It’s a coincidence that Rafael Marquez marked his retirement the very moment I started penning down this article. A rare ingenious who epitomizes the title of this writing brilliantly. Sadly, each of Mexico’s World Cup campaigns of the 21st Century ended in the Round of 16 circlets.
Although North America never posed a threat in World football, their neighbours in the Southern territory did start this century with a sublime class of Joga Bonito led by Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. Brazil won all seven matches they played along the process, achieving the highest number of matches won by a team in a single tournament in the history of the FIFA World Cup. That World Cup is still regarded as O fenomeno’s tournament as he was magical throughout the campaign scoring eight goals.
The best thing about that journey was that he got some excellent service from down the wings of Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Even Rivaldo played his part cavorting as a second striker, the kind which was required in Scolari’s 3-5-2 formation. Brazil made it count even when the Best Individual Player of the Tournament went to the goalkeeper of the 2nd best side. Well, we remember how Rivaldo’s powerful shot made Kahn look weak, while Ronaldo pounded on the opportunity to take the lead. Simply, Brazil had been the best side in the World Cup by a mile.
Germany welcomed the soccer world with open arms four years later, as they staged the World Cup for the second time in the tournament’s illustrious history. Italy and France faced off in the final in a rematch of the Euro 2000 final. The famous headbutt caused rampage throughout the World as the career of one of the game’s all-time greats was over in an instant of pure madness.
Zidane won the Man of the Tournament award (although many believed it should have gone to Fabio Cannavaro), but his side couldn’t get past the most constructive defence of the tournament. Italy’s victory in Germany was a testament to the value of teamwork, the Azzurri’s success achieved through hard work and unwavering commitment. Although the Italian side was loaded with world-class attacking stars in Toni, Totti, Del Piero, Perotta and many more, no player in the squad scored more than two goals.
Fast-forward four years, and the style, the composure still remained a bit of same amongst the ones who actually made it to the top. The 2010 World Cup marked the rise of the 4-2-3-1 formation in International football after launching its success in club territory. The tactics of holding Van Bommel and De Jong to protect the centre of defence led to a fractured game and in the Finals that upset the Spanish rhythm and gave the favourites few goalscoring opportunities. It was a big reason why we witnessed 14 yellow cards in the final of a major tournament.
In the Semi-final against Germany, Iniesta coming inside to create a numerical advantage for Spain in midfield also worked predictably well when they had the ball. A key method of getting the ball forward was to bring Iniesta in to create the 4 vs 3, therefore forcing one of the Germany wingers into the centre of the pitch to try to relieve the shortfall. The best thing about that Spanish side was that they had three of the best midfielders of our generation in Xabi Alonso, Iniesta and Xavi and whenever they took the lead they never looked like conceding.
Germany didn’t disappoint in their next outing as they conquered World soccer with dominating football and eventually becoming the first European side to win in South American soil. With a wonderful cross that came off his chest, Götze (an extra-time substitute) scored the most important goal in his life and gave Germany their 4th World Cup trophy and first since 1990, and that is how good the entire squad had been for Germany over the tenure. They wanted to win. The hunger and the belief which humiliated Brazil in the semi-finals, and Portugal in the group stage itself. The belief that Palacio or Higuain could give Argentina the title, just like the belief that Robben could’ve won it for the Netherlands in 2010 will always remain but sometimes it is what it is.
In this World Cup, we’ve seen a different unconvincing layer in soccer. Luka Modric truly was the deserving golden ball winner for this upside down tournament – a hard-working contributor and leader who’s industry drove a jaw-dropping fairytale as Croatia, and their population of just 4.1 million, reached the very peak of the game. But in Mbappe, we witnessed the beginning of a truly special journey. Just the second teen ever to score in a World Cup final, after Pele, and a true superstar ready to shake up the race for the world’s top player. Before the World Cup began, France had one of the best squads on paper, but they stuck to their defensive side of the game. The fact that they didn’t play a single extra time game is a testament to how good their counter-attacking football has been in this edition of the tournament.
On 30th June, when both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo bowed out in the Round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup ’18, many fans across the globe cried and switched off the tantrums of the edition once and for all. A day that made the game revive and the epitome realise that football is still played by a collection of individuals and no certain individual alone can win you football’s most elite tournament. Facts and numbers don’t lie, and we hope Qatar 2022 will be no different.