If declarations of this being the greatest World Cup ever were tempered during what has mostly been bland football since the knockout stages began, one theme has been maintained, if not strengthened, throughout.
This has been the World Cup of the individual.
When the dust settles and the tournament is reviewed in years to come, you will remember the winner, there will be Tuesday’s freak result and then there will be the superstars.
From Lionel Messi’s magic and James Rodriguez’s dazzling skillset to the hysteria over Neymar’s broken vertebra, the tournament has seen several outstanding players dominate.
While Germany have bucked the trend, this tournament has seen a notable shift towards placing entire gameplans on one player.
If Diego Maradona is said to have single-handedly won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina, then the reliance on Messi in Brazil has far exceeded that.
While Maradona’s performance in 86 was a thing of undisputed beauty, Jorge Valdano scored four goals — including one in the final, where Maradona failed to net. Messi has not had a Valdano-like side-kick, and in each game up to Wednesday’s semi-final has produced a moment which has spawned amazement and lifted those around him to improve their own performance.
When he was suffocated by Holland, Argentina looked limited and ponderous, failing to score. Similar can be said for Arjen Robben, who wasn’t given a yard by the Argentinian defence. The absence of plan B as both were silenced further outlined the importance of the superstar.
Yet Argentinians still refuse to acknowledge Messi in the same breath as Maradona. For many, there is no point comparing: El Diez can never be matched. Such is the pressure on Messi to succeed though, he has been vomiting on the pitch due to anxiety.
Their entire strategy is based on him, and his team-mates have reached an unprecedented level of fawning. “Every time we recover the ball, we try to pass to him as he’s the best player we have in the team and he will score goals,” Pablo Zabaleta said last week.
“We know he’s our main player, our captain, the best player in the world. This team is playing for him as we know how important Messi is for this team. We’re so lucky to have Messi in Argentina.”
Even Alejandro Sabella, the manager, was at it: “I want a team that supports Messi, that’s strengthening him, that helps him to feel good, so that he can perform as he has been doing.” Little wonder, he has been gagging on the sideline.
Brazil, too, put all their eggs in one basket with Neymar. We now know the delirious reaction was not just mourning the loss of their poster boy but a realisation they were substantially weaker in his absence.
Their humiliation highlighted the danger of having one plan, focused on one player.
Despite all that, it has been the team without the outstanding performer, the greater collective, that are favourites to lift the trophy. Maybe the quality of Germany’s performance has been clouded by Brazil’s insipid showing, a capitulation the likes of which has not been seen before.
But even if you are to bestow glowing praise upon them, it has been dazzling moments produced by individuals that remain the most vivid memories of all.
Do any of Germany’s goals on Tuesday stir up the same joyous explosion of emotion as Lionel Messi’s dramatic winner against Iran? No. Did one of the seven make you leap from your seat like Rodríguez’s majestic volley against Uruguay? Even the bad stories have centred on individuals: Luis Suárez and Alex Song. Germany might end up lifting the trophy tomorrow evening but it will be hard to escape the sense this was the year international football became less about the team and more about building around a star performer.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved