Beautiful game blossoms at World Cup carnival

Nov 30, -0001

RIO DE JANEIRO: Wonderful goals, gripping drama, shock results, new heroes, old villains: the World Cup played out like the gripping blockbuster tournament its organisers always dreamed it would be.

Long before the curtain came down on the month-long footballing carnival with Germany's victory on Sunday, many had already decided it deserved to be remembered as the greatest in the event's 84-year history.

Others argued that the absence of truly memorable matches in the knockout rounds -- Germany's astonishing 7-1 semi-final walloping of Brazil the obvious exception -- should preclude 2014 from 'greatest ever' status.

But whether the best, or merely one of the best, what is undeniable is that the 2014 World Cup saw a dramatic spike in entertainment, ending a run of four consecutive tournaments where the goals-per-game average had shrunk.

Mario Goetze's extra-time winner to sink Argentina in the Maracana on Sunday provided a glorious, emphatic full-stop to a tournament punctuated by riveting entertainment -- and goals.

Goetze's strike was the 171st of the finals, equalling the record tally achieved in a 32-team World Cup at the 1998 finals in France.

The tone was set early in the tournament, with the Netherlands' stunning 5-1 thrashing of defending champions Spain in Salvador notable for both the quantity and quality of goals scored.

- Adventure embraced -

Dutch striker Robin van Persie's lobbed header was the first of several wonder-goals that lit up the tournament as teams discarded conservatism and embraced adventure. Australia's Tim Cahill, Colombia's James Rodriguez and Argentina's Lionel Messi also chipped in with memorable attacking cameos as caution was thrown to the wind.

"It looks like teams are here to score goals," observed former France and Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier midway through the tournament.

"Some of the games that we have seen are more like basketball games, just going from one goal to the other."

Houllier was among many who wondered whether the exotic backdrop of the World Cup, in the spiritual home of the fabled "jogo bonito" served to inspire the 32 participating teams.

"I ask myself is there this vibrancy because the World Cup is in Brazil?" said the Frenchman, part of FIFA' technical study group.

But it wasn't just goalscorers who hogged the limelight. It was also a vintage tournament for the brotherhood of goalkeepers.

- Memories of 1970 -

Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa's remarkable diving save to deny Brazil's Neymar drew comparisons with Gordon Banks's famous denial of Pele in 1970.

Ochoa's defiant display was matched elsewhere by Germany's Manuel Neuer, the United States' Tim Howard and Costa Rica's Keylor Navas.

The outstanding individual performances were studded throughout a broader storyline that contained unexpected plot twists from the outset.

Spain's unexpected demise was the biggest early shock. The defending champions -- seen as one of the pre-tournament favourites -- were ousted after only two games following defeats by the Netherlands and Chile.

They were soon joined in the departure lounge by England and Italy, eliminated the first round after finishing behind minnows Costa Rica and Uruguay in Group D.

Italy's early exit was overshadowed by the biggest controversy of the tournament, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez's biting of the Azzurri's Giorgio Chiellini. It was third time Suarez had bitten a player in his career.

- Notable firsts -

Elsewhere in the first round, the World Cup saw a number of notable firsts. The vanishing spray introduced for free-kicks was a success, eliminating at a stroke yellow cards for encroachment.

Goal-line technology was also a popular debutant, being used to award a goal for the first time in France's win over Honduras.

As the tournament progressed to the knockout rounds, the tension increased and the goals dried up.

Four quarter-finals saw only five goals. Three of those came in Brazil's pulsating 2-1 win over Colombia.

But victory came at a cost for the hosts, who saw star striker Neymar ruled out of the tournament with a fractured vertebra, and captain Thiago Silva picking up a suspension which kept him out of the semi-finals.

That twin blow left Brazil fatally weakened for their semi-final against Germany, but even so, no-one predicted the carnage that was was to unfold at Belo Horizonte, when an incredible burst of four goals in six minutes saw Joachim Loew's side go 5-0 up inside 29 minutes.

Germany scored twice more to advance to the final, leaving Brazil to reflect on the worst defeat in their history. The sheer scale of the loss made it arguably the greatest World Cup shock in history.

Argentina meanwhile battled into the Maracana showpiece on the back of hard-nosed defensive displays.

But the 100,000 Argentinians who descended on Rio hoping to see Lionel Messi provide a career-defining performance were to be disappointed by Germany -- and Goetze.



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