Against the backdrop of the international game losing valuable ground to club football, of a world governing body embattled on multiple fronts, and a host nation with a milliard of seemingly insurmountable challenges, the World Cup has turned out to be a delicious delight.
From past experiences, I was always strong in my conviction that the football would take over as soon as it started, but wasn’t too sure it would be good enough to completely shut the lid on all else as it has done.
Flaunt the Luis Suarez bite, Ghana’s ill-advised three million dollar debacle and even the Cameroon match-fixing scandal all you like, but I am certain they will in the end not overshadow the real football, and I wrote this even before Germany and France had clashed in a heavyweight contest expected to captivate last night, before the mouth-watering prospect of a Holland-Argentina semifinal, before the images of tears or wild celebrations of an icon like Lionel Messi or Neymar. The tournament has reached the stage where the actions of the collective will perhaps make more of a difference than the genius of individuals, but lest we forget, it is worth singling them out for their part in conjuring up a true football carnival.
The No 10s
Having looked like a striker’s World Cup at the onset as the Robin Van Persies, Karim Benzemas, Mario Balotellis, Mario Mandzukics, Luis Suarezs, Daniel Sturridges, Wilfred Bonys and Asamoah Gyans started banging them in, the tournament has since evolved into one in which the men just behind these leaders of the line have become more decisive.
The four vying for MVP as we go into the quarterfinals this weekend are all number 10s, led by the undisputed world’s best Messi whose assist for the Angel Di Maria winner against Switzerland is a bigger signature move at this World Cup than any goal scored, even by himself. Where Messi and the other number 10s are playing behind one striker, James Rodriguez is playing behind two but is at the moment even ahead of Messi for overall impact (and the stats too), perhaps because he wasn’t as expected to dominate as the little Argentine.
Should Colombia knock out Brazil with his help, he will be hard to eclipse. Arjen Robben, a dyed-in-the-wool winger in his past life, is enjoying the freedom granted him by Luis Van Gaal and reveling in the number 10 role, as is Brazil’s Neymar who was made for the part even if many coaches have previously played him out wide.
While those four are head and shoulders above the rest, two other number 10s left in the tournament have made a splash too, in Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz and Belgium’s Kevin De Bryune. The third one, Mesut Ozil of Germany, has not yet had the impact he is capable of, but cannot be ruled out yet.
Even among the departed Xherdan Shakiri and Keisuke Honda did a good job, as did the African trio of Andre Ayew, Peter Odemwingie and Gervinho.
Partly because of shoddy defending, but also because of well-drilled counter-attacking, the goalkeepers at the World Cup have been left exposed and therefore allowed to shine. American Tim Howard has had the biggest single-game display of them all with the record-setting outing against Belgium, but Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico), Rais M’Bolhi (Algeria), Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria), Claudio Bravo (Chile), Keylon Navas (Costa Rica), Diego Benaglio (Switzerland) and David Ospina (Colombia) have been exemplary.
Much less busy, the keepers of the giants have also been superb when called upon, as seen with Julio Cesar in the shootout and open play, Argentina’s Sergio Romero against Iran and the Swiss, France’s Hugo Lloris, Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois against Clint Dempsey and Germany’s Manuel Neur in sweeping against the Algerians.
The super subs
A lot of credit will go to the coaches for their tactical switches, but one of the major reasons for the big impact of substitutes at the World Cup has been the heat, humidity and physical demands on the starters causing fatigue and making teams vulnerable to fresh legs.
Without going so far back into the increasingly fading group stage recollections where the substitutes frequently came on with a bang, it should be fresh in the memory that Belgian Romelu Lukaku came on in extra time to bulldoze a US defence already run rugged by Divork Origi, as indeed did Andre Schurrle join the German fray tellingly against Algeria, so too Frenchman Antoine Griezmann against Nigeria.
Almost every change Louis Van Gaal has made for Holland has done similarly, be it Memphis Depay, Jeremain Lens, Leroy Fey or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
@markssali on twitter