Superstars, Samba & the Spectacular: Brazil 2014 reaffirms the World Cup as football's ultimate stage

The likes of Colombia's James Rodriguez became household names, while Thomas Muller, Robin van Persie, David Luiz and more left indelible marks on an incredible summer of football
By Rich Jolly

International football, RIP. There are times when the club game seems to reign so supreme that anything else feels like an unwanted interruption. Friendlies can have a certain futility. Qualification campaigns for World Cups or European Championships can be dull affairs, rendered less interesting by mismatches and the safety-first tactics of limited teams whose aim is simply to prevent a rout.

For 23 months out of 24, international football can feel mundane. And in the other few weeks, it is inherently unfair to those, whether Ryan Giggs or George Best, George Weah or the late Alfredo di Stefano, who, by dint of nationality, have no opportunity to display their talents on the major stage. 

Then along comes a World Cup like this. Perhaps it was the best since 1998. Or maybe 1982. Possibly even 1970. What can be said for certain is that it was a fantastic tournament, one settled in fitting style by Mario Gotze’s final decider, won by the best team and giving a generation of German talent the reward they deserved.

The scale of the achievement was evident as they celebrated at the iconic Maracana Stadium. World Cups define careers and eras alike. Apart from Gotze, the Bayern Munich contingent had already triumphed in a Champions League final. That will be referenced less often. Now each has the prefix “World Cup winner” ahead of his name. That matters more.

They were responsible for one of the most remarkable results in World Cup history. Brazil 1 Germany 7: it was the scoreline no sane person would have predicted. But Spain 1 Holland 5 was almost as astonishing. The Dutch had a famous five, the Germans a magnificent seven.

Yet this was not about one team or two results. It was a month to remind of us the wonder of World Cups, where everything, with the possible exception of Iran versus Nigeria, is worth watching.

There are teams who have found new admirers across the globe: Costa Rica’s fearless underdogs – only they, Germany and the Dutch did not lose a game in normal time – and the United States’ spirited athletes, for instance.

Chile’s pace, their attacking intent, their sheer quality, made them friends in many places. So, too, Colombia’s first run to the quarter-finals. James Rodriguez was both the top scorer and the man responsible for the most spectacular goal of the tournament.

Yet Tim Cahill’s brilliant volley against the Netherlands was almost equally admirable, not to mention Robin van Persie’s gravity-defying header versus Spain. David Luiz delivered a spectacular goal and a shocking capitulation. Each created indelible images.

There were class acts who lived up to their reputations, from the record-breaking Miroslav Klose to his probable successor in the history books, Thomas Muller. Most excitingly, though, there were the newer faces, the men who captured the imagination.

Memphis Depay, Eugenio Mena, Enner Valencia, Fabian Johnson, Divock Origi, Islam Slimani, Guillermo Ochoa, Keylor Navas and Ahmed Musa didn’t arrive in Brazil with huge reputations. Each made for compelling viewing.

The World Cup does this. It makes millions cheer on Algeria or Mexico or even Greece when, in other circumstances, they would simply switch off when they appeared on the screen. The European Championships, while a more localised affair with less scope for surprise packages, often provide the sort of highlights the club game can’t quite offer. There is something special where there is a real prize at stake in the international arena.  

But clubs pay salaries and play more often. They satisfy our need for a weekly fix. Those who support a superpower can expect to see their side play 55 or 60 times a season. They can buy, which satisfies the millions with a fixation with the transfer market. Sometimes they seem more tribal, paradoxical as that can sound, compared to an entire country.

The standards may be higher in the Champions League, and it is an unanswerable question if this Germany side would beat Real Madrid or Barcelona (given the seven players they have in common, it may be safe to assume they might cancel Bayern out).

Yet World Cups provide more memories. They are about money for Sepp Blatter and his inglorious associates at Fifa but not so much for the players. They are about a cause, a greater glory. They remain the ultimate.