Wonderful goals, gripping drama, shock results, new heroes, old villains — the World Cup played out like the gripping blockbuster tournament its organizers always dreamed it would be.
Long before the curtain came down on the month-long carnival with Germany’s victory on Sunday, many had already decided it deserved to be remembered as the greatest in the event’s 84-year history.
Others argued that the absence of truly memorable matches in the knockout rounds — Germany’s astonishing 7-1 semi-final walloping of Brazil the obvious exception — should preclude it from “greatest ever” status.
However, whether the best, or merely one of the best, what is undeniable is that this year’s World Cup saw a dramatic spike in entertainment, ending a run of four consecutive tournaments where the goals-per-game average had shrunk.
Mario Goetze’s extra-time winner to sink Argentina at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday provided a glorious, emphatic full-stop to a tournament punctuated by riveting entertainment — and goals.
Goetze’s strike was the 171st of the finals, equaling the record tally achieved in a 32-team World Cup at the 1998 finals in France.
The tone was set early in the tournament, with the Netherlands’ stunning 5-1 thrashing of defending champions Spain in Salvador notable for both the quantity and quality of goals scored.
Netherlands striker Robin van Persie’s lobbed header was the first of several wonder-goals that lit up the tournament as teams discarded conservatism and embraced adventure. Australia’s Tim Cahill, Colombia’s James Rodriguez and Argentina’s Lionel Messi also chipped in with memorable attacking cameos as caution was thrown to the wind.
“It looks like teams are here to score goals,” observed former France and Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier midway through the tournament. “Some of the games that we have seen are more like basketball games, just going from one goal to the other.”
Houllier was among many who wondered whether the exotic backdrop of the World Cup, in the spiritual home of the fabled jogo bonito, served to inspire the 32 participating teams.
“I ask myself is there this vibrancy because the World Cup is in Brazil?” asked the Frenchman, part of FIFA’s technical study group, but it wasn’t just goalscorers who hogged the limelight. It was also a vintage tournament for the brotherhood of goalkeepers.
Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa’s remarkable diving save to deny Brazil’s Neymar drew comparisons with Gordon Banks’s famous denial of Pele in 1970.
Ochoa’s defiant display was matched elsewhere by Germany’s Manuel Neuer, Tim Howard of the US and Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas.
The outstanding individual performances were studded throughout a broader storyline that contained unexpected plot twists from the outset.
Spain’s unexpected demise was the biggest early shock. The defending champions — seen as one of the pre-tournament favorites — were ousted after only two games following defeats by the Netherlands and Chile.
They were soon joined in the departure lounge by England and Italy, eliminated in the first round after finishing behind minnows Costa Rica and Uruguay in Group D.
Italy’s early exit was overshadowed by the biggest controversy of the tournament, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez’s biting of the Azzurri’s Giorgio Chiellini. It was third time Suarez had bitten a player in his career.