BY JONATHAN WALLACE
Itâ€™s nearly here! A month for all ages, men and women, to skive off their responsibilities whenever possible just to catch a glimpse of â€“ whatâ€™s that, Ecuador versus Honduras? â€“ Oh boy, this could be even better than the Japan versus Greece clash yesterday! Itâ€™s a month of conflicted support for your national side (presumably England for most readers) or, for the neutrals, the most attractive prospect; and that little fantasy in the back of your mind as you wonder just how crazy itâ€™d be for Iran to conquer Brazil in a sold-out Estadio MaracanÃ£ on July 13th. Itâ€™s also a month for a new generation of youngsters to sit in front of the fuzzy box (or HD flat-screen, whatever) and be inspired for a lifetime.
The FIFA World Cup is, obviously, flaunted as the pinnacle tournament of association football; a competition that brings together the best international teams from around the world to decide which country rules the globeâ€™s most played and supported sport. It is rightly deemed the gameâ€™s most entertaining spectacle and many would argue that just one such event every four years isnâ€™t enough to combat its popularity and entertainment value. Personally I think the competitionâ€™s rarity keeps its prestige at an optimum â€“ a narrowed timespan between World Cups risking turning its mystical Holy Grail allure into an all too familiar run through of the same old emotions each seasonâ€™s Champions League campaign wearily belches forth. I would argue that a World Cup every four years maintains one of its most unique and attractive qualities other competitions of the sport canâ€™t compare with: that it presents a window to view footballâ€™s current state of affairs, all wrapped neatly into a month long summary. If someone wants to pretend they know all about footballâ€™s landscape without consistently following the sport (for whatever mad reason) then a World Cup is the perfect crash course to gain valuable insight.
For example, take the first tournament that really captured my love and affection for football: the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
I was 14-years old and enduring my first taste of real life on work experience at a local gym. Throughout tedious days scrubbing clean treadmills, I sought solace in the widescreen televisions dotted around the place like luscious oases in the wilderness of a juvenile teenâ€™s harsh reality check. The match that grabbed my attention was Group Fâ€™s opening contest, Australia versus Japan, on a particularly sunny day in Kaiserslautern. Celtic star, Shunsuke Nakamura, had given the Japanese a first half lead and the match appeared to be heading towards a 1-0 conclusion for the Samurai Blues; cue a dramatic late surge from the Aussies, Evertonâ€™s Tim Cahill equalising in the penalty box before delivering a stunning 20-yarder for the second, and then John Aloisi waltzing through to make it 1-3, all in the final ten minutes of the match. The result inspired Australiaâ€™s progress to the last-16 while Japan never recovered, finishing bottom of the group. The hurricane finale left me standing there gawping at a television screen, all responsibilities shirked, and from that moment my love for football in general took off emphatically.
The rest of the tournament was rubberstamped by the same style of long periods of tension followed by a rush of late drama. A World Cup record eight matches went to extra-time in the knockout rounds, four of those to penalties, as the top sides consistently cancelled each other out on the pitch in a competition dominated by disciplined tactics. This made for a fascinating watch in many instances â€“my favourite match was the semi-final between Germany and Italy at Dortmundâ€™s Westfalenstadion in which the much fancied hosts were continuously rebuffed by one of the most stubborn defensive sides I have witnessed, in the Italians; try as they might the Germans could not break through and then up popped the Azzurri, Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero netting in the final couple of minutes of extra-time to send Italy into an infamous final with France.
That World Cup could have told you all you need to know about football as a whole at that moment in time. The abundance of top quality players were European, indicative of semi-finals featuring Italy, France, Germany and Portugal. Matches were much more strategically guided than in the past couple of tournaments, owing to a relatively low average of 2.3 goals per game, and defenders were winning as the standout performers â€“ Italyâ€™s Fabio Cannavaro won Player of the Tournament and later the Ballon dâ€™Or for his triumphs in Germany. Most top players still plied their trade in Italy but that balance was showing signs of shifting towards Englandâ€™s Premier League â€“ a shift that would continue into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
On the whole, 2006 might be looked back on as a bit of a drab affair, remembered more for Zidaneâ€™s bald battering ram temple colliding with Materazziâ€™s unsuspecting chest, but it certainly grabbed my attention. Like a lot of club football during that time, it was slow and cagey, making you hang on but inevitably delivering a flurry of excitement to make the wait worth it.
Looking back through the ages, the World Cup has always exemplified, more or less, footballâ€™s current state, not just in Germany eight years ago. The first German World Cup in 1974 showcased the talents and strength of West German and Dutch football, enough to outdo the formidable and locally produced Brazilians (their best side not to win a World Cup?) and Lato inspired Poland. Bayern Munich and Borussia MÃ¶nchengladbach had most influence over the hostsâ€™ squad â€“ the former produced Gerd MÃ¼ller, Franz Beckenbauer and Paul Breitner, the latter gave Berti Vogts, Jupp Heynckes and GÃ¼nter Netzer (by then at Real Madrid); as for the Netherlands, it was Ajax and Feyenoord who influenced their â€˜total footballâ€™ squad â€“ Ajax legends Johan Cruyff (by then at Barcelona), Ruud Krol and Johan Neeskens were joined by Feyenoordâ€™s Wim Jansen, Theo de Jong and Willem van Hanegem. Despite Cruyffâ€™s best efforts, scooping a personal Best Player gong, it was the West Germans who won the new trophy after Jules Rimetâ€™s permanent move to Brazil. And which club teams, for all of this, were the best in Europe at that time? Ajax and Bayern were to share six consecutive European Cups from 1970-1976, while MÃ¶nchengladbach and Feyenoord shared seven major finals throughout the decade. The 1974 World Cup showcased German clubsâ€™ disciplined and ruthless efficiency (for which they now perhaps have an unreasonable stereotype) against the Dutch sidesâ€™ free attacking brand inspired by the great Cruyff â€“ these were the contrasting styles in fashion around that time, and both showed their merits on the world stage.
Another World Cup heavily inspired by clubsâ€™ playing style was the most recent tournament in South Africa. The phenomenal achievements of Barcelona in Europe were emulated by the Spanish national side as they eased to their first ever World Cup title. It never really mattered who reached the final with them â€“ in this case it was to be a third Final heartbreak for the Dutch (featuring two former Barca Champions League winners Mark Van Bommel and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst) â€“ because right from the start it was difficult to write off the unquestionable prowess of Spainâ€™s possession game. Six of Barcelonaâ€™s stars â€“ Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Puyol, Pique and Pedro â€“ started in the Final in Johannesburg (with a seventh in David Villa arriving that summer), crediting their importance to the La Liga side and rubbishing any thought once and for all that the Catalans were nothing without Lionel Messi.
But not all World Cup tournaments are about the team effort â€“ sometimes one or two players are so irresistible that they define a little period of footballâ€™s history, and its biggest tournament provides the perfect pedestal for them to stand on. In 1986 it was all about, of course, the great Diego Maradona, his Godly hand and even mightier feet, which somehow led a team as average as the rest of his Argentina teammates to world dominance in Mexico. Maradonaâ€™s one man mission was not at all surprising then, when he replicated them at club level, steering Serie A side Napoli from relative obscurity to five major honours during his time there from 1984-1991.
In 2002, Oliver Kahn may have been recognised officially as the tournamentâ€™s best player, but no one exemplified world football at the time better than Brazilâ€™s star Ronaldo. It could be argued that he was also the best representative of the game four years previously at France â€™98, but his mysterious breakdown before the Final gave the hosts their first and as yet only World Cup. In Japan and South Korea in 2002 however, Ronaldo inspired Brazil to an inevitable fifth star above their jerseyâ€™s emblem, scoring a brace in the final against modern footballâ€™s â€˜nearlyâ€™ team Germany, and played with such inspired form throughout the whole tournament. It was a rare case, like Maradona in â€˜86, when one of the recognised greats shows up and steals the show â€“ decades from now the 2002 World Cup will be remembered for Ronaldoâ€™s irresistible blend of power, pace, skill and intricacy, never mind Kahnâ€™s supposed heroics in the German goal which ultimately got them nowhere.
So what of this summer? Itâ€™s one of the same rolled out clichÃ©s for every big event, but this really is shaping up to be one of the most difficult tournaments to predict ever. For the first time since their 2008 European Championship victory, Spainâ€™s dominance is in question, with â€˜tiki-takaâ€™ starting to decline as the elite sides figure it out (see Barcelona and notably Bayernâ€™s recent defeats in the Champions League). Brazil may have stormed to the Confederations Cup and announced their intentions going into a home World Cup, but nothing is guaranteed â€“ Neymar was a surprise package last summer but a year in the limelight has every top player and manager aware of his talents. Argentinaâ€™s squad probably has the best pound-for-pound attackers in the world with Messi, Aguero and co. but their defence and midfield are startlingly frail and far from world class â€“ can Messi step up and provide a Diego-esque performance and solidify his claim as the best ever? And then there are the Germans, formidable on paper and bursting with potential, just like most major tournaments since 2002 and theyâ€™ve failed to deliver every time â€“ will this Bayern-inspired squad fare any better?
There are a lot of questions we can eagerly allow this World Cup to answer for us, but it seems fair to say that this tournament will be much more direct than the last couple. Guardiolaâ€™s revolutionary â€˜tiki-takaâ€™, as Iâ€™ve mentioned, is on the way out in place of a much quicker, counter-dominated approach from the top European sides like Real and Atletico Madrid who met in the Champions League Final. Pace and power appear to be taking over from technique and guile â€“ Cristiano Ronaldo goes into this World Cup as the best in the world, not the previously favoured Lionel Messi. Footballâ€™s trends are shifting again, just as they always do.
So if youâ€™ve been living in a hole since 2010 and want to know whatâ€™s what in football these days (shame on you!) then Brazil 2014 is the perfect crash course for you. Certainly donâ€™t be surprised if one of the direct nations like Germany or Brazil displaces Spain at the worldâ€™s summit this summer, just as the same pattern is occurring in Europe. Whatever is successful at club level historically translates to the international stage after all, whether it is the advantages of Brazilâ€™s silky soccer obscurity from Europe in 1970, Maradonaâ€™s idol heroics in 1986, or the well-known domination of FC Barcelona in 2010.