It seems an age ago that Xavi walked into a press conference in Salvador before Spain began their defence of this trophy, full of hope and with earned dreams of further history.
Few could have imagined what would follow so when asked about their persistence with tiki taka, both question and answer seemed bland.
The midfielder noted they’d live or die by it but while it would turn out to be the latter, there must now be an increased frustration as this tournament meanders to a close.
The Spanish aren’t close to the side they were in their dizzying pomp, but had they played to even the levels they’d shown with their clubs this season then they would still be here and perhaps the favourites.
Because, while this may be a great World Cup in terms of entertainment and emotion, inversely it’s a World Cup of a relatively low standards as there are no truly great teams in it.
Take bygone Spain as perhaps the ultimate barometer of quality in international football and cast your mind back to the levels of dominance as they flirted with perfection not so long ago. So untouchable were they that their brilliance almost became boring as results became inevitable.
Against that backdrop, it might seem too easy to highlight the flaws of the present, but even if Spain hadn’t taken over so ruthlessly, it still wouldn’t be all that hard to tear apart those succeeding at this World Cup.
Just look at the sides who’ve recently departed and even those that have made the final four here and you can pick out so many obvious issues that are glaring, waiting to be exploited, and seemingly insolvable.
Most of those issues are about defences as there’s a huge dearth of quality in that area within the game now. Even outside of this tournament, ask yourself who are the immovable objects within the sport at the moment?
Not so long ago at World Cups we had Marcel Desailly, Frank de Boer, Fernando Hierro, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram and Carles Puyol laying the most solid of foundations for the best nations yet this time around it may be Brazil that have the best defence left.
As much as that’s important when considering their chances, it’s telling too when considering standards. For all that David Luiz has improved his concentration and positioning, that he and Thiago Silva are the most imposing centre-halves about is an indictment of it all. And outside of those two, who else stands out? Ron Vlaar?
Saturday’s game between Belgium and Argentina surmised the level of defensive problems across recent weeks.
Vincent Kompany, expected to be one of the more assured performers in that department, gave away the ball, barely got back, lost position and was so easily turned for the only goal.
Meanwhile taking the lead proved so vital to Argentina because it allowed them to drop their two holding midfielders so deep that they essentially sat in with defenders, hiding low quality with high quantity.
Were Argentina to win out in fact, they’d probably be the slowest defence to ever go all the way. It’s why coach Alejandro Sabella started this tournament with five to cover for massive inadequacies and it’s why Lionel Messi’s supposed push to revert to a back four has left them open at the back.
Nigeria capitalised on that, Iran created decent chances when they got forward in mere ones and twos, while Xherdan Shaqiri tormented them to the point that had Switzerland another attacking player with his poise and ability, they’d have won through their second round clash.
But if Argentina would have the worst defence to win a World Cup were it to happen — and it’s looking increasingly likely — then Brazil would have the worst team outright.
Even before Neymar’s nation-stopping injury that would have been the case for outside of him they are devoid of attacking talent.
Oscar has gone missing, Hulk for all his physical attributes is too one-dimensional, Fred is somehow less to this team than Stephane Guivarc’h was to France in 1998, and Ramires, Willian and Jo must be impressing so little on the training ground that they’ve barely got a look in ahead of that lot.
For sure it can be stereotypical to presume Brazil will be a swashbuckling side on the attack and it can be too easy to forget the effect 1982 had on their football philosophy, but even by their ever-increasing functional standards, this is an average and extremely boring side.
Yet after all that, you wouldn’t be taken aback if it was an all-South American final as Germany have looked jaded ever since the early stages of their second-round game with Algeria and have looked flawed without the ball while for all that Arjen Robben in particular seems to be in the best physical and mental shape of his career, the Netherlands have still managed to use up all their lives already.
And if it is Argentina and Brazil that advance, regardless of the levels of play and occasional cynicism particularly in the case of the hosts, that would be a huge testament to both sides given their limitations and the pressure they are under.
Then again, it would also be an insight into the opposition they’ve stumbled over while rarely impressing.
There’s not a side left here that can’t count themselves lucky, but that’s what has made this tournament so fascinating.
The favourites have been winning since we’ve got to the knockout stages but they’ve been hugely fortunate to and that hasn’t taken away from the great sense of unpredictability.
Then again, to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality. And this has and will continue to be the perfectly imperfect World Cup.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved