We Have A Winner

Well, that was one hell of a month, wasn’t it?  The consensus in the sporting press is that this was the best World Cup in recent memory, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.  We saw plenty of goals, one or two overacheiving underdogs, mercifully few officiating fiascoes and, at the end of the day, the best team won it all.  Can’t ask for much more than that, right?

Yesterday’s match never really rose to the level of greatness, but it was still a fitting enough final act for this drama.  The fact that the contest wasn’t more entertaining is really a testament to Argentina’s tactics.  For the most part, they kept Germany bottled up, and they were able to create a handful of very good chances for themselves, chances that you’d have expected them to convert if their attackers had been playing on their club teams.  How many times have we seen Lionel Messi score for Barcelona on exactly the same left-footed shot that he sent fizzing just beyond Manuel Neuer’s far post at the beginning of the second half?  And would Gonzalo Higuain have failed to hit the target after latching on to Tony Kroos’ wayward header if he’d been wearing a Real Madrid shirt?  For as much as these guys are used to playing on a big stage, carrying the weight of your country’s expectations with the entire world watching is a whole different level of pressure.

Argentina got their game plan right, executed it very well, and still lost.  Cruel, maybe, but that’s how fine the margins are at this level.  By failing to capitalize on their earlier chances, Argentina left the door open for Germany and, when the time came, Mario Goetze didn’t miss.  It was a fine goal, worthy of the occasion, and Germany were deserving winners.  They’ve been the best team throughout the tournament, having conceded only four goals in seven games while scoring more than anybody else (aided, obviously, but the seven that they put past hapless Brazil).  Along the way, they came through a very difficult group without breaking a sweat, neutralized a French attack that had been in very good form, demolished the hosts and then defeated the best player in the world.  Their only “stumble” along the way was needing extra time to get past Algeria, but even that somehow felt convincing by the end.

The German team was packed with standout performers.  In a tournament marked by some very good goalkeeping, Maunuel Neuer enhanced his claim on the title of the world’s best; Miloslav Klose broke Ronaldo’s record for World Cup goals, a record which Thomas Muller may in turn eclipse (sooner than later at the rate he’s going); Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Khedira, Lahm, Boateng… all of them were excellent.  Klose and Lahm were the only starters over the age of 30, so expect to see a alot of these same faces defending their title in Russia in 2018.

Now that it’s all over, it’s time to take one last look at my predictions (actual results follow in parenthesis, correctly-predicted winners in bold):

Third-Place Game:   Netherlands 1-0 over Brazil (Netherlands won 3-0)
Final:    Germany 1-0 over Argentia (Germany won 1-0 after extra time)

I got to off to a bit of a mediocre start in terms of prognostication, correctly predicting only nine of the sixteen teams that advanced beyond the group stage.  After that, though, I did much better – of the sixteen games played in the knockout rounds, I correctly called the winner in fifteen of them (France/Nigeria in the Round of 16 was the one I missed).  I suspect a lot of people will have had similar success, as the big teams generally performed as expected.  I also suspect that, in the future, these things are going to get more difficult to predict.  For me, one of the biggest takeaways from Brazil is that the “smaller” teams are getting better.  I’m not suggesting that a team like Costa Rica (or the United States) is ready to win the World Cup any time soon, but I think that teams like this will start to take bigger scalps with more regularity, and they’ll do it not by being utterly negative and grabbing a lucky goal, but by continuing to evolve and develop quality players that, on their day, will be capable of actually outplaying anyone in the world.

In broad terms, I see the World Cup changing along the lines that the NCAA basketball tournament has.  If you think back to the 1980’s or early 1990’s, picking brackets was a much easier exercise than it is today.  Really big upsets were a rarity, and you could at least navigate the early rounds with some degree of confidence.  Now, parity has taken over.  Smaller conference teams are much, much better than what they were 25 years ago, and most teams that make the field are capable of playing with anybody.  I’m sure that has something to do with the big-time teams no longer keeping players for four years, but it’s pretty clear that the smaller teams are also getting better players than they used to.  Scouting, recruiting and coaching have all improved to the point that we’ve managed to enlarge the pool of quality players.  There are simply more to go around now than there were in 1986.

Gradually, I think the same thing is happening in soccer.  The game has become so lucrative that clubs have every incentive to scour the globe for talent, and to develop it once they find it.  Communication and travel have developed to the point that it’s unlikely for a quality player to remain undiscovered forever.  Combine that with the fact that more players in the U.S. and Asia are finding their way into the game as its popularity continues to grow, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that the talent pool will deepen significantly over the next couple of decades.

Whether all of this will make the World Cup more enjoyable remains to be seen.  More parity doesn’t automatically make for a better event; the NCAA basketball tournament was probably more fun back in the ’80’s.  Luckily, soccer isn’t basketball, and the parallel I’ve sketched here isn’t meant to be exact.  I think the “name-brand” teams will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future – there just won’t be as many easy games along the way.  And that’s perfect – winning this thing should be hard, after all.

So, the World Cup is over, and life goes on.  Most of the players are already back in training with their clubs, getting ready for their pre-season tours in July and gearing up for the start of their seasons in August.  Liverpool sold Luis Suarez to Barcelona for £64 million, so good luck to him (and to his opponents in the Spanish league who would like to get through the season without being bitten).   I’ll miss blogging about all of this stuff, but it’s time, I think, to steer this blog back toward the purpose for which it was intended.  Look for a renewed focus on my writing in the weeks to come (unless, of course, something else distracts me).  Thanks for bearing with me and I hope you enjoyed the World Cup!