12 Things We Learned From the World Cup

england1. England’s diminished expectations
There’s a line that John Cleese says in the film Clockwise that’s long been applicable to the way England fans have felt about the team at international tournaments: “It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope!” Well, going into this World Cup the hopes and expectations for the English national side were as low as they’ve been in living memory and few fans had any optimism of them doing anything significant. There were no grand claims or boasts of a “golden generation” or pre-tournament rallying cries about bringing home the trophy. The manager and team were modest, and frankly had a lot to be modest about. Aside from a 20-minute flurry in the first half against Italy, they spluttered along like eleven individuals fulfilling a contractual appearance at an end-of-season charity event. Long gone are the days when reaching the quarter final was seen as a minimum expectation. After two defeats and a goalless draw in a game where (perhaps disgracefully) the manager just appeared to be giving the other squad members a “bit of a run out” there was next to zero backlash in the media. No mass calls for Hodgson to resign. No effigies hung from lampposts outside East End pubs and nothing like the horrible treatment that Bobby Robson endured, certainly nothing like the vitriol poured upon Graham Taylor and not even a “wally with the brolly” half-in-jest barbs that ended Steve McLaren’s short and sour spell as boss. Not since 2006, eight years ago, have they had a side that might trouble the latter stages of a tournament and even then, the side was pretty uninspiring and largely reliant on that decent back four. Now though, England are middling European also-rans, and – as Johnny Rotten put it – “just another country”. Or if you want to reduce it to the level of a terrace chance from strugglers at club level, “we’re s**t, and we know we are”. And now England knows it, perhaps they can really start to do something about changing it. Don’t hold your breath though.

2. Fast attacking really has superseded possession
The obsession with possession is seemingly over. The success of Spain and Barcelona with their tiki-taka style appeared to be a model for success, but when a fast attacking Bayern Munich slaughtered Barcelona in the Champions League back in April 2013 the thinking changed. Bayern were now the model for others to aspire to. For example, even in England last season, Liverpool exceeded expectations by playing fast attacking football in a switch from their attempt to be the budget Barca the previous year. There were some, however, that believed the more technical and tactical international football would be perpetually suited to the slower possession based approach. Especially in the heat of Brazil and in games where being too open and attacking could be suicidal. A few games into the World Cup, however, Holland blitzed Spain 5-1 and it was tiki-taxi for the Spanish. As the tournament went on, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica and other teams not traditionally considered “big nations” in football terms all entertained. Sure, the Costa Ricans parked the bus for long periods against the Dutch but when they came out in extra time it was with fast incisive breaks. The crowning glory was the German team (with six Bayern players in the starting lineup) obliterating Brazil 7-1 in the semi-final. Remember back when people were saying that the Spain/Barca style was the ultimate conclusion for football tactics? Akin to football’s Francis Fukuyama -style “end of history” proclamations. But things move on, styles are found out, and the era of sterile domination and patient possession is over.

3. Luis Suarez is a time bomb
He’s a periodical time bomb of madness that has already gone off three times with biting incidents. Once is unfortunate, twice suggest instability, but three times indicates a habit and something that’s surely only a matter of time before it happens again. He played 110 times for Ajax before leaving for Liverpool after being banned for biting. He then played 110 times for Liverpool before his transfer to Barcelona amid a four-month ban. One wag pointed out it’s a player banned from any football activity joining a team that’s currently banned from making any signings. But feckless FIFA aside, it a signing by the Spanish club that, once he’s finished his ban, sets up a dream attacking trio of Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi. Has there been a better forward line in modern club football? But another incident from Suarez could well see him banned for a whole year. Perhaps more. It’s a huge risk to take week-in week-out for the reward of his undoubted brilliance and chance to set up the most exciting attacking trio in world football.

4. The USA have made it
Of course they’ve been a decent side for years now and the country hosted the World Cup in 1994, but this time there was a different feeling about the USA team. America truly seems to be getting into the beautiful game now and the team’s performance in Brazil will certainly have amplified that cause. Their extra time defeat to Belgium was one of the best games of the tournament and the wave of support back home was unprecedented. With a population of 240million, decent infrastructure, a college sports system in place and an increasingly solid domestic league it’s just a matter of time before the USA become one of the major powers in international football. But at last, the American people are football crazy.

5. The world no longer loves Brazil
Sure, lots of people still like them (if the Lebanese in Brazil shirts in our local are anything to go by), but the it’s certainly not churlish to suggest that the historic widespread love of the Seleção has gone.The teams of the past were exotic, tantalising and almost pure in the way they played the game, but this is the modern world. That side of 1982, and even the side of 1986, were romanticized but neither won anything. The teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002 hardly lived up to the expectation of “samba football” but why should they? They will always be winners. Fair enough. But this particular side was very workmanlike. Neymar (until his injury) starred at times, there was the odd flash from Oscar, but all in all, not a whole lot to get excited about. And their approach was cynical, cheating, technically poor, badly organised and the way they tried to kick James Rodriguez out of the Columbia game was a disgrace. One conveniently forgotten when the Colombians gave Neymar a dose of the same.So while that 7-1 crushing defeat was described by one critic as “The most embarrassing semi since I watched Brokeback Mountain with my Dad” for most it was perfect football schadenfreude.

6. If you want to win the World Cup, be in Scotland’s qualifying group.
The last three teams to win it, Italy (2006), Spain (2010) and now Germany were all in Scotland’s European qualifying group.

7. Belgium are a decent manager short of competing
They were hyped in the build up to the tournament largely because a lot of their players were fairly high-profile ones in the English Premier League, but there was no denying that the Belgians have a great squad. Even with a few players missing they had one of the most complete groups in the tournament with strength in every position. That they were largely disappointing (despite contributing to a brilliant extra time against the USA) was seemingly down to poor management. Marc Wilmots just didn’t seem to have a coherent plan. Watching Marouane Fellaini wander about seemingly without direction was reminiscent of him last season under David Moyes and sure, Eden Hazard was near anonymous, but a top class coach will be able to shape this group into one that can really challenge. We haven’t heard the last of this Belgian side, not by a long way.

8. beIn Sports really are wretched
If you’ve suffered their (now partial) coverage of the Saturday Premier League football last season it would have come as no surprise, and while we’re now practically accustomed to seeing random letters appearing on the screen to block our view during games, losing the picture during a penalty shootout is near unforgivable. Come back Abu Dhabi Sports, all is forgiven.

9. David Luiz is not a defender
His 30 yard free kick against Colombia was one of the best ever scored in a World Cup and at times his ability to bring the ball out of defence suggests a superior modern defender far removed from the panicky “get rid of it!” mentality of some. But during the first half of the Brazil v Germany game, the Qatari owners of PSG who sanctioned 50m Euros for David Luiz may have been frantically searching for the receipt. Responsible for five of Germany’s seven goals, he was regularly out of position, unwilling to track runners and at time just seemed lazy, like your mate in five-a-side who refuses to come back and defend. Jose Mourinho got rid of him reportedly because his lack of concentration and because (almost laughably) there was a team prepared to pay world-record money. For every person who sees him as a liability there’s someone else who thinks he’s worth the lapses, especially if he has someone the quality of Thiago Silva next to him. But when Silva wasn’t there, Luis was shown up and despite having now played a game for his new club, Luiz’s value has already plummeted.

10. Cooling breaks are proof the Qatar can’t host
It only happened in a couple of games, but if players are having to stop mid-half to cool off in 43 degree heat then what’s going to happen in 50 degree heat with increased humidity? The unwanted interruption was a grim portent of how unplayable the Qatari summer will be and another sign that for the sake of the World Cup, a decision about 2022 needs to be made fast.

11. Man Utd should be alright next season
His record speaks for itself, but Louis van Gaal has shown at the World Cup that he’s probably the right person to sort out the mess at Man Utd. Don’t expect attractive, free flowing football or an overnight transformation into a side that’s great to watch, but he’ll sort out all the problems that David Moyes was unable to fix and turn United into a team that won’t be easy to beat and – much like a Mourinho side – will do what it takes to get the result, pretty or not.

12. The next Copa America will be brilliant
This World Cup has already set up next summer’s Copa America as something of an epic. The overriding narrative will be of Brazil’s shot at international redemption and they have 12 months to try and sort out that mess, but with Argentina looking to overcome the final defeat (and Messi’s chance to prove he’s one of the greats after an average tournament), the tactical revelation of Chile (who are the hosts), the hugely impressive Colombians and Mexicans plus defending champions Uruguay with the return of Suarez. Roll on June 11th.

For Esquire

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