Best World Cup games since 1998 – Netherlands 5-1 Spain

The Spain-being-boring stuff has already been touched upon in this series, but it’s probably worth covering properly here, seeing as this was the game that ended that era.

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona (that’s them between 2008 and 2012) were, without a doubt, one of the most attractive football teams of all time. They’d play creative, short-passing football; press teams high up the pitch, attack constantly, and had Lionel Messi. Some of the most enjoyable games of the last five years were ones in which Barca schooled sides like Real Madrid and Manchester United, who, in theory, should have been in their weight-class. Not only was their style better than everyone else’s, but their substance was too.

Del Bosque’s Spain side contained many of the same players – Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Pedro, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and David Villa, so used a similar, short-passing, possession-hogging game.

However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Spain’s idea of possession football was less about pulling teams apart, and more about boring them into submission. Loads of pundits argued that Spain’s style still made them attractive, despite it being blatantly obvious that they were just passing the ball from side to side and beating every team 1-0. They were essentially one of the blokes from Geordie Shore (hear me out); just because they have some characteristics that you’d associate with attractiveness – quiffed hair, muscles, tattoos, etc – doesn’t change the fact that they’re short and ugly.

To an extent, it was probably an Emperor’s New Clothes-type case too; people were told so frequently that Spain played good football that they actually believed it. It wasn’t until midway through Euro 2012 that anyone actually piped up and argued otherwise.

After a series of underwhelming (or, more simply put, boring) World Cups, someone had to set a precedent, and, despite having a defence full of football manager regens, Holland did the good deed.

The first 40-ish minutes went pretty much as you’d have expected. Busquets and Xavi passed the ball to each other a lot, Spain created a couple of chances, and scored a penalty. Xabi Alonso rolling the ball into the corner of the net, past Jasper Cillessen (nah, me neither), seemed to be a strong indication of things to come. Having got their goal, the world champions were sure to spend the remaining hour passing the ball prudently around the centre-circle with little desire to build on their lead, or do anything remotely interesting.

Then Robin van Persie equalised, and it was a work of art. The fact that it came out of nowhere, both in terms of the move and in terms of the match as a whole, made the goal so much better. Sometimes it’s enjoyable to see a team pushing for a goal, and building up suspense before finally making a breakthrough – but this was the complete opposite. Think Leo Di Caprio’s death at the end of The Departed. One unexpected bullet connecting with a lead character’s head, and suddenly the story isn’t petering out the way you expected it to.

Daley Blind could, can and will try that 70-yard diagonal pass from left-back another thousand times, and most of the time will send it flying out for a goal-kick or throw. However, part of van Persie’s brilliance is his ability to cash-in the one outrageously speculative long-ball that does actually find him –with one touch. He soared through the air (slightly) to score the best World Cup headed-goal since Jared Borgetti’s 180-degree neck-twist for Mexico against Italy in 2002. It was only let down by the tame, half-missed high-five with Louis van Gaal during the celebration. Come on Robin, mate, keep your eyes on his elbow.

From then on, it was a thrashing. And not just your standard ‘the other team just gave up/left themselves too open to a counter attack’ thrashing, but a combination of excellence from the Dutch and comedy goalkeeping from Iker Casillas. While Arjen Robben can be frustrating, greedy, lazy and dislikeable, he was devastating in this match. Being given a free role in the Dutch forward line, Robben’s pace and directness cut Spain’s rear-guard to ribbons, scoring two fantastic goals, and nearly creating another for van Persie, whose right-footed volley hit the crossbar. To add to this, Casillas made two embarrassing errors; first he missed a Wesley Sneijder set-piece ,which was turned into the unguarded goal by Stefan de Vrij (again, no idea), then he mis-controlled a back-pass, allowing van Persie to gratefully steer to ball into the net.

Seeing a team who have been at the top of the pile for so long get toppled is an enjoyable watch in its own right; Spain had won three major tournaments on the bounce, so probably had it coming. However, there is something frustrating about the fact that a side containing that many gifted footballers didn’t play in a more exhilarating manner, especially considering the amount of them did so at club level. Yes the boring stuff worked, but when you have eight or nine world class players in your first eleven, and another three on the bench, any half-decent, coherent system would probably result in success. For this reason alone, Spain probably deserved a proper humiliation, something to really tarnish their legacy.

In truth, this Netherlands side aren’t always as amazingly exciting as this performance suggested, nor are they as good as Spain circa 2010, but by beating the world champions, they set down a marker. They eradicated a side who had previously dominated the game with their dull brand of football. And did so by doing the two things Spain didn’t: playing fast, attacking football, and scoring lots of goals.

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Best World Cup games since 1998 – Germany 4-1 England

Obviously it’s really sad when your team gets knocked out of the World Cup, so sorry in advance for this one, but come on, this game was incredible. It would have been the most England-esque defeat of all time, if only they had been allowed to lose again on penalties after the 90 minutes were up.

After failing to reach Euro 2008, England sacked Steve McClaren. The FA, having probably thought long and hard on the issue, decided that hiring a better manager was the most effective way of avoiding embarrassment every two years. Of course, England trying to avoid embarrassment is like trying to avoid islamophobia on Facebook – the inevitability of it really doesn’t detract from the pain of watching someone you like/used to like out themselves as a complete moron in front of the entire world.

Yet Fabio Capello was hired to try anyway. General belief seemed to be that Capello was a man who would get results, but fans may have to put up with his unattractive style of football. And what a tragedy it was to see the high-aesthetics of England’s traditional long-ball game compromised – by pretty much the same rubbish.

You know the story; after an outrageously encouraging qualifying campaign, England struggled to negotiate a group containing the USA, Algeria, and Slovenia, scoring two goals in three matches.

Despite being so outrageously boring on the pitch during their first three matches (Rob Green howlers aside), the England team’s antics off it were fantastic entertainment. Capello bullying Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce on the bench was a work of art – spotting the ‘hard man’ prowling the technical area, ordering him to sit down, then pushing him back up again; much like the way a year eleven would humiliate a year seven at the back of a school bus.

While Wayne Rooney’s footballing ability was at an all-time low, he displayed an even bigger talent – breaking the fourth wall whilst on the pitch. “Nice to see yer home fans booin’ yer” after the 0-0 draw with Algeria was the single greatest thing Wayne Rooney has ever said on TV*, demonstrating laughable ignorance towards fans who had travelled halfway across the globe to watch him do nothing but look a bit angry for 90 minutes.

John Terry, meanwhile, tried to initiate a coup d’état after the humiliating Algeria match, turning his press-conference the following day into a declaration of war. Of course, in true John Terry fashion, it fell apart. No one else in the team was willing to back him up, and, if reports are correct, Capello made Terry sit back down as quickly as he did Psycho Pearce.

The BBC’s entire build-up to the Germany-England game itself was fantastically hubristic. Between Lee Dixon, Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen, there was not even a shred of doubt that England would defeat the finalists of the previous European Championships – a tournament Our Brave Boys had failed to even qualify for. After all, England had just laboured to a 1-0 win against the least populous side in the World Cup, how could they not beat the three-time world champions, Germany?

Even the most jingoistic England fans would admit that the silver lining to their team being beaten is the bad things that happen to bad people. Terry was at fault for two goals in the first 35 minutes; he first fled from the landing site of Manuel Neuer goal-kick, leaving Miroslav Klose to slide the ball home, then he abandoned Thomas Muller, who fed Lukas Podolski. Embarrassing himself on the pitch soon after embarrassing himself off it is a signature JT move. His ostentatious ‘Lionheart’ gimmick is hilarious as a stand-alone device, but the inevitable defensive errors that follow are even better. One of the few things that could have truly improved this game would have been if Terry had saved his diving-header-block for it, rather than using it in the previous game against Slovenia.

Lampard’s ‘goal’ was obviously the peak of both the match, and the entire tournament (although Luis Suarez’s handball & celebration runs it very, very close). Considering how badly England had played in the first half, they had absolutely no right to bring the scores back to 2-1, let alone equalise.

The injustice was essentially one of the most just parts of the game, and no one does hard-done-by quite like the English national football team. Despite being pretty rubbish, England have managed to paint themselves as the victims of rough justice after the majority of tournament exits. Maradonna’s handball, Ronaldo winking to get Rooney sent off (nothing to do with Rooney stamping on Carvalho’s crotch, of course), Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal (x2); it gets to the point where, regardless of whether they have actually been beaten by fair means or foul, any potential miscarriage of justice against England is just really funny.

The international swansong of Joe Cole also came full-circle. Despite spending every waking hour, post-2006, being injured and/or falling over his own feet attempting a trick he saw Ronaldinho pull off in a Nike advert, Cole managed to find himself on Capello’s long-list for the World Cup squad.

While initially a surprise inclusion, there was a mid-tournament push from pundits, players and fans for Chelsea’s chubby step-over addict to be included in the first team. “Listen, Joe is one of the best players in our country,” claimed John Terry in his big press conference. “He and Wayne are the only two who can open up defences.” This was proven to be true when Joe Cole came on as a substitute on the right wing, and subsequently opened up England’s defence by failing to offer his full-back any kind of cover. Germany sent two quick counter-attacks down the England right upon Cole’s arrival, and scored from both.

Of course, there was some fantastic football played by the German side too. Putting the schadenfreude-fest to one side, it was brilliant to watch a team full of players no one had heard of (at the time) tearing a more reputable one apart. Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Neuer, and Muller were all brilliant, with the latter three each involved in at least one of the four goals. After Gareth Barry had been earmarked to keep Ozil out of the game, the German playmaker went about proving him utterly unworthy of the challenge. Ozil sprinting away from England’s makeshift holding player in the build-up to the match’s fifth goal became a gestus for the match as a whole – the young and talented racing away from the dull and overrated.

 

*he proved this was no one-off several months later with his follow-up piece to camera “Fucking what, what?”

Best World Cup games since 1998 – Australia 2-2 Croatia

Recently, there’s been a problem with World Cups – they haven’t actually been that good. FIFA bumping up the amount of qualifying nations may give more small nations the chance to experience losing 4-0 to Brazil in a competitive match, but it means everyone else has to wait longer for decent games. Having said, that, though, there has been some brilliantly entertaining contests over the last four World Cups; over the next few weeks, this blog will feature pieces about a few of them.

There often seems to be a misunderstanding as to what good football is in the 21st century. This debate mainly revolves around Spain’s passing-patterns paired with lots of 1-0 wins. The only thing more boring than watching Xavi and Busquets play piggy-in-the-middle for an hour and a half is having to listen to people argue about it. Yes, watching good footballers play good football is a large part of the World Cup, but when they let you down and/or lose your attention, you need someone to stand up, take control and entertain. In the case of Croatia in the 2006 World Cup, it was Graham Poll; with Zeljko Kalac as his warm-up act.

Croatia had failed to score in their first two games of the tournament, losing 1-0 to Brazil and drawing 0-0 with Japan. Their coach, Zlatko Krancjar (yes, Niko’s dad) had essentially set his side up to play with five defenders and two defensive midfielders – so think Roberto Mancini without the bad hair and novelty knitwear. Krancjar wasn’t just going to take Croatia out of the World Cup, he was on the verge of making people forget they were ever even in it. Which isn’t a bad tactic, if you think about it.

However, Australia manager Guus Hiddink made the rather strange decision to drop his first-choice goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, in favour of the giant Kalac. After failing to get his giant six-foot-eight frame across quickly enough to stop Dario Srna’s free-kick, Kalac managed to fumble a Niko Kovac daisy-cutter into his own net, giving the Croatians a 2-1 lead. If playing Kalac to deal with balls in the air was Hiddink’s plan, he’d overlooked his keeper’s inability to competently deal with anything on the ground.

Many people who watch a band play live for the first time can be underwhelmed. If the band aren’t going to perform to the best of their abilities, the least they can do is show you something worth watching – worth paying for. If you aren’t going to get a strong performance, it might as well be an absolute train-wreck. How many people get the chance to see, say, the lead singer turn up coked out of his face, smash his guitar, forget his own lyrics and punch the bassist? That’d be just as much value as actually seeing a good set. The main reason why this game makes it onto this blog is because Graham Poll did the refereeing equivalent of this. Minus the drugs, though – as far as this blog as aware.

Referees don’t often lose track of how many times they’ve booked a player in a single match. This is largely due to the fact that most of them are able to count to two. However, to the world’s amusement, Poll struggled with this rather simple task, showing Croatian defender Josip Simunic three yellow cards before dismissing him. In fairness to Poll he had already managed it twice, sending off Brett Emerton and Dario Simic, but for extremely petty offenses.

There was definitely a beauty in the way that Simunic strolled back into a defensive position after Poll had shown a second yellow, surprisingly confident that the Englishman would forget to produce the corresponding red. Such had been the hilariousness of both the game (now 2-2) and the refereeing display, the Croatian probably expected it.

But Graham wasn’t finished. In the final moments, an Australian long throw into the Croatian box caught Simunic out, and he wrestled Mark Viduka to the floor, only to see John Aloisi slot the ball into the net. All logic would dictate that the advantage should be played and the goal should be given, or, at the very least, a penalty. Instead, Poll disallowed the goal, gave Simunic a third yellow (this time with a red) and blew the full-time whistle. An outstanding end to a match that should have been about Australia getting beyond the World Cup First round for the first time in their history, but instead became all about one hilarious entertainer, with his own failures as the punch-line.

Meanwhile, on BBC One, Ronaldo helped Brazil to a 4-0 win over Japan, equalling Gerd Muller’s World Cup goal-scoring record in the process; but no one cared. They’d already switched over to the other game on BBC Three which, for once, was showing some decent comedy.