The Return of Attacking Football



by Oliver Farry

So Germany make it four World Cups, edging level with Italy in the pantheon of winners, and just behind Brazil, whom they slain in such terrifying fashion. It’s hard to argue with that, given they were really the only outstanding team to show enduring consistency (the odd hiccup aside). A brilliant generation of players had heretofore threatened to forever fall short but things came together in Brazil and they even managed to ride their luck with a defence that continues to look suspect. The final against Argentina was an enthralling if error-strewn one, with Germany playing the more convincing football but allowing the Argentines more chances during the 90 minutes. A superb cross by Andre Schürrle was controlled by substitute Mario Götze in the 24th minute of extra time and he beat Sergio Romero with a finish that was as clinical as much of the Germans’ goalscoring throughout the tournament, if not that night. It was a final more entertaining than most in the past three decades, bring to a satisfactory close a tournament whose real on-field excitement had begun to peter out a week earlier with the beginning of the quarter-finals.

For much of the thrilling group stages, those of us who have memories of similar World Cups in the past wondered if it might all fall flat when the knock-out rounds came. Would defensive pragmatism take over and stifle the attacking football that until then had been sweeping inexorably across the tournament’s pitches? The second phase, to be fair, kept the ball turning, with four out of the eight games enthrallingly titanic struggles (three of them going to extra time). 50% of exciting games isn’t a bad rate for the knock-out stages but unfortunately we would not see many more top-quality games from there on in. Not that it was an end to the drama though, nor to the quasi-epic narratives that this World Cup, above any other in recent memory, was so rich in. So what if most of this drama took place off-field, in newspaper columns, on social media and on TV links to the private hospitals in São Paulo where Neymar was kept, seemingly embalmed, if you were to believe the Brazilian media?

But even amid the heady excitement of the group stages, which for some time had contributed the highest goals-per-game average since Mexico 1970, there were downers. Like with any closed-energy system, there was a give. The number of heavy defeats might not have been too high but some woefully poor teams were present – Cameroon, riven from the start by arguments over bonuses; Honduras, whose intended game-plan of kicking more gifted opposition failed miserably; Japan, of whom great things were mystifyingly expected by supporters back home and by Western football hipsters; South Korea, who were even worse in an even easier group; Russia, whose enlistment of Fabio Capello to prepare for hosting the World Cup in four years time makes Brazil’s approach to this one look positively Germanic.

There were also the upsets. The champions Spain, having squandered the opportunity to go 2-0 up against the Netherlands in their opening game, suddenly collapsed, took a 5-1 hammering and were dispatched by Chile’s dynamic high pressing in their second game. It was only in the dead rubber against Australia, which they won 3-0, that Spain finally got going. They might have looked at the later stages of the tournament, when the Dutch got progressively more ordinary, and rued their slow start. Spain might have had a disastrous World Cup and are in need of renewal but they still remain, along with Germany, the world’s strongest national team. Portugal also collapsed dramatically against the Germans, and were fortunate not to lose to the United States but their exit, with an unfit Cristiano Ronaldo firing on reduced cylinders, was not a huge surprise. Neither was England’s nor Italy’s, from the same tough group. Italy’s departure, for the second World Cup running at the group stage, was almost instantly forgotten in the wake of Luís Suárez’s biting of Giorgio Chiellini.

It was this incident that caused the media to go into even greater overdrive, for a small South American country to erect a wall around itself and declare itself to be the victim of a dastardly British plot to drive its best player out of the tournament. The incident, and the hefty ban slapped on Suárez, prompted a national psychodrama that went all the way to the Uruguayan president, everyone’s favourite head of state, José Mujica, who declared FIFA to be “a gang of old bastards”. Not since Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on another Italian, Marco Materazzi, in the 2006 World Cup final has a player been so relentlessly analysedexcused and defended. The weird thing about this World Cup is that, just over two weeks later, it all seems like ancient history.

This is because it was superseded by the drama surrounding Neymar’s broken vertebrae that put him out of the World Cup after a bad challenge by Colombia’s Camilo Zuñiga. The fallout of that was the outrage common to such incidents and amplified these days by social media (among the many ugly comments by Brazilians included some people calling Zuñiga’s infant daughter a whore and publishing his address in Naples and suggesting someone kill him). There was also a mystical invocation of higher spirits – not a surprise in a country so beholden to charismatically voluble Evangelical Christianity – which culminated in the Seleção bringing Neymar’s jersey onto the field before the semi-final versus Germany. All the bluster served only to mask a much more fatal absence, that of centre-half and captain Thiago Silva, suspended for a second yellow card received against Colombia. Silva’s absence could not be garnered as a talisman, as Neymar’s was – the loss was more practical and, crucially, organisational, and the Brazilian Football Confederation put their efforts into getting the yellow card overturned (they were, of course, dismissed). Without Silva, the Brazilian defence was even more porous than it had previously been and his soon-to-be Paris Saint-Germain club-mate David Luíz was particularly at sea (though things were hardly any better upon Silva’s return in the third-place match where he gave away a penalty within the first two minutes). The Germans, a team not without its own flaws but so adept at pummelling careless opposition early on in games, took little time in tearing them apart. Many had predicted a comfortable German win but few had expected the brutal manner in which it had happened. The gulf in class between the two sides is not so stark as the result suggested (and such freak defeats suffered by strong sides have become increasingly commonplace in recent years) but there was also a sense that it was the sort of disaster waiting to happen. It plunged a country that probably cares a little too much about football into a national trauma in the midst of its own World Cup. The defeat at the Estádio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte was instantly dubbed the ‘Minerazo’ to echo the ‘Maracanazo’ of the 1950 World Cup defeat to Uruguay. The new appellation was probably held in reserve by journalists for days beforehand (maybe even before the second-round game versus Chile at the same stadium) such was the sense of impending doom for a team that had been flirting with failure since the group stage.

Unusually, given Brazil tends to draw support from neutrals the world over, the disaster was greeted with glee in foreign parts. There was resentment, long felt in Latin America, at the sense of entitlement of Brazilian football fans, the mostly unimpressive way Brazil has lumbered through their games on the way to the semi-final, and more particularly the way they had beaten Colombia, the team many had viewed as this tournament’s ‘real Brazil’. The cafeteros had brushed aside admittedly feeble opposition on the way to the quarter-finals, and their stylish attacking football and flamboyant goal celebrations had thrilled neutrals. Their 22-year-old playmaker James Rodríguez, the tournament’s top scorer with six goals, was also one of the performers of this World Cup. Brazil successfully snuffed him out in the quarter-final in Fortaleza, with a performance of cynical tactical fouling (Brazil committed more fouls than any other team in the tournament and 31 of 54 in the game against Colombia). It’s a bit of an exaggeration though to say that Brazil won unfairly against the Colombians – their method might have been unattractive but they were clearly the better side in the first half and could have been more than 1-0 up at the break. Colombia gave as good as they got too – Zuñiga’s challenge on Neymar is testimony to that – and ultimately inexperience at this level found them out. A young side, with their spectacular goalscorer Radamel Falcao to return from injury, they have years ahead of them yet to meld into a new force in world football. They and Chile, who went out to Brazil on penalties, were probably mentally inhibited by the prospect of playing a side they had never beaten on its own turf. Now that that pall of invincibility has lifted, a power shift in South American football might not be too far away.

Latin American teams were among the most thrilling of the World Cup, not simply Colombia, but Chile and their relentless pressing, Mexico and Costa Rica, two of the few sides to defend well in the tournament. Even unfancied Ecuador acquitted themselves well despite going out at the first hurdle. The setting in South America and the exposure to a fan culture that the World Cup has not enjoyed for decades also contributed to a different experience Ironically, it was the Latin American side that did the best in the tournament – Argentina – that were rarely exciting. They won all their matches up till the semi-final and became more resilient and organised the further they went but there was little of the spark of brilliance you might expect from a side led by Lionel Messi. It’s true that they faced tight compact defences for the most part and were often forced to grind out results but a team with Sergio Agüero, Ángel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuaín up front might have been expected to sparkle a little more up front, and the latter was found badly wanting in the final, even if he did have a goal (rightly) ruled out for offside In the knock-out stages, they were themselves solid in defence – conceding nothing until Götze’s extra-time strike, a run of 586 minutes – with Alejandro Sabella leaving little to chance in what was undeniably the weaker half of the draw. They certainly deserved their berth in the final but there was also a disappointing workmanlike aspect to a team blessed with the world’s greatest player, and a number of other fine talents besides.

Various supporting players contributed to the entertainment, not least Mexico, with their mercurial manager Miguel Herrera, who played exciting, tactically savvy football after being written off on account of their calamitous near failure to even qualify. Herrera was a coach with an unprecedented fondness for social media, posting selfies with his players, which did much to rehabilitate El Tri in the eyes of Mexicans and also contributed invaluably to building team morale. It was disappointing that he decided to defend too early the 1-0 lead they had against the Netherlands in Fortaleza. They boxed themselves into a corner and by the time the Netherlands had gone 2-1 ahead from a contentious but legitimate penalty for a foul on Arjen Robben, Mexico had no time to respond. Herrera, who had seen three coaches go before him last year, was rewarded with a new contract and his side has a bright future.

Mexico’s CONCACAF rivals the United States were also one of the most exciting teams in the tournament, even if the breakneck pace of their games often masked flaws. Jürgen Klinsmann proved himself, as he did with Germany, to be a better motivator than tactician –– his team did everything right versus Portugal and Germany but his decision to sit deep against a misfiring Ghana was fortunate not to be punished while his inexplicable benching of his midfield enforcer Kyle Beckerman against Belgium left his defence overrun and the excellent Tim Howard overworked. Since they reached the quarter-finals in 2002 the United States have been a side taken seriously by all opponents though they didn’t really show in this tournament that, commitment and effort aside, they have made all that much progress. Still, they were good value for money, with three of their four matches being great to watch. When they morph into a side that can conclusively control a game against even modest opposition, US fans will have something to get genuinely excited about.

The CONCACAF team that got the furthest though was Costa Rica. Dismissed, rather foolishly, by most at the outset, they beat Uruguay and Italy in their opening games in matches they comfortably bossed. They were also one of the few sides in the competition that gave us a demonstration of good defending (the absence of which contributed to much of the general excitement). The small Central American country were refreshing in their application of an intelligent counter-attacking game and, bolstered by Keylor Navas, the finest of a number of a string of fine goalkeepers in this tournament, they very nearly caused an upset against the Dutch in the quarter-finals.

Vahid Halilhodžić’s Algeria were also a delight to watch. Tactically complete, they had a tailor-made approach to all four of their matches. They were initially unlucky to lose to favourites Belgium, after going 1-0 up through a Sofiane Fehouli penalty. They then destroyed South Korea with a wonderful display of attacking football, and saw off Russia in the final group game. Their last-16 meeting with Germany, a chance to avenge the Shame of Gijón of thirty-two years earlier, was one of the competition’s epic games. The Algerians sprung the Germans’ high line on numerous occasions and only a disallowed goal and a brilliantly unorthodox performance by Manuel Neuer prevented them from taking the lead. The Germans finally made the breakthrough in extra time but Algeria kept at it with Abdelmoumene Djabou pulling one back towards the end. The sight of the forever calm Halilhodžić, who lost his home during the Bosnian war, finally breaking down in tears at the final whistle was one of the most moving images of the tournament.

Algeria’s players, upon their return home, drew praise after word went out that they had decided to give their bonuses to the people of Gaza. They hadn’t but the rumour started as a result of a few comments Sporting Clube de Portugal striker Islam Slimani had made. It left the players in an unfair bind though Greece’s players did forego their bonuses in favour of a proposed National Centre of Excellence for football, one of a number of things that endeared the Greeks, whose football was as ever quite unlovely, to people off the field.

Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria were also racked by disputes over bonuses. Ghana’s stand-off resulted in the Batman-esque ferrying of $3 million in cash from Accra to the National Stadium in Brasilía, accompanied by armoured escort. (The Brazilian authorities, deprived of any tax revenue from FIFA’s cartel-like set-up, not surprisingly, helped themselves to 17% of the shipment). The clandestine image of full-back John Boye kissing a wad of cash just half an hour before scoring a comical own-goal against Portugal was for many an eloquent summation of all that is wrong with modern football. Most people baulk at the prospect of well-paid players threatening to go on strike over money – many would say that these players should be simply happy to be lining out for their country in a World Cup but bonuses are such a recurrent problem that the fault has to lie rather with the national associations who promise them. While Ghana and other sides do certainly have millionaire players on their side, they also have others playing in Cameroon, Tunisia and for provincial teams in Turkey. Forgoing a bonus for some of these players, who often have large extended families to support back home, is not something they can afford to do. There is also the perennial resentment at the kleptocratic behaviour of football top brass. And it has not always been teams littered with stars that have argued over bonuses – Australia’s amateurs in 1974 threatened not to get on the plane for West Germany if the money they had been promised was not delivered.

The World Cup was also marked by constant protests, though not as large as during last year’s Confederations Cup. The protests have been interpreted by partially-informed people outside Brazil as being anti-government ones though it is more the corrupt political system of patronage that they were targeting. Dilma Rousseff’s government provided some resistance to FIFA’s demands – particularly in getting the notoriously corrupt former President of the Brazilian Football Confederation Ricardo Texeira to step down as head of the Organising Committee. All in all though, the waste of taxpayers’ money to pay for the tournament – in a country that has no progressive taxation, meaning the middle classes are disproportionately affected – and the pacification of the favelas were inexcusable and the political momentum for change is unlikely to subside with the end of the tournament. Rousseff is unlikely to suffer many repercussions in October’s presidential election – she and the Worker’s Party are still very popular with the country’s poor, with good reason, and the people who barracked her with misogynistic and homophobic chants at the opening match were the very sort of rich white people that would never vote for her anyway.

The sunny Brazilian setting, in a country renowned for its hospitality did much for a World Cup that, in both its best and worst moments, was marked by a glimpse of the human that one normally doesn’t see in the glacial prism of professional sport. We saw this in the numerous selfies taken by players and teams, in Mexican players joining members of the public for a game of beach football on Copacabana, in the tears of Neymar and James Rodríguez, Suárez’s biting and even in innovations like the post-match interviews conducted on-field and often amplified for the entire stadium to hear. Even the tournament’s greatest technical innovation was charmingly humdrum – not the much vaunted goal-line technology but the referee’s ‘vanishing spray’ can for marking the distance of the wall for free kicks, something that had already been in existence in both South and North American football.

There are worries that such a spirit will be missing from World Cups for some time to come, the next two take place in Russia and Qatar, two countries ruled by authoritarian governments and embroiled in geopolitical disputes, as well as domestic problems. Russia, to be fair, is a genuine footballing country, and, even though it clearly has problems with racism in its stadiums, these may affect the tournament as little as similar worries did the 2012 Euros in Poland and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is nowhere near as bad as the Argentine junta that FIFA so shamefully promoted in the 1978 World Cup but the prospect of him lording it over the biggest international sporting event will be off-putting. Thankfully, the propaganda benefit he can draw from it might be hampered by Fabio Capello’s dour and featureless Russian side. And visitors to the World Cup might find that, whatever the government, ordinary Russians amount to something more than the caricature of morose, xenophobic reactionaries than many in the West seem to conceive them as.

All in all, this was a good World Cup, the almost inevitable tailing-off of quality later on notwithstanding. The return of attacking football was aided the heat, which impeded good defending but also by the fact that 24 of the 32 sides present had also played in South Africa four years ago so there was a greater level of team cohesiveness than usual on display. It certainly surpassed expectations, particularly those of British journalist Jonathan Wilson, who wrote in his pre-World Cup editorial of the quarterly The Blizzard:

Everything is homogenised, bland, controllable, corporatised. Rather that than violent or dangerous, of course, but a lot of the old magic, a lot of the sense of something unique and vibrant that you still find at the [Africa] Cup of Nations or the Copa América, has gone. Given that there hasn’t been a good World Cup in terms of football since, being generous, 1998, and you start to wonder how the tournament still has any appeal at all.

We may find in years to come that Brazil 2014 was not as great as we thought at the time and it may not either have an enduring effect on the quality of international football but this year’s tournament has shown there is life in the old dog yet.

About the Author:

Oliver Farry was born in Sligo, Ireland in 1975. He lives in Paris, where he works as a journalist, writer, translator and editor.