Well I don’t know about you, but I really wasn’t expecting this. After the rank turgidity that was South Africa 2010, and the red card festival of Germany 2006, Brazil 2014 has finally provided us with a World Cup to enjoy.
With the group phase at an end, a total of 136 goals have been scored, at more than 2.8 a game. We’ve had a 5-2, a 5-1 and a 4-2, a few 3-2s and more 2-1 come-from-behind wins than you can shake a stick at. One slightly sore point for me is the continuing presence of the joy-sappingly awful Greece in the last 16. But you can’t have it all.
When you compare the 2014 group stage to the dirgefest in South Africa, it becomes even clearer how refreshing this World Cup has been. A mere 101 goals were scored at the end of the 2010 group stage – indeed, 2014 has already beaten the total number of goals scored in South Africa 2010 following yesterday’s two second round games.
There are frankly too many highlights to choose from at this point in time- however I’ll try and do so anyway.
For me, despite my bias from 1994, Colombia have been fantastic. They have shown attacking verve and creativity, and in James (Ha-mez) Rodriguez have the star man of the tournament thus far. Along with him, I have been very impressed with the effortless running and ability to beat players shown by Juan Cuadrado, and at the grand old age of 38 Mario Yepes seems to have found a new lease of life – his reading of games has been exemplary.
Chile and Costa Rica have also shown that while football is often obsessed with individuals like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (more of him below) in the current era, the sport is still fundamentally a team game. Costa Rica in particular have no star players to speak of but play with such a firm idea of their collective aims that that lack of individuals is swept to one side. They emerged unbeaten from a group with England, Italy and Uruguay in it – I for one hope that they can see their way past Greece in the last 16.
Finally, it would be somewhat remiss of me not to talk about the efforts of at least one European team. While France have impressed, the Netherlands, and particularly that 5-1 thumping of Spain in their first match, have been an absolute joy to watch. Robin Van Persie’s header against the Spanish was obviously exemplary, Arjen Robben has been absolutely mesmerisingly good, and the Dutch yet again have an embarrassingly impressive selection of youngsters coming through. Daley Blind, Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan De Vrij have excelled at the back, while the wonderfully named Memphis Depay has looked fantastic up front whenever he’s stepped on the pitch.
Another point that has gladdened my heart has been the fact that the big names have turned up, and then some. Lionel Messi almost dragged Argentina through the group stages by himself, scoring the winning goals against Bosnia and Iran, while coming good in the final game with a wonderful free kick effort against Nigeria. Neymar has been imperious for Brazil too, his finest performance coming in the hosts’ eventually comfortable win against Cameroon. Karim Benzema has finally shone at a big tournament as well, getting 3 goals to sit just behind Messi and Neymar who have four apiece.
As ever, the standards shown by the British broadcasters has been ropey to say the least. The inclusion of Fabio Cannavaro has brought a little more credibility to ITV, along with the wit of Martin O’Neill. However, the presence of Adrian Chiles and Andy Townsend in particular fill me with emotions bordering somewhere between dread and despair.
The BBC, meanwhile, have not used Tim Vickery anything like enough. Listening to a World Football Phone-In podcast today, host Dotun Adebayo raised that very point with him – Vickery very graciously, and in my view wrongly, said there were far better experts than him sitting on the Match of the Day sofa. Vickery has at least been on the TV, bringing insightful video compilations to the fore before each match on the BBC involving a South American side, and has also contributed in the MOTD studio on a few occasions. It was particularly heartening prior to one match (and surprising) to see the BBC talk to Sid Lowe (of the Guardian fame) and Vickery within about 5 minutes of one another.
One man who has surprised me is Danny Murphy, who, although he does come across a little as a dull Scouser, has managed to bring a little more insight and analysis to games beyond saying things like “good pass” or “what a hit,” doing such revolutionary things as keeping track of defensive lines throughout matches and picking out where sides are leaving pockets of space. In the outstanding Germany v Ghana match, he was particularly good, though I was a little perturbed when he said that he hadn’t seen much of Mario Götze but liked him. You can’t win em all I guess.
His fellow Danny, meanwhile, Mr Mills, has said undoubtedly the stupidest thing to emerge from the mouth of a British pundit so far in this tournament. Asked about his views on Luis Suarez’s bite on Giorgio Chiellini (you may have heard about this incident), Mills took the somewhat draconian view that Suarez “should be thrown in jail and locked up forever.” Riiiiight.
What I will say for the BBC is, other than keeping Robbie Savage in paid employment, their coverage on 5 Live has been excellent whenever I have had reason to tune in (usually the walk home from work). 5 Live appear to be getting the balance of talking to expert journalists and ex-players about right, while their commentators, particularly John Murray and Mike Ingham, and much less so Alan Green, continue to be fantastic.
Anyway, as I said, it’s been a wonderful tournament so far, though the last 16 clearly sees the start of the real business of this World Cup. If yesterday’s two games are anything to go by, the quality and excitement provided by the knock-outs may even surpass that of the group stages. Here’s hoping.