- Underwhelming knockout matches have provided an elite last four
- Brazil’s cynical tactics preclude sympathy for sad loss of Neymar
- Louis van Gaal’s “sub goalie” call may come back to bite him
Let’s face it, the knockout stages of Brasil 2014 have been pretty grim. While the second round had its moments, all four quarter-finals were drab affairs, and there’s been a sense that the powers, flawed as they are, have had just enough nous to ensure a final, elitist summit in Belo Horizonte, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro next week.
This gathering of giants in the semi-finals has a Stonecutters’ convention feel to it – an exclusive club of insiders who had always intended to meet at this point all along, regardless of the usurping intentions of James Rodriguez, Bryan Ruiz, Alexis Sanchez, or Guillermo Ochoa.
If the tournament is to be remembered as something special, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and Holland need to give us at least one classic match before the coronation next Sunday. While the group stages were thrilling, there’s been a predictability about events since – even if the precise identity of the next champion giant remains a mystery.
Colombia were never going to beat Brazil – just as Chile weren’t – because deeply engrained inferiority complexes are only ever overcome in stages. Chile looked Brazil squarely in the eyes by taking them to penalties – a huge achievement – but couldn’t make the giant leap from competitive to victorious. Subconsciously, even getting to spot kicks was enough for Chile. Next time, maybe.
Similarly, having the player of the tournament and giving the hosts a game was more than Colombia would have demanded prior to the tournament. Even France, a genuine Stonecutter, seemed sated by their rehabilitation when limping out of the tournament against an under-pressure Germany.
Now, four teams remain – and all four have to win the tournament if they are to deem their campaigns a success. Failing to win at home is not an option for Brazil. Losing in yet another semi-final or final would confirm suspicions that this German generation are missing the critical chromosome that their predecessors always possessed. The Dutch were runners-up four years ago. This is the last hurrah for Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, and Robin van Persie. For Argentina, it would be a dereliction of duty to produce a talent like Lionel Messi and fail to exploit it for ultimate glory.
No matter how well three of these sides play this week in defeat, there is no escape from the final judgement of failure. That, of course, is one of the reasons why these countries are international footballing Stonecutters in the first place. They are the elite.
As for the quarter-finals, Joachim Loew proved himself more adaptable than some (including this observer) gave him credit for by restoring balance to his team. Germany were never in quite as much control as some suggested – I felt that a French equaliser would have been fatal as there was no telling how badly impacted the squad had been by a breakout of flu – but France never found a way to force extra-time, and rarely even looked like they might. So, Germany weren’t fully stretched. That’ll be the biggest French regret.
Brazil were always going to beat Colombia. James Rodriguez proved himself a real star with a gutsy second-half performance, even as the Brazilians took it in turn to kick lumps out of him and break-up the play at every opportunity. That’s why I find it hard to sympathise much with Scolari for the sad loss of Neymar. If you live by the sword, you may well die by it. For my money, anyway, the absence of Thiago Silva – booked for a second time against the Colombians – is a bigger blow. His leadership and organisation will be missed.
Argentina looked better against a Belgium team that I felt played well against the courageous Americans. The USA were old-school, almost old-fashioned in their never-say-die attitude and tremendous sense of pride and self-belief. They played for their shirt in ways that so many other, more established footballing powers no longer do. Their brave defeat was one of the highlights of the tournament and a salient reminder of why international football remains the pinnacle. Only in this arena can you truly examine a player’s character. Quite simply, unlike in the club game, it’s not just about the money. James Rodriguez and others shed bitter tears on their eliminations in the last eight. How many tears do you see shed after a UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg?
That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for the big ego in the World Cup. Far from it – as Louis van Gaal proves. His decision to humiliate his first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen by substituting him before the penalty shoot-out with Costa Rica was lauded as a stroke of “genius” by the usual suspects – Sky, those connected with the Premier League, and Manchester United fans indulging in a spot of self-regarding wishful thinking.
Sure, Cillessen’s replacement Tim Krul saved twice to seal the win. But who’s to say, other than van Gaal, that Cillessen wouldn’t have stopped at least one? Regardless, what has this stunt done to Cillessen’s confidence? He, we are reassured, remains first choice for the Argentina match, but he’s a much diminished figure now. The Argentinians won’t be looking at him like, say, the Brazilians will be looking at Manuel Neuer. Could you imagine Neuer putting up with this treatment? Or Buffon? Or Kahn? Or Schmeichel? Or Southall? Or Zoff? You get the point.
Furthermore, by keeping a substitution in hand, van Gaal forced another exhausted outfield player to go through the entire 120 minutes in steamy Salvador. Van Gaal’s decision may be a good one in the very short term – Krul saved twice and Holland won – but the fall-out could undermine Cillessen’s confidence and contribute to a blunder on Wednesday. There could be some damaging unintended consequences.
Picture this scenario: Holland and Argentina go hammer and tongs at each other in Sao Paulo. The Dutch make two tactical substitutions and then Arjen Robben is injured at the start of extra time and must be replaced. They game goes to penalties. Who’s in goal? The diminished Jasper Cillessen, a man not considered good enough to face Costa Rican penalties. What a boost for Argentina.
Goalkeeping is as much about weaving a psychological spell as anything else. If a striker believes you’re unbeatable – or even just plain hard to beat – he’ll start hitting the ball that bit harder and lose that little bit of accuracy as a result. If he thinks you’re a joke, he’ll try things from all angles.
Let’s face it, last night Cillessen was made to look like a man who’d been told by his girlfiend not only to pay another man to bring her to orgasm, but to watch it. And like it.
He’s a much smaller figure now, sacrificed on the alter of his manager’s monstrous ego. But hey, Louis’s a genius.