Saturday, July 19, 2014

Final Whistle

The 2014 World Cup ended last Sunday (Monday early morning actually IST) and what a tournament it was. My concluding thoughts in random order:
1) Germany was probably the best "team" of the tournament and while they had their luck in the final, their victory was the culmination of superb planning and execution of a long-term strategy of developing technically sound, talented footballers who play cohesive football. Barney Ronay called this German triumph a victory of "intelligent design".
2) The final itself, despite just yielding a single goal in 120 minutes was rather good. Certainly it was a far better match than the Spain - Netherlands clash in 2010. Argentina and Messi had 3 great opportunities to score, but Higuain, Messi himself and later Palacio all missed their moments. Mario Gotze however took his chance in extra time with great aplomb to score a superb winner for Germany. Germany themselves suffered due to injuries - Khedira got injured during the warm-ups while his replacement in the line-up Kramer also got injured very early on. But they adapted as they went along. Bastian Schweinsteiger was brilliant anchoring the midfield. Argentina perhaps were just marginally better on the day, but it was Germany who took their chance and won the cup.
3) Lionel Messi, rather unfortunately for him, was adjudged the best player of the tournament, unfortunate because it gave his detractors another opportunity to take potshots at him. He may, or may not have been the best player of the tournament, but he was certainly not far from the top. And this article captures quite beautifully perhaps why we are not fully appreciating his genius here and now.
4) There were 171 goals this world cup, here's all of them ranked ! Great memories all. It may or may not have been the best world cup ever, but it certainly had the best/ most fun group stage ever. The world cup was thrilling before the knock-out stages started.
5) I really enjoyed the quality of writing throughout the World Cup. The likes of Jonathan Wilson, Barney Ronay, Raphael Honigstein, Gabriel Marcotti and perhaps most of all Bryan Phillips made it absolutely memorably. This by Bryan Phillips on the World Cup coming to an end - perhaps just summed it up the best.
6) Brazil's spectacular capitulation in the semi-final certainly left lot of people distraught in the host nation and their supporters world wide. But fans certainly had a great time and of all the things out there - I found nothing more spectacular than this video of Argentine fans, taking over a food court in Brazil, singing "that song" !

7) And finally, I had a great time following the world cup with friends - in person, office and of course online. Cannot wait for the next one.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It takes two to tango ! Semi finals review and Final preview

We are down to the last match now. What a tournament it has been ! Difficult to remember another World Cup which has thrown up so many incredible stories. But before a brief preview of the finals, here's a look back at what happened in the two epoch defining semi-finals.

Brazil 1 - Germany 7.  It was quite clearly the most shocking scoreline in the history of football. It left so many of us, and not just Brazilians, dazed for a very long time. During the match, I felt this was the worst collapse by a home team in a semi-final, since India's collapse vs Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens in 1996. I had expected Germany to win, but not like this. A lot of post-mortems have been written, but perhaps this is the most erudite one of them all was this by David Goldbratt. The myth of Brazil, Joga Bonito and the beautiful game had been well and truly busted. Before the World Cup began, I had done some research on Brazil & Argentina, their football culture, tradition and the rivalry here, and the thing about Brazil is the conflict between Futeball Arte vs Futebal Force - the beautiful game vs the football of force and power. Clearly, since 1982 (2002 notwithstanding), Brazil has clearly moved towards physical, pragmatic, functional football, but then they have reached a new nadir now. This is the sad summary. 
Intolerably Cruelty
Kolkata refuses to identify this Brazil
And what about Ze Germans ? Magnificent in their ruthlessness on the night, and more on them later.

Argentina 0 - Netherlands 0 (Arg win on penalties).  After the events of Belo Horizonte, there was no way that either of the two teams would take any risks and so it proved. The game was dominated by the defenses and the defensive midfielders. Messi, for once was completely marked out and Robben too had minimal impact. Javier Mascherano (and Ron Vlaar too) was the outstanding player of the game and it was this epic tackle very, very late into the game, which prevented a Robben shot on goal and saved Argentina's world cup campaign.
Putting the ditch in Last Ditch
The match went to penalties. Louis van Gaal couldn't bring on Tim Krul this time and Sergio Romero's heroics in goal brought Argentina into their first final since 1990. The Dutch have had a good tournament this time, Arjen Robben has been superb (and after defeating Brazil 3-0 in the playoff, they deserve the 3rd place in the tournament).

Germany - Argentina : The Final Preview

Germany: German football has been on the up ever since Klinsmann and Joachim Loew took charge of the national team before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. They have reached the S/F in 2006, losing to Italy; Finals of the 2008 Euro losing to Spain; S/ F in 2010 World Cup, losing to Spain; and the S/F of Euro 2010 - this time losing to Italy again. This can be looked at in two ways - great consistency or lacking the killer instinct to actually win the whole thing. For a generation of fabulous footballers, who play a very nice, attractive brand of football - history beckons. In Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Neuer, Muller, Klose, Ozil, Kroos, Hummels and co, this is a fabulous group of footballers - clearly the best overall squad among all the teams. Here Honigstein writes about this group finding the right balance, while Marcotti here on what is needed for one last push.

Argentina: This really is the nightmare scenario of all Brazilians. Having to witness an Argentina - Germany final after getting thrashed by Germany in the semis is like having a cricket world cup in India with India thrashed by Australia in the semis and seeing Pakistan reach the final too. This is that bad. In any case, a team which started off as a one man team, has now grown in stature and confidence and is playing with incredible belief. Messi took them through to the quarter finals but from then on, the rest of the team has stepped up. Javier Mascherano has been immense, Higuain has played well in patches and should Angel di Maria get fit to play - this would be an even more equal contest. Their defense has also held steady and they have turned themselves into a very hard team to beat. But really, it is all about Messi. As Jonathan Wilson writes, even when he doesn't play well - he occupies two to three players of the opposition thereby giving breathing space for this team-mates to play.

Clearly Alexando Sabella's Argentina lack the fluency and overall control that the Germans have demonstrated, but their grim resolve and fighting spirit to win close matches makes them worthy contenders. It is easy to make the narrative of the final as a match-up between "The Best Team in the World" vs "The Team with the Best Player in the World", but Germany vs Argentina is a little more than that. Germany would like to finally, go out and win the cup, that has eluded this "golden generation" of uber-talented players. There really is no great fun in being the nearly men of world football for five straight major tournaments running. And Lionel Messi and Argentina await them - waiting for the right moments to seize in a winner take-all contest. I suspect the match could be decided on fine margins. Will the Germans decide to man-mark Messi ? Probably not - and not out of their ego, but rather their belief in their overall team game. And if they don't do that, perhaps that will provide Messi and his team, that window of opportunity - to make the difference.

This has been a fabulous tournament in general. The knock-out stages, barring the blow-out at Belo Horizonte, has been extremely tight though. A memorable final, with goals scored by both teams, would be a fitting end to this edition of the World Cup. May the best team win !
It's Up For Grabs Now !
PS: Bonus Reading 1) This wonderful post by an Argentine journalist on why she is going back home to watch the final ; 2) The Best Preview of the final by Brian Phillips: Man vs Machine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

And then there were four

Last time, when we took a break, after the group stages, so many of us were saying what a fun World Cup it was. Well, the knock out stages so far have been a lot more dark and grim. The World Cup just become very, very serious indeed. Here's a quick recap:

The Round of Sixteen

Brazil v Chile: Rarely, if ever, have I seen a more frenzied atmosphere at the start of a match...... Watch this clip to see how the players and more amazingly the little kids who are the mascots - belt out the Brazilian national anthem at the start of the match. The match was tough, physical and demanding with Chile pressing as hell, and Brazil responding in kind. It went down the penalties and a tearful Julio Cesar emerged winner for Brazil sending the host nation into immense relief. And while Chile lost, I think I saw the best penalty ever from one of their players.
Colombia v Uruguay: James (called HAMEZ) Rodriguez starred for the Colombians including scoring probably the goal of the tournament, to overcome a lackluster Uruguay missing the bite of Suarez in attack.
Netherlands vs Mexico: Mexico played the better, and led the match for a large part, but Robben inspired Netherlands to a terrific comeback to sneak through. While the debate rages on, Robben's diving, the match which saw the first official water break in a world cup match, also showcased once more the tactical acumen of Louis van Gaal - who as Jonathan Wilson points out here, is compromising on idealism to win matches.
Costa Rica v Greece: Probably the most low key clash in the Round of Sixteen, but this developed into a classic as both played out an interesting draw 1-1 after FT and ET, with the Costa Ricans led by their brilliant keeper Keylor Navas - one of the heroes of the world cup - winning the penalty shoot out.
France v Nigeria: Both teams played quite well, in this reasonably entertaining game, but the French class eventually proved too much for the Nigerians as they ran out 2-0 winners within regulation time.
Germany v Algeria: The Germans, still struggling on their best combination and where to play Phillip Lahm, struggled against an impressive Algerian team. Both teams failed to score in 90, but the Germans eventually prevailed 2-1 in Extra Time.
Argentina v Switzerland: A still dysfunctional Argentina, rode their luck, especially in the first half to edge out a dramatic late, late winner into injury time, then rode some more luck before the final whistle to win against the gallant Swiss team. Messi once more though, played .... rather well.
 Belgium v USA: Tim Howard was magnificent in goal for the USA, but still could not prevent Belgium as another match went into extra time,

And so, the round of sixteen saw, 2 matches going into penalties and a further three into extra time. One other was settled deep into stoppage time of regulation time. The matches were tight, and the free goal-scoring of the group stages became a distant memory. But wait, the world cup was about the get a lot more darker now.

Quarter Finals: And so we arrived at the last eight, in a World Cup where you could not make sense

France v Germany: It never materialized into the classic that so many of us expected it to be. The French midfield, so effective till now, got smothered by the Germans completely. While the Germans could not translate their dominance into more goals - this was a rather comfortable 1-0. Best part about this match-up ? This cartoon ...
Brazil v Colombia: Compared to the rather tepid previous match, this match was a sight to behold in terms of its physicality, and sheer violence as it appeared to me - watching way past midnight. In the end, Brazil got through, but after paying a huge cost - in terms of losing their talisman Neymar to injury for the rest of the World Cup. While one view says, they reaped what they had sown, in terms of their physical approach and constant fouling, there is also an alternate view - which says that the allegations against them might not be factually accurate. It was the end of the road for both Neymar and HAMEZ Rodriguez as the star of the world cup so far bid goodbye but not before giving another superb performance and goal.
Massive Respect
Argentina v Belgium: Argentina played rather well, with Gonzalo Higuain hitting some form and scoring the winning goal against Belgium - a team that did not quite add up to be the sum of their parts. Messi was quietly understated in his brilliance - but this pass to Angel Di Maria will remain in memory for a long time.  The sad part is that it appears Di Maria might have got injured after attempting a shot post that pass, and Argentina will miss him badly if he does not recover on time. And this pic of mascots wishing Messi good luck before the match is quite some sight.
Embedded image permalink
When you meet your idol !
Netherlands vs Costa Rica: This wasn't expected to be that difficult for the Dutch, but the phenomenal spirit and organization of Los Ticos made them worthy opponents as they prevented the Dutch from scoring for 120 minutes. Louis van Gaal's substitution to bring in Tim Krul just before the penalty shoot-out however proved to be inspirational as the Dutch saw off the brave Costa Ricans - just about - in the penalties. The last of the underdogs - thus departed - undefeated during regulation and extra time having played against - Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece and the Netherlands - a phenomenal achievement.

The Semi-Finals: The Sign of Four
And so we are down to the final four. As big names go, this is one of the most blockbuster semi-final line-ups of all time. My friend Suhel nicely summed up the history of the two semi-finals and the possible final match-up in this tweet.

It is quite clear that with four big names - history will be repeated and made when the semi-finals and the final take place. And curiously enough, this is the first time ever that both Brazil and Argentina have qualified for the semi-final.

Brazil v Germany: The question really is will a Neymar (& a suspended Thiago Silva) less Brazil be able to rely on a passionate crowd and a super-charged atmosphere to see off a German team - which is beginning to control matches. For all the talk of Samba football and Joga Bonito, the Brazillians have played AND won ugly before, and they are prepared to do it once again as they take on this German side filled with players of a golden generation who must also prepare to win at all cost, or else be remembered as eternal runners-ups.  The stakes have rarely been higher. In a world cup, which has gone dark and bloody - like a George R R Martin book, this one will be A Song of Ice and Fire.

Argentina v Netherlands: If the Brazil-Germany match is a battle of the ice cool Germans vs the Fiery Brazilians - this one in GoT terms is A Clash of Kings. Messi v Robben - two of the best players in the tournament and indeed in the world have largely carried their teams through till here. There is enough and more fire-power in both teams, but stop their two main players and the task will be a lot easier. Messi has played a lot deeper this tournament - more like a classical Argentine no 10, than the false 9 position that he often plays at Barca, and the focus will be squarely on him as he leads Argentina into the unfamiliar place of a World Cup Semi-final - their first in, believe it or not, 24 years. And what about the Dutch, we really don't know what to make of them. While I had earlier linked a piece of Louis van Gaal, compromising ideology for success, there are some who are saying that this is the most Dutch team of the last 40 years. The key being their improvisation.

What do I predict ? Nothing. A Brazil - Argentina final is the most scary thought ever... but somehow I don't think it will happen.... We are still missing a truly great team to emerge from this World Cup, but we can continue to hope for at least a truly great performance, or at least a truly great match.

And so to summarize the tournament, with once again some of the best pieces that I came across. Firstly, more than ever, this world cup has become a tournament for individuals and individual brilliance. But for all the brilliant men, there are unsung heroes too who must be celebrated, here are four of them. This has been a world cup of keepers' too, here is a Top 10 list of super custodians. And finally, this World Cup started off brilliantly, but it may be in danger of petering out, unless the last 3 matches give us some classics.

PS: If you like numbers and stuff and/ or if you like Messi, this will blow your mind.

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