Brasil ‘14: Perspective and Retrospective

So my current Facebook status: “Mundial hangover, followed by the DTs”

Upon completion of this year’s World Cup, I have concluded two prime (and anthropological) reasons why soccer is important:

1) it is an unparalleled instrument in uniting the world

2) it is a megaphone for the self-expression of nations.

What an investment of time, energy, and passion, the World Cup of football. I have come to fully appreciate this tie that binds, amplified by social media and smartphones to a level decidedly unrecognizable even as recently as eight years ago, when Fabio Cannavaro hoisted the trophy in Berlin. I spent the better part of this month splitting screens between the live action in Brazil on TV, and discussing it in real time with friends across time zones on the little handheld screen that has become an extension of our minds. That in itself justifies the clever Hyundai hashtag #becausefutbol. Say what you will about the imbalanced wastage of resources in spectator sport, but there might never be another bond that cuts across the diversity and disparity of humanity.

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Such an investment compels a retrospective…let’s start with Los Ticos: la selección costarricense. Oh how the “minnows” became maestros! They took out Stephen Gerrard’s England, they eliminated Andrea Pirlo’s mighty Italy…and stretched the 3:1 favorites Netherlands of Van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt to the limit, not even losing the match but merely sent home on heartbreaking penalties. And their keeper Keylor Navas instantly engraved his place in the pantheon of World Cup legends.

And how about the Cs of South America, Chile and Colombia!

The resurrection of los Cafeteros after a 16-year absence from the grand stage and the 20-year anniversary of the Andres Escobar tragedy was nothing short of moving to tears. They were sent home after the unfortunate 90-minute brawl that was the Brazil match (also resultant was the loss of World Cup poster boy Neymar), but along with the resurrection was the coming-out party of the newest young talisman, James (“ha-mez” don’t-call-me-James) Rodriguez, who shall henceforth be known the world over on a first-name basis. Out from under the shadow of the injured star Falcao, the 23-year old is taking his Golden Boot on the road, probably to Madrid. The Golden Boot, for a mere quarterfinalist!

And Chile turned out to be la Roja that lasted. They were inches away from knocking out Brazil in regular time, and were sent home on penalties. But, looks like Alexis Sanchez is going from the Barça bench to bona fide stardom. One of the best-looking round of 16 victims we’ve ever seen.

Let’s give the less prominent continents their due: Africa and Asia. The Socceroos of Oz were not as good as at Germany 2006, but Tim Cahill had an amazing swan song. It took some last-minute heroics from living legend Lionel Messi to defeat all the all but invisible Iran squd. But even the nicknames of Africa’s teams are inspiring: the Elephants of Ivory Coast, the Desert Foxes of Algeria, the Black Stars of Ghana. Didier Drogba’s World Cup farewell in the round of 16, Algeria exiting strongly against the Germans — but there was no stronger team knocked out of the group stage than Ghana. Some slightly different bounces and they might’ve been the ones to re-meet Germany in the final.

For pure spirit, coupled with goalkeeping excitement, North America was well represented: the “savior” of el Tri, Memo Ochoa, and the indomitable Tim Howard of our US of A. Americans and Mexicans rarely have an exceptionally talented side, but spirit and perseverance keep getting them into the elimination rounds. While a dozen saves by a goalie implies a porous back line, no one can carry a team on his back like a keeper on fire!

The Brazilians are already deep into their process of healing, set to the tune of intense self-flagellation–so it would be redundant to devote even a second line to them. Messi’s Argentina were a few offsides calls away from a stunning upset of Germany, but he was rendered ineffectual in the absence of striking partner Angel di Maria. And, this inevitably and concludingly brings us to…

…die Mannschaft.

The German national team. I feel it’s disparaging and trite to describe them as a machine or as mechanical, because along with their customary consistency, organization, precision and Gestalt, they brought this time around a fluid and imaginative majesty that left them peerless over the past month. La Roja, Spain’s legendary side that will be disbanded after an ignominious group stage exit, perfected the “tika-taka” brand of Total Football that was meant to be emulated for years to come–until that style was solved by their opponents and they were exposed as bereft of contingencies. But this is where the characteristic psychological and technical superiority of the Germans shines through–the will to win, and the creativity and adaptability to find solutions where Plan A fails. Boss Jogi Löw showed how the battle is often won before it is ever fought, with a mindful and masterful selection of players that was at least as important as the implementation of his strategy. Look for no further affirmation of this than the hero of yesterday’s final,Mario Götze (doppelganger is a German word BTW), who came off the bench near the end of the second half. When you assemble the right personnel, your heroes often end up being unexpected…but never unlikely.