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The ball got rounder
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 12 - 2014

In the real world, there's no such thing as equality. Some people are richer than others, stronger, better looking and more intelligent. In the real world, some people are more equal than others.
In an ideal world, all people are equal. Nobody is better than anybody else. We're all the same. Just think of John Lennon's iconic “Imagine”: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.”
Of course, this world where everybody is on equal footing with everybody else is make-believe. It doesn't exist. It's on fantasy island.
Now, you may say I'm a dreamer, but actually there is such a world of parity — it's on the sports field, particularly the football pitch. This is where there are no untouchable super teams that can never lose, no weakling teams that can never win. Gone are the days of superiority; in are the days of equality.
There is no better place to look for this egalitarianism than this year's World Cup, world football's greatest showpiece extravaganza. But before discussing David-slewing-Goliath matches, a brief introduction is in order.
In 2014 Brazil hosted arguably the finest World Cup of the modern era. From Belo Horizonte to Manaus, from Sao Paulo to Fortaleza, we saw great goals and great games. From Copacabana Beach to the Amazon jungle, the 32-day tournament will be remembered for terrific football.
Coaches embraced positive and ambitious tactics, which partly led to the 171 goals which tied with France 1998 as the highest number of goals scored since the World Cup was first played with 32 teams over 64 matches.
The average of goals scored in Brazil was 2.67 goals per game, compared with only 145 goals scored at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa at an average of 2.27 per game.
Now for the major surprises of Brazil 2014. While a few observers might have predicted a Netherlands victory over Spain in the rematch of the 2010 final, nobody on earth could ever have predicted a 5-1 blowout.
Spain, the defending champions and winners of the last two Euro Championships, booked an early passage home in 2014 — out, not just after the group stage but after only the second game — following that incredible loss to Holland, epitomised by Robin van Persie's diving acrobatic header, one of the tournament's greatest goals.
Spain's unceremonious ouster might have also marked the possible end of the tiki taka era. The system has been going on for the better part of a decade with tremendous success for both Spain and Barcelona, but this could now be the tournament where 4-4-2 drew its last breath.
England, as usual, failed to live up to the pre-hype of having the best league in the world and which would logically comprise some of the best players in the world, knocked out of the group stage and like Spain, after just two games.
Italy, a four-time World Cup winner, fared not much better, for the second time in a row failing to get out of the starting gate and into the second round.
No one needs to think twice about the most spectacular upset. It was Germany's humiliation of Brazil in the historic 7-1 loss in the semi-finals. Having previously won three World Cups, it would not have been a banner headline had Germany beat Brazil. But Germany pulverised Brazil, in one unforgettable stretch scoring four goals in just six minutes.
It was surreal, one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Brazil imploded as Germany skewered it. It was a tragedy, mortification and a spectacular meltdown to befall the five-time champions at their home World Cup.
For the football superpower, it was a trauma in front of the world. Not only did the fiasco prevent Brazil from reaching the final. Compounding the calamity, Brazil lost 3-0 to Holland in the match for third place.
At the same time, on the subject of surprises, Germany became the first European country to win the World Cup in South America, helped by Miroslav Klose whose goal in the final gave him his record all-time World Cup landmark 16th strike.
The countries that failed miserably in Brazil had a counterweight — a couple of surprising success stories. Costa Rica's 3-1 win over Uruguay came as a surprise to most observers, seeing as how Uruguay was ranked seventh in the world. Costa Rica came into the World Cup bereft of two of its best players and in a World Cup group with three former world champions.
But it beat four-time champion Italy and two-time champion Uruguay on a ride to the quarterfinals which exemplified how supposedly small teams showed no fear of more illustrious opponents.
Algeria did their continent proud. The Desert Foxes reached the knockout stage for the first time and produced a stirring last-16 display against Germany, only to succumb in extra time.
Other African lights were Ghana, which gave Germany a mighty battle for a 2-2 draw while Nigeria also made it to the round of 16.
As for the players, it's odd but true: those who were supposed to stand out did not. But strangely enough, it came as no surprise. Cristiano Ronaldo, like in 2010 and 2006, once again disappointed. In 2014 he could not provide any evidence or examples as to why, going into the World Cup, he was voted the best player in the world.
Wayne Rooney, one of the world's highest paid players, once again flopped at a World Cup, this his third test at the highest level.
Lionel Messi did better, voted the best player of the tournament — though not all agreed — but that was small consolation for failing to win the World Cup. Messi had already been voted the planet's best player four times. But what he really wanted was a World Cup, like his great compatriot Diego Maradona, to be considered a true legend.
But Argentina's loss to Germany in the final probably squashed any hope that Messi will ever plant a kiss on the cherished trophy. Instead, as Maradona will forever be synonymous with Argentina and the World Cup, Messi will have to do with being forever associated with his exploits with Barcelona much more than with his country.
James, or Ha-mes, Rodriguez upstaged the super stars by coming out of nowhere to net six goals for the tournament's top scorer. Two of those goals — the sublime pirouette before smashing the ball into the Uruguay crossbar and into the goal, and the way he twisted past a Japanese defender before netting — are listed as some of the very best witnessed in Brazil.
Of course, some players who were supposed to do well did not disappoint. Neymar was the poster boy of the tournament, the man that all of Brazil loves, as attested by his name on the back of a million shirts. There might have been an over-reliance on Neymar, both emotionally and physically, by team Brazil and its supporters, as shown by the spectacular Brazilian collapse after his untimely injury.
But Neymar carried the hopes of 200 million people on his young shoulders and did it with style, grace and humility.
Thomas Muller, who finished with five in the net for a total of 10 altogether, could well break the record set by his compatriot Klose, seeing that Muller is only 24 and that Germany makes it to every World Cup.
Arjen Robben was mesmerising as he bore down on goalkeepers with his full-steam-ahead, don't-look-back approach, but he lost some traction after admitting he does indeed dive.
Inside Arena Fonte Nova mouths fell open and even the Belgium players could only applaud as Tim Howard produced one of the great individual performances of the World Cup. The US goalkeeper was a one-man wall of steel, as Belgium bombarded his goal in Salvador. Howard made more saves (16) in a World Cup match than anyone since records began.
In the search for the unexpected — but of the unwanted kind — nothing could have prepared fans for what they saw inside the Estadio das Dunas in Natal, when Luis Suarez committed the most infamous act of this, or perhaps any other, World Cup. It was the bite seen on TVs and talked about around the world.
Sinking teeth into the shoulder of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini in a group-stage game, Suarez had earlier knocked out England with a fantastic brace but he will be more remembered for his reprisal of Dracula and Hannibal the Cannibal.
In truth, it was in 2002 that the World Cup formbook was thrown out the window as established teams fell by the wayside and upstarts took centre stage. Who could have predicted Turkey and South Korea, both of whom had never won a game in a World Cup, would come within one match of the final? Semi-finalists Korea and Turkey outran and outhustled rather than outplayed their opponents, ultimately outlasting every reasonable expectation.
If it's any comfort to purists, who dubbed it the Third World Cup, a familiar name won the 2002 tournament: Brazil. On the losing end was Germany, another favourite son of the old school. Ironically then, in a World Cup remembered for upsets, the two most successful teams in the history of the competition met in the final.
That final scenario pretty much repeated itself in 2014: Germany and Argentina, who between them now have six World Cups. But the clash came only after quite a few football powers who presumed victory were shocked by defeat.
Which is, in the end, what football and indeed all sport is about. Some of the best moments in sports are the monumental upsets, when the unexpected happens, especially that which occur in big moments. That's what makes sports so enthralling, so riveting. What good would sports be if you knew in advance who was going to win?
Such engrossing situations extended to our region this year. Egypt, a record seven-time champion of the Africa Nations Cup, including a record three in a row, failed for the third straight time to enter the tournament. And Nigeria, the defending ANC champion, could not even get into the championship.
The World Cup of Brazil provided a wonderful month of football. Memorable games, fantastic goals and, overall, a joyous month-long party.
If this World Cup was rated as one of the best in decades, one of the biggest reasons was the upset, the underdog who in a million years wasn't expected to beat a stronger competitor.
Because a football is round, anybody can win, anybody can lose.
In 2014, the ball got even rounder.


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