So that’s it. We’ve had 4 weeks of football, 171 goals, the holders unceremoniously dumped out in the group stage, England exiting without a win, the hosts capturing the imagination, the USA finally embracing the beautiful game, the big stars performing, new stars being made, underdogs barking, favourites falling, Brazil defeated, Messi thwarted and in the end the Germans won. But who were the stars of the competition? What made this World Cup one of the greatest there has ever been? Read on as we detail the 7 heroes of the 2014 World Cup:
The Team – Germany
The reason that Germany won this World Cup was not because they possessed the star players (although man for man they have a depth of quality in their squad matched by no one else) but because they functioned the best as a team. Defensively organised, attackingly vibrant they worked with brutal efficiency, a national stereotype manager Joachim Low would have been delighted to reinforce. Other than the hiccup against Ghana in the group stage and a few scares in the last 16 against Algeria there was rarely a point where Germany looked anything other than assured, dangerous and likely to come out victorious in the end. It speaks volumes as to the mentality of this German side that Low’s half time team talk during the semi final against Brazil, with his team 5-0 up, was simply an exhortation to remain focus and continue playing their game. Similarly the genuine anger on the face of Manuel Neuer and the rest of the German team when they conceded an utterly meaningless goal from Oscar in the 90th minute as well as the restrained celebrations despite the magnitude of victory spoke of a group united by common purpose and assured in their responsibilities. The contrast between the composure of the Germans and the utter collapse of the Brazilians following the loss of Neymar and Thiago Silva spoke volumes about both sides. In the end this World Cup was won by not only the best team on paper, but also by the team that showed the greatest togetherness, discipline and spirit. This 4th German World Cup victory, and the first since reunification, could not be more deserved.
Honourable Mention – USA
Reaching the last 16 this time round isn’t the best the USA have ever done at a World Cup (they reached the quarter finals in 2002) but this is the first World Cup that has really caught the imagination of the American public. The idea of a US President very publically supporting the team’s progress and taking time out of his schedule to watch the team’s games would have seemed ludicrous a few years ago and yet that is exactly what happened this time round. Huge numbers of people tuned in to watch all the games with a massive 25 million, or almost 10% of the population, watching their game against Portugal in the group stages. Why? Part of the reason was the US team’s superb overachievement on the field. With a team made up of modest players and unknowns from the MLS they managed to escape a hellish group including Germany and Portugal giving an incredibly good account of themselves with their performances based on an excellent team ethic and impeccable organisation. In Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard (the new US Secretary of Defence according to Wikipedia) and John Brooks the US team gave the American public new heroes and may have, perhaps, given US football the breakthrough it has been waiting for.
The Player – James Rodriguez
Despite FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, deciding to give the Golden Ball award for the best player to Lionel Messi, for most of the public there was only one winner. Diego Maradona, perhaps for the first time ever, said what everyone was thinking when he claimed that Messi receiving the award was part of a ‘marketing plan’ and that it was Colombia’s James Rodriquez who actually deserved it. And what a tournament the young Colombian had. Whoever turned up their nose when Monaco paid €45 million for his services last summer will certainly have been convinced by his performances during the tournament. Whilst many feared that the fancied Colombian’s chances would be severely curtailed by the loss of star striker Falcao to injury, Rodriguez stepped up with aplomb, winning the Golden Boot with 6 goals of incredible quality in just 5 games in a Colombia side that was unlucky to lose out to Brazil in the quarter finals. The star man in an exceptional team, Rodriguez exploded into the footballing public’s consciousness during this tournament and expect to see this 22 year old light up football for many years to come
Honourable Mention – Thomas Muller
We could of chosen a number of players from the victorious German side with the likes of Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer and even Andre Schurrle excelling but in the end it was the lethal Thomas Muller who was the best of the lot. Scoring 5 goals in the tournament, just one shy of the 6 that would have made him top scorer (and the only man to be the top scorer at 2 World Cups in a row), he was a brilliant lethal attacking spearhead when Germany were firing, like they did against Portugal and Brazil and the player who provided the moments of magic when they struggled, with his goal against a dogged USA side vital to his country’s progression.
The Manager – Miguel Herrera
We could have given him this accolade just for this:
But magnificent celebrations aside, Miguel Herrera deserves enormous credit for the job he has done with Mexico during this World Cup. When he took the job in October 2013 Mexico had just finished a disastrous qualifying campaign , going through 4 managers in less then a year as the team won 4 games out of 10 in a group containing the likes of Jamaica and only managing to stumble in a World Cup playoff spot thanks to a 93rd minute USA goal against Panama getting them off the hook. However, after guiding them to an emphatic but defensively poor 9-3 play off victory over New Zealand, he has, in the space of 6 months turned them from a team plagued with ill discipline and infighting (a situation that denied them the services of Carlos Vela, undoubtedly their best player, for this World Cup) to a cohesive and happy group of players. The most significant thing about the celebrations in the video above, during Mexico’s 3-1 group stage victory over a talented Croatia side is the visible rapport between the players and the coach, with goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa running all the way from his goal to celebrate with Herrera. With this newfound team spirit Mexico exceeded all expectations during this World Cup, gaining a creditable 0-0 draw against a pre breakdown Brazil and beating Croatia to qualify for the last 16, where only a late Wesley Sneijder goal and a 90th minute Huntelaar penalty after a dive from Robben prevented them from reaching the quarter finals. Mexico returned hope to a rapturous welcome, a far cry from the national outrage that accompanied their terrible qualifying campaign and with Herrera being handed a new 4 year contract, don’t bet against this Mexico side continuing to make strides under their charismatic manager.
Honourable Mention – Louis Van Gaal
In terms of what the Dutch side, and Van Gaal in particular, offered to this World Cup we debated as to which list the Netherlands manager deserved to be on. An astounding 5-1 opening victory over Spain and the fact that he managed to drag a limited Dutch side to 3rd place in this World Cup must be lined up against what can only be described as dubious tactical ploys, Robben’s diving and Krul’s borderline unacceptable penalty antics, used to knock out underdogs Mexico and Costa Rica. In the end we’ve put him here as despite his underhanded tactics Van Gaal and the Netherlands have given us some of the stories of the World Cup and his achievements in dragging this largely average group of players as far as he did is a testament to his immense skill as a manager and the excellent job he did at this tournament.
The Underdogs – Costa Rica
Having been placed in a group with 3 former world champions and football heavyweights England, Italy and Uruguay nobody gave Costa Rica a prayer of getting out of their group. Yet thanks to a supremely organised and effective counter attacking system, devised by their little known manager Jose Luis Pinto (who, incidentally earns in a year what Roy Hodgson earns in 3 weeks) they were able to beat lacklustre Italy and Uruguay sides in the group stage (as well as gain a draw with England without even breaking a sweat) before putting in a Spartan-esque defensive performance to deny the Greeks before putting them to the sword on penalties in the last 16. In the end they were only beaten by a defensive and cynical Dutch side and an ingenious bluff by Louis Van Gaal who threw on goalkeeper Tim Krul (who’s penalty saving record for Newcastle United lies at 10%, well below the average save % of 17%) in a successful effort to unnerve the brave Ticos. In the end through stalwart performances from limited players such as Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and perhaps the keeper of the tournament, Keylor Navas, Costa Rica were able to exceed all expectations to become heroes of this World Cup.
Honourable Mention – Algeria
Despite being placed in the weakest group of the tournament, along with Belgium, South Korea and Russia, the Algerians emerged from it playing some of the most exciting football of the tournament and in the end were only defeated in extra time by a well worked Mesut Ozil (taking a break from ‘nicking a living’) goal. In the end they were the team who pushed the eventual World Champions the furthest and returned home as heroes after an excellent showing.
The Fans – Argentina
With the World Cup being held in South America you would expect, given geographical and financial factors, for most of the fans to be Latin American, and you’d be right with fans of South American teams such as Colombia and Chile, as well as obviously Brazil, sending huge groups of fans to Brazil. Yet no country’s fans have embraced this tournament quite like Argentina’s. An estimated 100,000 fans made the trip to Brazil at the beginning of the tournament with the intention of staying for the duration with at least 2 times as many coming in and out for individual games. The sight of hundreds and thousands of camper vans and ‘micros’ – Argentine sleeper coaches – parked in lines stretching miles up Copacabana beach has been a familiar sight to those attending the tournament. In terms of noise and appearance the Argentines have been, in some cases, even more visible than the Brazilians and on Argentina match days the cities in which they have been playing have often felt more Argentine than Brazilian with the fans being keen, especially since Brazil’s humiliation at the hands of Germany, to rub the success of their team in the faces of their hosts:
But Argentina’s vociferous support is all the more remarkable given what has been happening back at home. With its government on the verge of default due to a loss in investor and especially American hedge fund (called ‘vultures’ by Argentinians) confidence in the country disappearing amidst currency devaluation and after years of spectacular financial mismanagement by the Kirchener administration Argentina has had to look to it’s football team, heartbreakingly defeated in the final on Sunday, for respite. An editorial in the Buenos Aries daily ‘Cronica’ said that ‘the Argentine team has managed again to revive our weak sense of belonging to this country… It has us all decked out with flags, rich and poor, young and old, minus our usual differences’. It is because of this that the magnificent Argentine fans are heroes. Despite all that is going on at home and all the divisions and conflicts that plague their dysfunctional country they have shown the world, along with their team, a side of their country that they can justly be proud of.
Honourable Mention – Brazil
In amongst the furore surrounding Brazil’s capitulation to Germany it is easy to forget the enthusiasm that the Brazilian fans greeted the early stages of this World Cup with. The Brazil players’ visible nerves and emotions were amplified by an expectant crowd and the passion of their fans was truly a sight to behold. The national anthems, normally a damp squib of a formality at most internationals became moments of huge significance during Brazil’s games and the sight and sound of their fans, continuing to sing the anthem long after the music stopped, sent shivers down the spine:
In light of this, the fact that it will be the crying women and children during the Germany game, and the now famous moustachioed Brazil fan, clutching his World Cup and watching forlornly as his team were taken apart by the Germans, who will be remembered is a real shame. Throughout the tournament Brazil’s fans were as compelling as their team and while the pressure on the team proved too much, the expectant fans did themselves proud.
The Talisman – Neymar
That Brazil’s World Cup charge fell apart the moment Neymar broke his back under a heavy, if not malicious, tackle from Colombia’s Juan Zuniga was not simply down to the fact that they had lost their best player. Even before the tournament Neymar had become a symbol to the expectant Brazilian public. The golden boy who was to carry this less than stellar Brazilian team to victory, who would lay to rest the ghost of the Maracanazo, the shock defeat to Uruguay in the World Cup final of 1950 that so scarred the nation. His injury, his carrying off on a stretcher in front of a hushed stadium became almost symbolic. Here was not just simply an injured player, but a warrior king, mortally wounded being taken from the field of battle. Whilst his teammates rallied to survive a late scare from Colombia they could not deal with his absence against Germany. In the end however, all the grief and doubt engendered by his loss was perhaps self-inflicted. The media furore, the eulogies from the players and finally the gesture, however well intentioned of holding Neymar’s shirt on the pitch during the national anthems in the game against Germany spoke of a nation that had genuinely brought into the myth that they had created around this young man. Whilst Neymar the player would not have saved Brazil against Germany perhaps Neymar the legend, Neymar the warrior king, Neymar the legend self created may have done.
The Pundit – Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry on the BBC World Cup punditry team should have been, on paper, ridiculous. In amongst the likes of the brain dead Alan Shearer and the gormless Robbie Savage he was as out of place as Luis Suarez was in a Liverpool team with John Flanagan and Victor Moses. It was like George Clooney had joined the cast of ‘The Only Way is Essex’. Except rather than being drowned out and cowed by the mediocrity that surrounded him he, through moments like this, managed to emphasise the gulf in class between himself and his colleagues:
However not only did he (momentarily) restore balance to the universe by putting Robbie Savage back in his box he was a breath of fresh air in amongst the rest of the BBC punditry team. Around the constant, banal moaning of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson and the idiotic party line analysis, bleating on about pace and penetration like a broken sex ed video, Henry was a much needed alternative and intelligent opinion. Before his untimely return to the USA he added a much-needed injection of class, charisma and intelligence to a BBC pundit roster in sore need of it.
Honourable Mention – Martin O’Neil – Although just as much part of the grumpy man brigade as Lawrenson and Hansen, he added a huge amount of intelligent analysis to the ITV coverage. Although his discomfort at the shorts and t shirt beachfront approach taken by his station was plain to see, being forced to attempt to engage Andy Townsend, Ian Wright and Adrian Chiles in rational conversation cannot have been anything less than excruciating.