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September 20, 2014
Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The upside of defeat

By David Smith

Special to the Herald from Brazil

Post-mortem thoughts and feelings from Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO — A reality check at the end of a World Cup that has been historic, fascinating and enthralling. The best team won the tournament but Argentina returned to the top table of world soccer with a vengeance.

Indeed, I left the Maracanã on Sunday concluding that they had only themselves to blame for not bringing the trophy home for the third time, and so stopping the Germans becoming the first European side to win the tournament in the Americas.

We can all waste post-mortem emotions on what might have been. Gonzalo Higuaín, all alone, played onside because of a dreadful backheader from Toni Kroos; Leo Messi, on that famous left peg, clean through with only German’s keeper Manuel Neuer to beat; Rodrigo Palacio, lobbing Neuer, and missing narrowly, in extra time.

The upside is that, four years on from humiliation at the hands of Germany in South Africa, Alejandro Sabella’s team showed how far they came under his management. In the age of soccer as such big business, Sabella is smart to go now, at the height of his powers, and he’s much admired abroad, but it’s a pity for Argentine soccer.

Watching the final in the Maracanã, what struck me was Argentina’s maturity as a team. Far from being a pushover for the mighty German machine, they matched the new champions at almost every turn. The formidable striking duo of Klose and Müller got little change out of an Argentine back four that resembled the Argentina of old, built on rock-solid defence. What a contrast with Diego Maradona’s leaky outfit four years ago.

In midfield, Javier Mascherano, Enzo Pérez and Lucas Biglia worked their socks off. You can’t shut down a Schweinsteiger, or a Kroos, not to mention Mesut Ozil. What you do is limit their freedom, confine the space in which they work, and Sabella’s game-plan was exemplary here.

What was lacking was the big finish. Higuaín did not deliver. Neither did Ezequiel Lavezzi, or Sergio Agüero when he came on. Messi held the key, and his face at the end betrayed very mixed emotions. Such a supreme professional knew, better than anyone, that he had the chance to seal his legacy once and for all, with a World Cup victory here. FIFA’s official blurb, normally quite forgettable, rightly described him as the least happy man to win the Golden Ball, for the tournament’s best player.

I’m sure a good deal of psycho-babble will ensue. Whether Me-ssi was too tired, whether Sabe-lla had the respect of the team, whether the injuries to Agüero and Angel Di María upset the balance. Enough already. Argentina did their job, imitating the Germans in some ways, they went as far as anyone could have hoped, and fell just a tad short of triumph against the odds, after being agonizingly close.

As for the wider world of soccer, reasons aplenty in Brazil to cheer. Yes, the game is a gushing money-spigot, and FIFA’s management of it is reason to be concerned, given the many scandals that surround this Swiss “non-profit” organization that controls a sport worth billions. Given the arrogance of its leadership, all too evident.

But this World Cup reminded us once again of o jogo bonito, as they say in Rio, the beautiful game. The early rounds were loaded with memorable moments, pretty moves, great goals, David and Goliath. The reigning champions, Spain, crashed out, first because Holland put them to the sword, but then underdog Chile took them apart in the citadel of the Maracanã.

And the first team to put Germany on the ropes? Indeed, the only side to take the lead against them? Ghana, a team of unabashed self-belief that went out and played its game, not worrying about the opposition, refreshing sound and fury signifying lots, a welcome challenge to the old order.

Then consider Costa Rica, sending Italy and England home so early that German fans did a mock advert showing their team buses up for sale — “unused, good as new, zero kilometres.” Or Colombia, Mexico, Team USA ? Germany may have won the trophy, but it seems to me the Americas sent a message of change too.

Above all, the game stamped, in capital letters, its phenomenal global reach. Sunday’s final was watched by more than a billion people. Social media outlets broke records with the number of folks who plugged into some of Twitter’s lead tweets. My favourite: “Hey, Luis Suárez, if you’re hungry, why not take a bite out of a Big Mac?”

And then I looked around me in the Maracanã on Sunday night. Azeris, from Azerbaijan, waving their flag even though their country has never been to a World Cup. Algerians, proudly flying their colours after their best-ever showing. Chinese, buying up bags of World Cup trinkets to take home and aggressively checking out the best seats. North Americans, plenty of them, reflecting how the game has touched New York, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles. Even if some of them seem to spend half the time taking pictures, rather than watching the game itself.

The future of soccer is bright, in short. And while Sunday’s final did not produce a classic, it spoke once again to the drama of the soccer arena. If Higuaín shoots straight, 15 minutes into the biggest game on earth. If Messi does what he has done dozens of times before from that same angle, on his favourite left foot. If Palacio just straightens out that chip over the goalkeeper’s head.

I began this series of reports for the Herald with the words of a favourite scribe, Uruguay’s Eduardo Galeano: “I’m a beggar for good soccer, for the love of God, a pretty move.” Well, we saw plenty of them. And if the final was disappointing, or frustrating, or sad, we need to get over it. Westward, look the land is bright, a line from a favourite poem of mine. Let’s look East because next time we go to Russia.

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