The World Cup doesn’t end so much as it slips back into itself.
As soon as the whistle is blown one last time, the recaps, the nostalgia, and the smart surmises begin. But then, a day later, after the last team has returned to its home country and the cheers of hundreds of thousands of euphoric fans, the specifics start to stretch beyond the immediate recall they enjoyed during these June and July days. The locations and stadia whose names were on the tip of your tongue begin to hang back as you go forth with your life. You’ve suddenly forgotten the name of that player you didn’t know on that team you weren’t familiar with—the player you’d enjoyed so much that you’d learned to pronounce his name perfectly. Or, if you’re American and have grown through this tournament to love the game, the world may suddenly seem farther away again. The excuses to strike up a conversation with a stranger dwindle. The news of the rest of the world starts with the Middle East again. And left to fend for themselves, the details of your World Cup experience begin to connect their own dots.
Mario Götze—the brilliant, young, attacking midfielder who scored the winning goal for Germany with seven minutes remaining in extra time in the final in Rio de Janeiro, after Argentina enjoyed the clearest chances in the game—becomes Andrés Iniesta, the brilliant, young, attacking midfielder who scored the winning goal for Spain with four minutes remaining in extra time in the final in Johannesburg, after the Netherlands enjoyed the clearest chances in the game.
The thirteenth-ranked 2014 USA team, which showed significant improvement by qualifying after winning one game, drawing one game, and losing twice in Brazil, becomes the fourteenth-ranked 2010 USA team, which showed significant improvement by qualifying for the second round after winning one game, drawing two games, and losing one.
The reigning World Champion, Spain, bowing out meekly in the first round of this 2014 tournament, becomes the reigning World Champion, Italy, bowing out meekly in the first round of the 2010 tournament.
Two days after the final whistle, after the adrenaline and the big statements, the similarities between the last two World Cups begin to float up from the spectacle-submerged world. It’s been suggested that the scoring and general quality of play in Brazil 2014 put what happened in South Africa 2010 to shame; a record 171 goals were scored in this World Cup, as opposed to 145 in South Africa.
And yet, once the elimination games began, an ever-increasing familiarity descended. The matches become tight, cautious, low scoring, at times cynical, occasionally violent. Four of the knockout games succumbed to the succor of a penalty-kick shootout; another four, including the final itself, dragged into extra time, the tired legs of increasingly ineffective players dragging behind. Only two teams scored more than two goals after the group stages of the tournament; both of those teams did so against the host, Brazil. And though Brazil’s 1-7 loss to Germany may seem an outlier in terms of the result, the impact felt eerily familiar to the experience the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup—the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay, commonly known as “the Maracanazo.” We weren’t witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime hiding. We were witnessing an updated cover of that hiding.
So why did everything go so quickly from spectacular to so-so? Simply put, it’s a sign of the times. Everything is captured digitally these days. If you advance-scout a blind date, you can rest assured that nations advance-scout their opposition. No player is a surprise to another team, no tactical variation will have been untried by the time of the elimination games. Risk aversion becomes righteousness. The reduction of event supercharges the occurrence of an event. Games become balanced on the distress of an atom.
This doesn’t mean that the backend of the tournament was bereft of excitement. But Germany’s disposition toward offensive football was, in the end, hardly contagious. The consensus seems to be that Argentina had plenty of chances, but they only managed two shots on goal. And Leo Messi found himself playing in an Argentina side that chose similar tactics to those he plays against with FC Barcelona: keep things compact, go for broke on the counter. Divorced from the ball, hoping for a glimpse of it as he defended some game-planned space on the field, he must have felt like he was playing in an alternate universe. In 2018 he’ll be thirty-one. A better ending then, maybe in a Moscow final, isn’t beyond his abilities. But the difference between Argentina winning and losing this year’s World Cup was never about Messi’s abilities.
It’s fitting that the team that played most like a team, and practiced the most open-attacking game, won the whole thing. Germany scored the most goals in the tournament and did so with the proposition of attacking football. That said, their biggest accomplishment was getting their house in order. Their first game, a 4-0 pasting of Portugal, had them playing with no striker, their fullback as a defensive midfielder, four central defenders, and the aforementioned Götze in the starting lineup. That game was as good as it got for that lineup, and after a few uninspiring performances, instead of staying the course (the equivalent of spitting downwind like Brazil did), the German coach, Joachim Löw, made significant changes. Among those was the relegation of Götze, the wonder boy of German football, to the bench. He reappeared in the starting lineup for the first elimination match against Algeria but was benched at the half, the football equivalent of being given the trap-door treatment. He spent the rest of the tournament as a substitute. After the match, Löw divulged to the press that he told Götze to go out there and show the world that he’s as good as Messi. Götze must not have heard him. He showed the world he was as good as Iniesta, who to this very day still receives a standing ovation from fan and foe alike in every Spanish stadium.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s second book of poems, Heaven, will be published next year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award.