There was something objectionable about the piercing assertion that 2014 was the greatest World Cup ever, even before the first two rounds of the knockout stages conspicuously failed to meet the standard necessary for a very good World Cup, never mind a great one, never mind the greatest.
The judgement was, depending on whose mouth or fingers it emerged from, arrogant, giddy, infantile or desperate. Most of all it was premature. The group stage of the World Cup was great fun, and if you didn’t enjoy it you probably need to see a GP. But you cannot have a great World Cup with a poor ending any more than you have a great film with one, no matter how magnificent the first two acts (we’ve all seen Kill List, right?). Everything was conditional on the events on the knockout stages. Hailing this as the best ever World Cup during the group stage was barely more logical than hailing the best sex you’ve ever had during foreplay.
It is not quite time for the #worstworldcupever hashtag, yet in the last few days there has been a growing realisation that, as things stand, this tournament doesn’t have a legacy to stand on. This is not the churlish moan of a grumpy old man who lives in the there and then. Or at least it’s not entirely that: Brazil 2014 has simply provided an extreme version of a pattern that the majority of recent international tournaments have followed.
Since Euro 2000, most tournaments have provided a kind of reverse crescendo, with the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2012 particularly striking examples. The group stages were brilliant; the knockout rounds not so much. The last three World Cups are now generally perceived as poor, yet there was a time during each when it was suggested they might be the best ever: there are examples here for 2002, 2006 and 2010.
The first group stage accounts for three quarters of the tournament’s games, 48 games out of 64, yet not even a quarter of its legacy. All that really matters is what happens at the business end; just ask Paolo Rossi. World Cups are subject to the law of increasing significance and, often, the law of diminishing returns.
As such, with the three most important matches to come, there is still time for 2014 to stake a claim as the best World Cup since 1982, though at the moment it is more likely to end up as the best since 1998. And that’s fine. It’s okay for something to be merely good. Or at least it should be. The problem is that we’ve all turned into those two Fast Show characters, for whom everything was “brilliant” or “bloody rubbish”. Anyone who still thinks this is the greatest World Cup of all time – better than 1970, for heaven’s sake, never mind 1950, 1954 and 1982 - should be banned for all football-related activity for the rest of their natural born life.
The catch-all statistic used to support this World Cup’s apparently superlative nature is the number of goals scored. For a long time it was on course to beat the record of 171 in 1998 – but as there have only been five tournaments with as many as 64 games, that does not say much. And it needs 13 goals in the last four matches for it to usurp 1998 anyway. Statistics can be used both ways; the current average of 1.92 goals after the first round – when it really counts - is the second lowest in World Cup history. And there is time for it drop below the average of 1.89 recorded in 2006.
The issue is complicated by the fact there is considerable flexibility of interpretation with regard to what constitutes a great World Cup. Some prioritise excellence, others excitement. Some like shocks; others like a heavyweight last four. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Yet there are two things on which almost everyone would agree: a great tournament needs a great team, and more than anything it needs great games. The four World Cups most commonly cited as the best – 1950, 1954, 1970, 1982 – all had at one least great side, even if they didn’t win it in a couple of cases, and all had at least one epic match: Brazil 1-2 Uruguay in 1950, Hungary 4-2 Uruguay and West Germany 3-2 Hungary in 1954, West Germany 3-2 England and Italy 4-3 West Germany in 1970, and Italy 3-2 Brazil and West Germany 3-3 France in 1982.
So far, Brazil 2014 has failed on both counts. All four semi-finalists have been flawed, and the eventual winners probably need two crushing wins from here if they are even merit discussion as to whether they are a great side. If you were listing the 50 best matches in World Cup history, probably only Spain 1-5 Holland would be included from this year – and even that, while an unforgettable shock epoch, was not a great match. Belgium 2-1 USA offered a memorable period of extra-time, but the notion that it was a great match overall is hard to justify. Some people even called it epic – and that was before the game. There has been nothing to compare to the one truly great World Cup game of this century - Germany 0-2 Italy in 2006 – never mind those from the 20th century.
At times there has been an air of forced enthusiasm regarding the discourse surrounding this World Cup, with a degree of self-brainwashing going on. In a sense that’s understandable. A bad World Cup used to happen once a generation; then, at the turn of the century, they started to come along once every four years. As such there is a generation who are desperate for a good World Cup to call their own. It is a truism that most people’s favourite World Cup will be the first they can properly remember; few things in life supply so vivid a Proustian rush to see us into our dotage. Yet we tend to like to take two World Cups – or at least two international tournaments - to the grave: the first, and the first great one during adulthood, when we see it through more mature eyes and have a more developed understanding of what is going on. Those in their late 30s have Euro 2000. Since then, Euro 2008 is probably the closest to a great tournament.
Everyone wants their football equivalent of the 2005 Ashes, so there is an understandable attempt to force that at the first sign of promise. It’s a variation on 500,000 people claiming they were at Spike Island or Altamont; if you can’t get to Spike Island, make it come to you by ascribing greatness to an event which you have indirectly experienced.
It’s also human nature to get lost in the moment, particular when we see something exciting or dreadful in our favourite sport. The present is the subject of a heightened sensation – sport is a drug, after all - and perspective becomes fuzzy. It’s a different kind of short-term memory loss. We’ve all done it. In the aftermath of Ryan Giggs’ solo goal against Arsenal in 1999, I was certain it was superior to Diego Maradona’s against England at Mexico '86. The absurdity of this judgement soon became apparent. The problem is that an understandable giddiness is sometimes accompanied by a smug contempt for history. The past may be a foreign country, but that's no excuse for xenophobia. The arrogance of modernity dictates that the best we have ever seen becomes the best there was. How the hell would we know?
That inclination has been compounded by a contemporary culture of noise, hype and social media, in which everything has to be BIG and the extreme view is often a starting point to go further east or west. This also manifests itself in an overreaction to events which, while unquestionably dramatic or exciting, have occurred in football matches and World Cups since time immemorial. Look at these minnows having a go! Somebody’s hit the woodwork in injury time! Have you ever seen anything like this before? Well yes, umpteen times, and better too. There has been nothing in this World Cup to compare with, say, Italy 3-2 Brazil in 1982, or North Korea in 1966, or Dennis Bergkamp’s goal in 1998, or the Battle of Santiago in 1962, or the five goals in extra time in the 1970 semi-final. If any one of those happened now, Twitter would have a coronary.
The desire for this to be a great tournament even prompted a kind of omerta over Lionel Messi’s goal against Bosnia. The story of Messi winning the World Cup single-footedly for Argentina in Brazil is so seductive that almost everybody ignored – or didn’t even notice – the fact it was probably going wide until it took a deflection off Mensur Mujdza. (FIFA have never cared about such matters; Ronaldo shares the record with World Cup goals with Miroslav Klose because of a mis-kick against Costa Rica in 2002 that would nearly have gone for a throw-in had it not been deflected into the net off a defender. FIFA gave him the goal.) There was a not dissimilar overreaction to Tim Howard’s performance against Belgium, which, while unquestionably admirable, was comprised exclusively of saves a goalkeeper as good as Howard would expect to make.
It should be stressed that most of the discourse surrounding the World Cup has been guilty of little more than excess enthusiasm. Yet as always, it’s those who shout loudest who make the biggest impression, and some coverage has had a self-congratulatory tone which evokes David Stubbs’ description of the “gormlessly patriotic hubris” that defined Britpop. At times there has been a bullying tone. Why aren’t you having fun, mate? Have you got a problem? Why don’t you want to do shots with us? It has felt a bit like New Year’s Eve; as the night reaches its halfway point, the majority announce what a great time they are having and how much they love each other, while the sober keep their own counsel in the knowledge that it will end in regret, punch-ups, and somebody throwing up a kebab on a street corner.
Brazil 2014 will not quite end that way. Even if the semi-finals and final are stinkers, we will fondly remember a group stage which restored much needed lustre to the World Cup. In terms of the balance between attack and defence, football is in its best place since the turn of the century. And this has been the best World Cup since then. That is certainly worth celebrating. There’s no need to turn it into something it’s not.
You can buy Rob's book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.
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