As the group games near completion, one lesson from World Cup 2014 should already be resoundingly clear: everything we know is wrong.
Rarely have so many pre-tournament predictions passed their sell-by date so quickly. And rarely have so many pre-tournament favourites struggled — and even failed miserably — to live up to billing in the opening phase.
Spain’s feeble surrendering of their crown has been the biggest shock. Not that I was one of those expecting them to make it four titles in a row. That always seemed close to mission impossible for a side which, having drawn so deeply from the well on so many occasions in the past six years, had begun to display an alarming vulnerability — worse, an ordinariness even — when being put to the sword by the host nation in the Confederations Cup final here last year.
But to be eliminated from the World Cup after two games with a goal difference of minus six? No, nobody, least of all Vicente del Bosque, could have seen that coming. But if there was genuine sadness in seeing such giants as Xavi and Iniesta reduced to minnows, it was mitigated to a considerable extent by having a ringside seat to witness the joy unconfined of Chile and their wildly passionate fans after that fully merited 2-0 win in the Maracana.
The Chileans, it’s true, were always talked about as South American dark horses but, again, who would have thought that they would be in the process of emerging from the group stage as the continent’s preeminent form team? Yes, Colombia have also secured six points from two games but, while Chile were up against the 2010 winners and runners-up in Group B, the draw was a lot kinder to the Colombians, who found themselves grouped with the Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece.
Argentina, of course, have also achieved maximum points from two games but only because they have in their ranks an alchemist who can transform base metal into goals. Again, much had been made in advance of Alejandro Sabella’s embarrassment of attacking riches, but the distinctly underwhelming performances of his side so far suggest the manager erred in leaving Carlos Tevez out of the squad, irrespective of what combination of political, personal and tactical factors might have influenced his decision. Tevez’s energised, enterprising but most of all bullish approach to the game is precisely what is missing in a strangely subdued Argentinian side whose return of back-to-back wins owes everything to Lionel Messi’s extraordinary ability to conjure magic out of thin air.
Yet even the incomparable little genius had laboured for long periods against both Bosnia and Iran before suddenly and explosively finding his game-changing gear. And if there isn’t going to be a marked improvement in the collective effort, then the fulfilment of my prediction that La Albicelestes will go on to contest the final will almost certainly require that Messi at least emulate and perhaps even exceed Maradona’s personal ownership of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Brazil too seem to be wilting under the weight of the Irish Examiner’s favourites burden. Neymar made the critical difference in the 3-1 win over Croatia but even his box of tricks remained firmly under lock and key in the awful scoreless draw with Mexico. It hardly qualifies as a scientific survey, but in the handful of conversations I’ve had with English-speaking Brazilians over the past few days, the finger of blame has repeatedly been pointed at manager ‘Big Phil’ Scolari. (Indeed, I got the same response when, through pidgin Portuguese, I sought the opinion of a taxi driver whose lack of English proved no barrier to getting his message across: “Luiz Felipe, pah,” he scoffed, underlining his point — rather alarmingly, since like all his kind out here he was driving at manic speed at the time — by throwing both hands up in the air in a gesture of despair).
The recurring complaints about Scolari are that he places the system above players, prioritises defence over attack, is overly wedded to favourites and was altogether too dismissive of the popular pre-tournament clamour for the call-up of Kaka and even the recall of Ronaldinho. At the younger end of the age spectrum, Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho is another name frequently mentioned as someone who might have brought a much-needed spark of creativity to Brazil’s resolutely functional midfield.
In truth, there have been times in the past few days, and especially since the stalemate with Mexico, that I feel like I have travelled in space and time back to Ireland and landed in a pub where the disenchanted talk is all about the age of austerity under Trap and what it might have been like if only Andy Reid or Wes Hoolahan hadn’t been left out in the cold.
Where the comparison collapses, of course, is that we’re talking Brazil here, the team with five stars on its shirt, the hosts of a World Cup which, while it might currently hold most of this vast nation under a spell, is only ever one defeat for the Selecao away from turning from dream to nightmare.
With each game Brazil plays, then, you can feel the pressure intensify on the ground, meaning the stakes will be still higher in the capital tonight, when anything other than a win — and preferably a convincing one — over a Cameroon side who’ve played two, scored none and conceded five, is certain to darken the fragile national mood.
Meanwhile, it seems with every new day in this wild and wonderful tournament, the tables are being overturned. Think magnificent Costa Rica beating Italy and making Andrea Pirlo — who was untouchable against England — look like he had feet of clay. Consider the Dutch, rampant against the reigning world and European champions, only to be pushed all the way by Australia. Or ponder Germany, all-powerful against Portugal and then quaking in their boots at times against gallant Ghana. Every time we think we’re right, we’re immediately proved wrong.
I mean, before the whole thing kicked off, who’d have thought the most potent European threat at this stage would be coming from France, the side whose chances — never the greatest to begin with — we all pronounced had been seriously diminished by the loss of Franck Ribery? Even poor old England have sort of managed to confound expectation — as only they can — not by going out of the tournament early but by going out so early that they were officially out of the running before the longest day of the year back home (which, as darkness falls here in Rio at 5.30pm, I can confirm for the record is the shortest day of the year in Brazil).
Nor would it be an authentic England World Cup experience without some truly freakish element: in this case, the dislocated ankle suffered by their physio Gary Lewin when he landed on a water bottle in what turned out to be the premature celebrations following their equaliser against Italy in Manaus. Talk about adding injury to insult... Roy Hodgson seems to have bought himself some breathing space by the simple expedient of picking players the pundits and people wanted him to pick — not that I’m suggesting that was his reason for doing so — but the long and short of it for England is that if, as has been shown in the last couple of years, the best of their home-grown talent can’t cut it at the business end of the European club game, then they were never going to be able to handle the even steeper ascent involved scaling the giddy heights of the World Cup.
And on that very point: after 10 days that have shaken the football world in, mostly, the best possible way, let’s not hear any more Eurocentric guff, please, about how the Champions League is the ultimate barometer of quality entertainment in the sport of football. No it isn’t. The World Cup is. Always was. Always will be. That much we know is true.