Just as the 31st of December is seen by millions as a time to reflect on the events of the previous twelve months and as an opportunity to look towards the future with hope, apprehension or a vow to change for the better, so too the world of international football tends towards quadrennial bouts of contemplation and self-analysis as each World Cup tournament draws to a close.
And so it was on Sunday night, as Philip Lahm thrust the iconic trophy towards the floodlit sky above the Maracana, the reflective analysis of the preceding four weeks of footballing revelry began, along with broad predictions of what the future holds for many of it’s main protagonists.
As is the nature of such tournaments, there were bruised giants with wounds to lick, while so-called plucky outsiders returned home as heroes, having surpassed all expectations on the world stage. Spain, Italy, Brazil and England were just some of those left with more questions than answers as this year’s tournament came to an end. The shortcomings which accounted for each side’s poor performance were quickly pointed out, as were suggestions as to how they could be rectified. Promotion of a new generation of talent, further investment in the development of youth players and even a complete overhaul of an entire footballing structure were just some of the solutions put forward – all of which can have merits dependent on the context of the nation in question, but can often be much easier said than done.
On the other hand, there were those who boarded flights home with the undoubted feeling that things are moving in the right direction. Indeed many of the highlights of this year’s tournament have come from such nations. The performances of sides such as the United States, Algeria and, in particular Costa Rica were a surprise to many and will give hope to other nations that competitiveness at this level is achievable when approached in the right manner. Despite the patronising tone of terms such as ‘well organised’ and ‘hard-working’ this was exactly the approach that these sides displayed. In Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and Junior Diaz for example, Costa Rica had the top three players in terms of distance covered outside of the four semi-finalists. However this approach was also allied with a healthy degree of tactical awareness and no shortage of technical skill.
There are others who will look back and will find it difficult not to consider what might have been. Those nations who’s World Cup history may not be quite as illustrious as that of some of the other so-called powerhouses, but would still have felt on arriving in Brazil that given the talent at their disposal, a successful campaign may have been a genuine possibility. For many of these countries however the dream never materialised.
Belgium, so long lumbered with the tag of tournament dark horses, never lived up to the expectation that the individual names in their squad suggested. Their neighbours, the Dutch, started with a blistering opening performance against the holders Spain but as doubts began to emerge around the fitness of Robin Van Persie, and the furore surrounding the ‘theatrics’ of Arjen Robben continued to grow, the goals dried up and a 0-0 draw with Argentina resulted in elimination on penalties at the semi-final stage. France, while also showing excellent form in the early stages seemed to flag as the tournament progressed, eventually exiting with a perplexing lack of urgency while chasing an equaliser in a quarter final against the eventual winners. Teams less than the sum of their parts, lacking a clinical edge or simply having been victims of a degree of bad luck. Whatever the reasons given it may be difficult for groups of supporters in some of their respective countries not to view this tournament as an opportunity missed.
And what then of those who reached the final hurdle? Few expressed surprise at the two remaining combatants in the run up to the biggest game in football. Argentina, while never realising the potential of the much-lauded attacking options at their disposal, and remaining suspect in defence throughout the tournament, had clawed their way to the Maracana through a series of tight victories and dogged performances. While never looking convincing they had done enough and would provide stiff opposition, whomever they faced in Rio.
Germany in contrast came to the final off the back of one of the most astounding results in the history the game, having destroyed the hosts 7-1 in Belo Horizonte. They entered the showpiece event as the favourites and would undoubtedly have been more strongly tipped had Argentina not possessed possibly the greatest footballer of a generation amongst their starting eleven. It was deemed the perfect setting for Lionel Messi to put paid to any somewhat baffling doubts regarding his place in the pantheon of great footballers, but in a tournament where he never really seemed at one hundred percent, it wasn’t to be.
Instead the night belonged to Germany. Yes, Argentina had chances to win the game, but there was little argument the Germans were deserved champions. For so long part of the group of ‘what might-have-beens’, a root and branch review had borne fruit and so it was fitting that one of the new generation of talent produced the moment of brilliance that sealed victory. Mario Gotze, who had come through the ranks at Borussia Dortmund, was one of the many German starlets who had benefited from the changes brought about in German football following their early exit from Euro 2000. There is now the feeling that a period of German dominance in international football lies ahead and given the seemingly endless line of young talent produced by German clubs and the young squad currently in place, the 6th youngest at the tournament with an average age of only 26, it is difficult to argue against this view.
For now they will rightfully savour their success and will hope that this is merely a taste of what is to come. There is little doubt however that when 2014 does draw to a close and it is time to reflect on the events in the year which has passed, there are many throughout the German nation for whom the images from Rio on Sunday night will remain the most significant highlight of all.