The 2014 World Cup has been a fantastical spectacle of football so far, as the group stages had plenty of goals and excitement, while the knockout rounds have managed to continue delivering drama, even as the scoring ratio has dropped and the favorite in each tie has progressed. With the semi-finals taking place today and tomorrow – and no natural allegiance left for me since the USA narrowly succumbed to Belgium in extra-time – here is my preference for which of the four remaining countries I would most like to see win it all at the Maracanã this Sunday:
I have always had an affinity for Argentina thanks to Tottenham legends Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa*, but I became an even bigger fan of them in the 2006 World Cup. In that tournament, their blend of football was enthralling and spectacular to watch, most notably in their 6-0 demolition of Serbia that included my favorite goal of all time – the 25 pass move finished by Esteban Cambiasso. Although they have not been anywhere near as entertaining or convincing this time around, Lionel Messi has played very well and controlled games in the style of his predecessor in the number 10 shirt – not Maradona, but Juan Romàn Riquelme. Everything has been going through Messi for Argentina – who can blame them when you have a player of his ability – and that will continue to be the case as Angel DiMaria is out for the rest of the World Cup, while Sergio Aguero is far from full-fitness, even if he is likely to be risked against the Netherlands.
*ESPN just released a fantastic 30 for 30 documentary about Ardiles and Villa’s time at Spurs, focusing on the effect that the Falklands War had on the two Argentinian footballers playing in England at the time. I highly recommend checking it out.
My bias is further increased by the fact that every single time I filled in a bracket prior to the World Cup, the only thing that I did not change my mind on was who I though would win this World Cup – Argentina. I picked them when the draw for the tournament was made in December and again in the preview just before the World Cup kicked off last month, so it would be nice to be proven right about one thing, given that my other three semi-finalists in the latter post were Chile (not bad, only missed out on getting past Brazil on penalties), Spain (oops); and Switzerland (pushed Argentina in the Round of 16, but I thought they would top the group and have an easier route). Beyond just wanting to be right though, I really want this Argentina team – in particular Lionel Messi – to end their drought in international tournaments and win this World Cup.
Another country that I started to really root for in 2006 and my enjoyment of Germany came through another former Tottenham player, Jürgen Klinsmann. When he was manager of the German national side, Klinsmann completely overhauled their style of play into one that was attacking and exciting to watch, far different from the 2002 version of the team that was effective but dull as they made the World Cup final in spite of a paucity of talent (outside of Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn, they did not have any top class players). Now they have an abundance of great midfielders – my favorite being Thomas Müller, but also Mesut Özil (whom I liked a lot more before he went to Arsenal, but still rate as a fantastic passer of the ball), Toni Kroos, Andre Schürrle; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Götze and Sami Khedira – the best goalkeeper in the world, Manuel Neuer; and the joint top-scorer in World Cup history, Miroslav Klose, who needs one more goal to pass Ronaldo and have the record to himself. They are a vibrant side to watch and their defeat of France means they are the first nation to appear in four consecutive World Cup semi-finals; while they have also reached this stage in their last five major tournaments. However, it has been 24 years since they won the biggest prize of all and they have not done so as a unified nation, as all three of their triumphs have come under the moniker of West Germany. Coincidentally, the only other two countries that have won the World Cup three times, lifted it for a fourth time 24 years after they had their third: Brazil (1970 – 1994) and Italy (1982-2006) – the Germans have a great chance to continue that trend in 2014.
When I was younger, I enjoyed the mystique and legendary status that Brazil enjoyed in the global game and I even had a VHS copy of “The Boys from Brazil” – not the 1978 Gregory Peck film, but a documentary about the Seleção from 1930 up to the 1986 World Cup and I must have watched that video a dozen times. However, this iteration of Brazil is not as enticing or exciting to watch and I did not rate them as one of the top teams in the world even before Neymar was ruled out with a broken vertebra. Much as the hosts might complain about the tackle that caused that injury, Brazil were guilty of using tough tactics on James Rodriguez for the entirety of their quarter-final contest against Colombia, an example of the pragmatism that they show rather than the traditional style and flair with which the country’s national team has long been associated. I think the main reason I do not really want Brazil to win is because I have high expectations for how they should perform based on their history and do not feel that this current iteration lives up to them at their best. Also, they have lifted the World Cup five times before, so winning it again – even on home soil – is not as exciting as another team triumphing this summer. Having said that, I would still rather see Brazil crowned champions for a sixth time, rather than the one country left in the tournament who have never won the World Cup…
I have always loved the Netherlands football team, from Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit in the 1988 European Championships, to more recent teams with Edgar Davids, Rafael Van der Vaart and even Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp. However, I really do not want them to win this World Cup for two reasons: Robin Van Persie and Louis Van Gaal. The first is easy to explain, his tenure with the Gunners is not as easy to overcome as Bergkamp, who was never the most hated figure and whose outrageous skills were impossible not to admire. With Van Persie however, there is a smugness that goes with his brilliance and if the Netherlands are to win, I hope that it is with the former Arsenal player continuing his streak of not scoring in the knockout rounds of the World Cup. Even more than the former Arsenal striker, it is Louis Van Gaal that makes me really not want the Netherlands to win it all. The incoming Manchester United manager has been receiving a ridiculous amount of praise already from all across the media, as his decisions to take off Van Persie against Mexico, then switch keepers for the penalty shootout against Costa Rica have been lauded as genius moves – including by the Dutch coach himself. It might be a brave decision to take off your best striker when you are losing in the Round of 16, but Van Persie’s absence had nothing to do with Sneijder finding the net from a late corner, nor Arjen’s Robben’s trickery to be awarded the match-winning penalty. Klaas Jan Hunterlaar (who came on for RVP) may have converted the spot kick, but the odds are that Van Persie would also have been able to put the ball in from 12 yards with no defenders in his way. As for the introduction of Tim Krul in the 119th minute against Costa Rica, this may have worked in the end and the fact that Newcastle’s keeper dived the right way for all five of the opposition’s penalties suggests he did his homework well, but the two saves he made were poorly taken efforts that you would expect most goalies to save. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon and refuse to accept that Van Gaal is the tactical genius he thinks he is – especially as he prepares to take over at Manchester United and him being successful will be negative from Tottenham’s perspective – but I think everybody so many in the media have started to believe the hype and are ready to proclaim everything thing he does as being amazing. When you look at it, in the knockout rounds the Netherlands have beaten: Mexico – who nearly finished 5th in the Hexagonal qualifying group but for a late goal for USA in Panama – with two goals in the final five minutes; and Costa Rica on penalties, a surprise package of this tournament, but who have nowhere near the talent at their disposal as the Netherlands. Now they face Argentina, who are without DiMaria and have Sergio Aguero struggling for fitness, but if the Netherlands do progress, know that it will be all because of their genius manager. Louis Van Gaal will be sure to tell you.
There will be a live blog for Sunday’s World Cup final on this site, including some pre-match thoughts on the tournament to that point.