Brazil's Neymar celebrates a goal during the 2014 World Cup opening match between Brazil and Croatia at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo
So it’s all over. And just like in Italia 90, it came down to Germany and Argentina in the final. And just like in Italia 90, Germany prevailed by a single goal. And just like back then, Argentina’s central magician was unable to unlock the German defense and turn the tide; in 1990 it was Diego Maradona, in 2014 Lionel Messi.
But what a thoroughly enjoyable World Cup tournament it’s been. While the romantic aura still surrounds Italia 90 for me personally, and I also still have a soft-spot for the 2006 World Cup, Brazil 2014 exceeded expectations and delivered a dramatic, event-filled, exciting tournament.

It had incredibly close contests and close calls, epic clashes, utter thrashings, huge upsets and surprises, moments of individual brilliance, last-minute salvations, personal dramas, fallen heroes, goalkeeper heroics, the lot. From great showings for Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica, to astonishing feats by the likes of Algeria and the USA, devastation for the host nation in the final week, with everything from Sanchez to Suarez in-between.

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Where does it stand alongside past World Cup competitions? It needs a few years to answer that; the events of this Brazilian summer need time to age. But there’s no questioning the level of excitement and competition that existed in this tournament, a tournament memorable most of all for its upsets and even more so its near-upsets where traditionally underdog nations rose above their perceived station and threatened to overturn the status quo.

Remarkably two of the teams to be most memorably swept away in this competition were the hosts/favorites Brazil and the reigning champions Spain – while the likes of Iran, Ghana and USA, for example, conversely held their ground, stood firm and took a lot to overcome. That was a fascinating state of affairs – the doggedness of the underdogs contrasted to moments of utter capitulation elsewhere by football giants.

What could’ve made this World Cup better? Some obvious things; England or Italy progressing out of their group instead of the ineffective, Suarez-less Uruguay would’ve made for a better tournament. It would’ve been nicer to see Wayne Rooney get more time to grow into the competition or for Andrea Pirlo to have been around longer in his final international appearance. Neymar not getting his back smashed Bane/Batman style and therefore being able to play against Germany in that ill-fated semi final. Ghana progressing out of the group stage. Drogba and the Ivory Coast perhaps getting out too instead of Greece. And Lionel Messi being able to effect the final against Germany more. All of these and a few other ‘what-ifs’ of that nature come to mind.

And some better decisions by the officials; Mexico’s costly penalty in the second-round game against Holland was questionable, Iran should’ve had a penalty against Argentina that might’ve won them the game, the German goalkeeper should possibly have been penalized and sent off in the final and that might’ve handed World Cup victory to Argentina, etc. But those kinds of refereeing decisions are always a fixture and determining factor in World Cup fortunes and that’ll probably never change.

But broadly speaking this was a fantastic World Cup and will go down as one of the best in terms of the quality of football and level of contest.

Here are 10 Particularly Great Moments from the 2014 FIFA World Cup

Neymar’s Opening Goal

It’s not as if it was the greatest goal of the tournament or anything like that; and it seems a really long time ago now. But that opening game of the 2014 World Cup was memorable. With the incredible home support, the noise in the stadium, the emotion and passion of the players to be at this occasion of initiating the World Cup on their own soil… it all created a highly charged atmosphere and a level of excitement that made it so easy to get drawn into the tournament from the very beginning.

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I had a mixed level of interest going into this World Cup, feeling that it was lacking the great ‘characters’ and world players of old tournaments, such as Zidane and Figo, (Brazilian) Ronaldo, Beckham and Kaka, for example. But watching this opening game ensured my interest. And that opening goal from Neymar created an incredible noise in the stadium and set the tournament up terrifically for what was a shaky and uncertain Brazilian squad and even more uncertain nation of supporters.

Unfortunately it was mostly downhill from there, culminating in that utterly shocking battering by the Germans weeks later. Would that semi final nightmare have occurred if Neymar had been playing? Does one player make that much difference? The answer is yes: you only need to look at how Messi dragged an uninspiring Argentina squad all the way to the final to see that, or the way Uruguay collapsed without Luis Suarez.

The simple fact is that Brazil for once have a below-par squad of players that was incapable of winning this competition and only got as far as it did because of the emotionality of the occasion and the home support, and because of having at least one quality attacking player in Neymar. The time that it would’ve been truly perfect to have hosted a World Cup in Brazil would’ve one of the tournaments in the generation of Ronaldo, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and co – that would’ve been something incredible for the Brazilian national team.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, fairy tales simply do not happen in football; they can happen in isolation, in a single moment or in a particular game, but never over a whole competition. Sport, like life, is unfortunately all about pragmatism and efficiency in the end and not about romance or magic.

Holland Annihilate the Spanish

Not as mind-boggling as the German decimation of the host nation in the semi finals, but the Dutch pounding of the reigning World Champions in their opening group game really had everything to do with how this World Cup played out, really setting the tone and the standard for what would follow in the coming weeks.

Holland’s thrashing of Spain opened the floodgates for the festival of attacking, fearless football that we subsequently got to enjoy; other teams saw that the Dutch showed no respect or fear to the World Champions and that this was the way to play at this tournament. The era of Spanish-led control and passing football was blown away by Ayern Robben and Robin Van Persie in that game; I wonder how many of the great, dogged performances we saw from other teams, especially smaller footballing nations in the subsequent weeks, was influenced by having seen the Dutch approach to Spain.

Spain’s perceived domination of the world game in recent years was one of the reasons I may have had a mixed level of interest towards this World Cup during the build-up, considering it almost inevitable that the Spanish would dominate again; but what the Dutch did to them in that opening game left me wide-eyed and enthused. Spain didn’t recover from this. Van Persie’s headed goal was worth the time alone, while Robben went on to have a superb, energetic tournament.

Colombia’s Wonderkid

Having drifted off a little from European club football in the passed couple of years, I actually didn’t even know who this James Rodriguez was; but he lit up the tournament in the group stage, scored some wonderful goals and made his mark on the sport’s biggest stage. His absolute highlight was his glorious goal against Uruguay in the second round, slightly reminiscent of a Maxi Rodriguez goal for Argentina in 2006 but possibly a little better.

There’s always something nice about seeing a fearless young player performnig on the greatest platform and without hindrance, like for example the Michael Owen of old. Would’ve been fascinating to have seen Rodriguez and his quality Colombian team-mates progress passed Brazil in the quarter final and face Germany in the semi.

In a tournament where Cristiano Ronaldo never really had the window to shine and where Luis Suarez chewed his way out of contention, it was left to someone else to capture people’s attention and imagination. Messi did his part, but it was the young Colombian that truly announced himself in the sport’s most important arena.

Suarez Versus England

Unfortunately for him, Luis Suarez’s World Cup will probably be remembered for that moment of regressive madness against Italy and Giorgio Chierlini that saw him expelled from the tournament; but his moment of glory against England in the second group game was still a highly memorable moment and performance.

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Scoring both goals (and in style) that eliminated his country of employment from the competition, Suarez had done that whilst still not fully recovered from an injury that had been expected to rule him out of the game. Unfortunately his banishment from the tournament after the Italy incident sealed Uruguay’s exit from the competition, as they were utterly ineffective without him.

Algeria’s Epic Battle

One of the great surprises of the Brazil World Cup, Algeria fought and parried long and hard, not only to get out of the group stage but more memorably to try to overcome the might of Germany in the second round; that clash with the Germans was one of the best games of the competition. We saw an Algeria side battling tirelessly for two hours against superior opposition, never capitulating, never losing their desire or conviction.

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Algeria managed to force Germany to extra time – a feat not accomplished by France in the following round and certainly not accomplished by the host nation Brazil in the semi final. The fact that they lost – and only just lost, at that – to the eventual World Champions makes Algeria’s accomplishment in this World Cup all the more laudable.

Klinsmann and the USA

Like Algeria, the USA brought their utter best to the occasion, showing the rest of the football world what can be accomplished with spirit, organization, willingness and NO star players or great egos. Their group-stage draw against Portugal, so nearly a win, was one of the superb clashes of 2014, while their second-round clash with Belgium was almost just as valiant an effort as Algeria’s against Germany; we saw a team going up against probably superior opposition, but nevertheless throwing everything they could at the endeavor and dueling on to the very last seconds.

Ghana v USA: Group G - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Teams like England, and in this tournament also Italy and even Spain, could really have learnt something by watching the USA or Algeria in these early stages – just the degree of the commitment and the desire to push the envelope and exceed expectations. In truth teams like USA, Algeria and Iran and Ghana don’t have the pressures and expectation of the bigger footballing nations; it enables them to play and perform more freely, more innocently, more honestly even. And that’s exactly what we got from the USA under Jurgen Klinsmann’s management. Klinsmann remains one of the more likeable figures in football even beyond his playing days and it was difficult not to cheer him and his adopted team on, particularly when they were striving so hard and coming so close.

Germany’s Brazilian Slaughter

Hey, at least the Saudi Arabia team of 2002 that got massacred 8/0 by the Germans can feel a little better about themselves now! Honestly, the Brazil/Germany semi final was like watching something from a parallel universe. Germany will revel in it forever; Brazil will feel humiliated for decades to come. There was the sense too that Germany could’ve scored more than seven goals if they’d really wanted to. It was painful watching that Brazilian defense utterly collapse, conceding more goals in just a few minutes than some other squads even conceded in the entire competition.

Fans wept, traumatized. The players, particularly Fred and the always emotional David Luiz, looked utterly beleaguered; some of them appeared to be supplicating to God. This was Brazil in a World Cup semi final in their own country and in front of their home fans. While I was actually not especially fond of this Brazil team for most of the tournament, particularly the way they set about bullying Columbia and James Rodriguez out of the competition in the quarter-final, I didn’t take any pleasure in watching them utterly humiliated like that.

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Unfortunately passion, emotion, and home support isn’t enough to win the greatest competition in football – not by a long way. And without their sole star Neymar, this Brazil team became utterly, utterly ineffective.

There was clearly a sense of entitlement and ownership of this tournament in Brazil from the outset, being the host nation and the greatest football nation of all time – this had seemed like it should’ve been their fairytale World Cup, virtually a God-given right to the trophy. Unfortunately football hardly ever works that way – just ask the Italia 90 Italian squad, Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2006 Germany team or just ask Roberto Baggio. And this generation of Brazil’s national team just doesn’t have the quality or the organisation – and there’s no better team in the world than Germany to expose that in all of its abject horror.

Algeria took Germany to extra-time and only just lost out to them. Ghana put two goals passed them and held them to a draw. Brazil lost 7/1 – the worst defeat in their history and the worst semi final defeat by anyone in World Cup history. There’s something compulsive, even if unpleasant, about watching a dream and a conviction die before your eyes and in such total, total terms.

 

Costa Rica!

I’m actually just about old enough to remember Costa Rica’s performance in Italia 90 – the last time this small footballing nation made any impression on the World Cup stage. But this time around they outdid themselves and did far better than anyone could’ve expected. Put into a first-round group that they had no business getting out of, their response was to slaughter Uruguay, defeat Italy and qualifify for the knock-out stages with a game to spare. Consequently, the humiliated England had to suffer the indignity of an utterly pointless final group game with the already group-winning Costa Rica. Costa Rica – Campbell, Ruiz, Navas, and all – struggled in the subsequent knock-out phase, but they fought on and refused to capitulate, not even to the Dutch. They took Holland all the way to penalties – in the end, the shoot-out seemed like the only way to eliminate this tireless Costa Rican squad from the tournament.

 

Ghana’s Moment

Ghana are no strangers to lighting up the early stages of a World Cup tournament; they did it in 2006 and they did it even better in 2010 when they reached the quarter finals (and would’ve reached the semis had it not been for Uruguayan cheating). In 2014 they didn’t get passed the group stage, but they did give us one superb effort against the Germans, scoring against them twice and holding them to a 2/2 draw.

When Asamoah Gyan (now surpassing Cameroon’s Roger Milla as the all-time top African goal scorer in the World Cup) scored that second goal to put Ghana in front I was convinced the lions of African football were going to pull off one of their greatest ever victories. It didn’t happen, but Ghana did themselves proud and put out a far better, far more spirited, performance than the likes of England, Italy, Spain or even Argentina managed across all their respective games.

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Going back to the point mentioned in regard to USA and Algeria about teams that are able to perform freely and with ‘innocence’, Ghana has been a perfect encapsulation of that for a number of years now. Without the sort of media pressure, intense level of expectation and the like that effects the psychology of, say, English or Italian players, teams like Ghana can simply go out and play to the best of their abilities – which is how all sport should surely be played in an ideal world.

While they are never as tactically aware as an Argentina or a Uruguay, they are also therefore less cynical in their approach; as such they visibly seem to enjoy their football, enjoy the occasion, and are able to rise to it.

On the one hand this won’t help them to win a World Cup; on the other it makes them so much more entertaining to watch than some of the more ‘considered’ football nations. The way Ghana played against Germany – without fear or respect – would’ve utterly eluded England in those same circumstances.

Iran’s Valiant Effort

Iran generally excelled at this tournament, exceeding expectations. They didn’t get as far as, say, Algeria, but they did themselves proud. The height of this was their contest with Argentina in the group stage; a game in which, on paper, they should’ve had no chance at all. On paper in fact Argentina and Lionel Messi should’ve slaughtered them. In reality, however, the Iranian team showed incredible resilience and fortitude. They were well organized, they defended brilliantly, and they even began to attack more potently than could’ve been expected.

They took Argentina all the way to the end; in the end it was only a piece of individual brilliance by the greatest player in the world that denied the Iranians a hugely deserved point for their efforts. Argentina was a team relying on one player to get them through; Iran, by contrast, were a well organised, well functioning, unit working in unison to try to excel against superior opposition… and almost succeeding. They almost won it on several occasions; and they were denied a legitimate penalty that would’ve changed the direction of the contest.

10 moments out of many that have enlivened this passed month of World Cup football and made it special. There have been others too, including some tremendous goalkeeping, defensive masterclasses and Lionel Messi magic; but we’d be here too long. A fabulous World Cup competition; and a worthy winner in the end, with a better final than some of the others we’ve seen in recent times. On to Russia in 2018.

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