Offside, 4 July

If the quality of football is the true measure of a tournament, then this was the poorest World Cup ever.

Duleep Allirajah

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It looked and smelt like a proper World Cup final, but Brazil’s 2-0 victory over Germany felt decidedly hollow.

Brazil lifted the trophy because they kept their heads while everyone else was losing theirs. They never looked entirely convincing and were often utterly disjointed, but they won because, in a tournament where the superstars generally flopped, Brazil’s star players were able to lift them at crucial moments above the general mediocrity.

Ronaldo, in particular, was the outstanding player of the tournament, even if his hairstyle did resemble…ahem…a bush of female pubic hair. But lifting the trophy does not make Brazil the best team in the world, despite what the FIFA rankings say. Of course, it wasn’t Brazil’s fault that all the other pretenders to the world crown managed to get themselves eliminated early. As commentators never tired of telling us, ‘You can only beat what’s in front of you’.

But Brazil’s victory was devalued precisely because they were never really tested by top-class opposition. Germany, Turkey and Belgium all made life uncomfortable for the Samba Boys by the simple virtue of being well-organised. Normally a team would have to overcome at least one or two football superpowers in order to reach the final. Brazil only encountered wannabes or has-beens.

Many commentators have declared this the most exciting World Cup tournament for years. But, as the English Premier League illustrates, high drama does not necessarily equal high-quality football. ‘It was a technically mediocre championship’, said Diego Maradona. ‘I have played against very powerful German teams and the one in this World Cup is the worst I have seen. Brazil, for their part, they were a bunch of individuals.’

Thankfully Maradona can still cut through the bullshit. This was a clash of the titans only in name, but neither team could hold a candle to its illustrious predecessors. Superficially, it seemed like the same old Germany, grinding out ill-deserved results: a triumph of organisation and mental strength over flair and skill. But the difference was that previous German teams ground out results against the very best teams in the world – Holland in 1974 or France in 1982 – whereas the current version laboured to overcome the likes of the USA and South Korea.

How will this World Cup be viewed by future generations – as a freakish historical accident or an epochal shift in football’s world order? I tend towards the first explanation myself. The veteran football writer Brian Glanville was spot on when he said that the tournament was ‘exciting at times, not thanks to a general levelling up but to a dumbing down’. France, Argentina, Italy and Spain were eliminated through a combination of complacency, poor finishing and downright bad luck. None of these teams played particularly poorly, but they all failed to win crucial games in which they dominated.

The Spanish and the Italians were ungracious losers who ranted and raved about non-existent conspiracies, but this should not detract from the fact that they were undone by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Spain’s coach Jose Antonio Camacho memorably complained that Spain were not lucky, whereas the Irish had ‘a flower in their arses’. If fortune’s flower was lodged in Ireland’s backside, then South Korea must have had the entire bloody garden centre up their arses, such was the magnitude of their good luck.

South Korea were well-organised, extremely fit and very effective at stopping their opponents from playing. But they were outclassed by Italy and Spain, somehow prevailing thanks to a number of dreadful refereeing decisions and the inability of their opponents to kill them off. Incredibly South Korea, despite their one dimensional spoiling game, have been voted the most entertaining team of the World Cup in a poll on the FIFA World Cup website – which only goes to show that some people are very easily entertained.

If the quality of football is the true measure of a tournament, then this was the poorest World Cup ever. Shamefully, we were all too busy cheering, as one football giant after another was toppled, to grasp the consequences. Only when Germany reached the final did we realise how irresponsible we’d been to support the underdog.

Giant-killing is fine in moderation. Excessive giant-killing, however, only succeeded in depriving the tournament of the superpower head-to-heads that are necessary to bestow legitimacy on the eventual winners.

Ultimately, Brazil’s victory is hollow, because we will never know how they might have fared against Argentina, France or Italy, who are the best teams in the world. The tournament reminded me of the Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury, who won gold in Salt Lake City 2002 after all his opponents collided on the last lap.

‘Freakish’ was how Bradbury described his victory. Brazil should have the good grace to do the same.

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spiked-issue: Sport

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