Even before we knew it would be “This. World. Cup.” it was already this World Cup. It began in the early evening of June 12th with the unchecked marauding runs of Croatia’s Ivica Olic down the Brazilian right flank, giving an immediate sense that the host nation was vulnerable.
This was confirmed in comic fashion in the 11th minute, as a Marcelo own goal (symbolically in hindsight) provided Brazil 2014’s opener—a minor shock, but a shock nonetheless. Some good work by Neymar and some fortuitous refereeing helped Brazil right the ship and come out with a 3-1 victory, but a glimmer that the impossible, the unpredictable, could and might very well indeed happen after years of banality on football’s biggest stage.
That glimmer became a shining sun the following day when the Netherlands dropped jaws by hammering Spain 5-1, a match that many believed eclipsed any single offering the 2010 World Cup group stages had to offer. What looked like a routine Spanish tiki-taka job for much of the first half was wiped out with the signature leap of Robin van Persie, providing Netherlands’ equaliser before half time—a goal that may go down as the Dutchman’s greatest.
There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.
It still wasn’t This. World. Cup. Not yet. For that we needed Chile and Colombia’s individual masterclasses against Australia and Greece, followed by Ivory Coast’s come-from-behind win against Japan, Costa Rica’s come-from-behind win against Uruguay led by one Joel Campbell, and Switzerland’s last gasp come-from-behind winner against Ecuador. All that plus an enterprising 4-0 Germany win against Portugal
Almost there. But what truly made it This. World. Cup. was 21-year-old John Brooks, the German born, Hertha Berlin American bench warming defender whom the world has already forgotten but U.S. soccer never will. After Matt Besler came off with what appeared to be a hamstring injury shortly after the start of the second half, Brooks found himself on the pitch when a tired United States conceded an equalizer to Andre Ayew with eight minutes left to play. There was a routine corner in the 86th, and Brooks did his job and headed down and in the net, 1-2 USA. I will never forget the sight of an ordinary player deliriously breaking down from the emotional weight of a life-defining moment, and the end of the mild xenophobic concerns around Jurgen Klinsmann’s German born American players.
We were only five days into the tournament, and This. World. Cup. had arrived.
And on it went—Tim Cahill’s stunner in a stonking 3-2 Australia loss to the Netherlands, a vibrant Chile led by Alexis Sanchez putting world champion Spain out of the tournament in an attacking 2-0 win, the Ronaldo cross which broke American hearts in a 2-2 draw, Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini in a must-win game for both sides, Costa Rica winning Group D with England finishing last. Colombia’s choreographed dancing. Goals like Lionel Messi’s killer strike against a disciplined Iran, or Musa’s brace against the Albiceleste in a 3-2 final group stage match.
A World Cup that finally resembled a World Cup, that most of us prayed for—in vain—for years.
Of course the knockout rounds couldn’t keep pace with what was probably the best tournament group stage of all time, but they still provided incredible drama. Chile’s 1-1 against Brazil in the Round of 16 will go down as one of the better football matches in all competitions, and James Rodriguez’s turning volley against Uruguay as one of the better goals. Germany’s 2-1 win over Algeria was matched in intensity only by the madcap ending of the United States’ losing encounter with Belgium, with the youngster Julian Green giving impossible hope to a nation in extra time.
The quarterfinals fizzled, but history will watch Brazil’s nasty 2-1 win over Colombia as a portent for The Collapse four days later, and Netherlands’ 0-0 draw with Costa Rica marked a tournament fans of Los Ticos will never forget.
The semis, meanwhile, provided two contrasts in extremes. One involved Germany’s mindbending 1-7 destruction of Brazil, a result that is still too big for any of us to quite grasp yet, but may have already permanently wrecked the Seleçao’s Nike-approved status as a world footballing power still capable of Garrincha-style sexiness.
The other match was the nadir of the last 28 years of big tournament futility—two sides not willing to engage out of fear of failure, fear of conceding, fear of losing, rather than love of winning. One wishes Argentina or the Netherlands—two nations that produced Maradona and Cruyff, and now Messi and Robben—had taken the advice of 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano:
People often say that results are paramount, that, ten years down the line, the only thing which will be remembered is the score, but that’s not true. What remains in people’s memories is the search for greatness and the feelings that engenders.
Argentina had another shot at glory in the final, as did Jogi Löw’s Germany. Both sides exemplified the approach in 2014: risk in attack coupled with individual brilliance and discipline in defense. Mario Götze's goal was worthy of a generally positive final, and the final was worthy of this tournament. Positivity from both sides won out—at the death—in a great match. Germany's win will be remembered. As will This. World. Cup.