
But it was a thrilling roller coaster of a month. The lows were certainly low, reaching beyond petty annoyances. Luis Suárez bit a guy again, prompting discussions of mental health and first world bias. Players appeared to suffer serious head injuries, then were allowed to return to the field despite falling over when attempting to walk. Neymar, seemingly the host nation's only hope, was knocked out of the tournament before Brazil, victim of a challenge gone horribly wrong.
Then again, Neymar's injury may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, because while much of the rest of the world enjoyed Germany waltzing over Brazil to the tune of 7-1, the forward likely wouldn't have found it pleasant. Diego Costa may have preferred for his hamstring to give out again, rather than be associated with Spain's humiliating performances -- but again, the neutrals reveled in the spectacle.
Indeed, "revel in the spectacle" would've been a perfect tagline for this World Cup. Revel in the delicious goals, from Robin van Persie's levitating header to Tim Cahill's thundering volley to James Rodríguez's chest-turn-volley-off-the-crossbar. Enjoy the spectacle of Chile and Colombia's flowing attack, while still being able to admire the measured approach displayed by Costa Rica. Take joy in Algeria's well-executed plan and fantastic counterattack.
Brazil 2014 went off script. Spain didn't challenge for another title, much of Europe collapsed, no one had planned for goalkeepers to be heroes and no amount of bias from the referees could've set up a Brazil - Argentina final. Lionel Messi was not crowned World's Greatest Footballer with the lifting of the World Cup.
Yet this tournament was made all the more delightful by its quirks. We graded each participant on his arm-folding abilities, celebrated with Miguel Herrera on the touchline, wondered as to the point of foam spray lines, laughed as Alejandro Sabella swooned like a Victorian lady with a too-tight corset, and wrote a new novel entitled James and the Giant Grasshopper.
No scriptwriter could've given us such a fantastic tournament. The narratives weren't followed, and yet the storylines were made all the more richer. And in the end, Germany lifting the trophy seemed a fitting ending to the story. A team with weakness in defense, an overcompensating goalkeeper, a forward who could create chaos all on his own, and a young star sneaking in the winning goal. A perfect fit for Brazil 2014.
A strange and uncomfortable award
Individual awards have always sat uncomfortably within a team game, and the fact that Lionel Messi is the winner of the Golden Ball for the 2014 World Cup, the award that goes to the outstanding player of the tournament, is sitting more uncomfortably than most. If the criteria is that a player performed as well as they could for as long as they could, then Messi is somewhere down the bottom of the list of viable candidates. If, on the other hand, it's an award made on importance to the team, then it starts to look better: two of Argentina's group stage victories owe themselves almost entirely to his ability to play like Messi, even if only for a few seconds.
The third possibility -- as hinted at by cool-headed analyst-of-note Diego Maradona, among others -- is that the adidas Golden Ball going to the adidas-sponsored Messi is something more than just a happy adidas coincidence. Certainly, given his quietness throughout the final, it looked a lot like a decision made some time before kickoff, which in turn makes it look like a decision made some time before the tournament. It's been suggested that the vote took place at half-time, which means it was confirmed just a few minutes before Messi missed his best chance of the evening, when he dashed into the penalty area, drew Manuel Neuer from his goal, and slid the ball past the far post.
Slice it one way; slice it another. Such awards are always a matter of taste, and this wasn't a tournament where any one individual put together an unarguable case. (Except perhaps Arjen Robben, who everybody hates.) But if that decision was puzzling, the pitiful manner of the presentation, in which Messi was required to drag his broken, drained body up the stairs, to shake hands with as uncut a row of smarm as the human mind can imagine, to present him with a trophy that looks under the circumstances like a sarcastic parody of the World Cup, to stand next to a jubilant Manuel Neuer (who, to give him his due, at least managed to avoid smiling too widely), to then to trudge back down the stairs before leading his team back up to collect their silver medals ... this may not the be the most serious example of unfettered and unthinking corporate vanity that we can attribute to FIFA, but it's among the most egregious.
A minor act of unthinking cruelty, nothing more and nothing less, made all the worse by the complete lack of necessity. The list of reasons why the award couldn't be presented to Messi at some later point begins and ends with 'We wanted everybody to see us give him the award'; note whose interests are at the centre of that. Come and show the world your empty eyes and broken heart, Lionel. There's photos to be taken. Do your best to smile. There you go. Congratulations!
Germany's unsung hero
Date: May 27th, 2054. Location: The Mustafi residence.
"Grampa, Grampa! Tell us about the World Cup again!"
Shkodran Mustafi is settled in his favourite armchair, a white shock of hair still clinging on to the top of his scalp. He is holding court over his seven enthralled grandchildren, some of whom are too young to really remember the stories he tells them. But he goes along anyway. They are very cute, and he doesn't mind the memories.
"Well, kids, it was almost 40 years ago when I was a young man. Younger than your uncle Skldradrlkallllld, even." Here he pauses for dramatic effect, enjoying the chorus of astonishment that arises from the tiny, upturned faces that meet his gaze. "Germany played against Argentina in the final. I was on the bench for that game, but I played a lot in that tournament, and my teammates all agreed ..."
"Grampa? What's Germany?"
"Oh, it was a country in the before times. Never you mind." Interruptions, Shkodran considers, are a necessary part of talking to a gang of children, and he quickly picks up the threads of his narrative once more, "... all agreed that my contributions were vital." Here he lets himself slip back into the sheer joy he felt on that winter night in Rio. The trophy was heavy, even heavier than it looked, but nobody got tired of hoisting it in the air, of grabbing it to themselves in a fierce glee, of dancing with their comrades.
"What did you do?"
"I was a last-minute addition to the squad. Everyone told me I wouldn't make the team, that I wouldn't play even when I did. But against Algeria, they say, I was involved in one of the most important moments of the tournament. It was thanks to me that Philipp Lahm moved back to right back -- the pundits say that thanks to me Germany found its feet and started playing properly again."
"Wait! Grampa, you played football with the President of the Moon?"
"I did, children. Philipp is a very nice man; someday I'll fly you all up there to meet him. When you're a bit older, anyway." The conversation ebbs away from the one sore point of the whole story, which Shkrodran is slightly relieved about. He is proud of his contributions to Germany, of course, but it would have been preferable if it had gone a little differently. Better to get the children excited about the new Lunar Colony and the prospects of a long holiday than to dwell on old wounds too much.
"Who's going to win the World Cup this year, Grampa?"
"Oh, I don't know. The Federated States of Northern Europe are favourites." A cheer. "Maybe China, maybe Brazil. Egypt are dark horses, the USA are too. Definitely not England ... oh, your parents are calling from the garden. Lunchtime!"
The children totter out, in that curiously discordant fashion groups of young ones use when they're in a collective hurry. Shkodran peels himself up off the green leather, reaching for his ornately carved teak-and-gold cane. Having grasped it in his left hand to steady himself from that 40-year-old injury, back with a vengeance in his old age, he limps out to join them.