The Definition of Football

Latin America is not a happy hunting ground for Germany. The last grand battle they faced in these waters finished when the sailors aboard the Graf Spee scuttled their own ship, rather than face defeat. But this time round, they came out all guns blazing, and it was their opponents who self destructed. Not since the French in 1940 has the world seen such a complete capitulation in the face of a German attack. And like the French, the humiliation was complete when the Brazilians decided to collaborate, providing standing ovations and oles as the Germans scored, teased and tormented their hapless opponents.

The totally unnecessary war references are there purely because, as a Brit, I am culturally obliged to relate any German success, or failure for that matter, to World War Two. And to mock the French. It’s what we do. On Tuesday we watched something special. Something for the ages. The Germans lived up to their stereotype in 90 minutes of slick, ruthless, even brutal efficiency. They truly blitzed the enemy, leaving them dazed and confused. And thoroughly beaten. To their credit, and unlike the French, the Brazilians didn’t surrender.

I am, of course, referring to the Germans 7 to 1 trouncing of Brazil in the first World Cup 2014 semi final. How does this game rank in the history of the sport? Football is a game with many facets, and for each facet that is game that is held as the prime example. A game that embodies a virtue, for good or bad, and that is remembered forever. A game that sets the standard by which all other games of that nature will be compared to. A game that is embedded into the global consciousness of the sport. Never to be forgotten. There are ten games which have shaped this sport. Here they are…

The Battle of Santiago

Sport is a competitive cauldron of testosterone fuelled men, determined to emerge triumphant. Sometimes competitors snap and lash out. Swing an elbow. A discreet headbutt. Or have a little nibble of someone’s shoulder. But the finest example of on-field physical combat came in Santiago during a game between Chile an Italy. Neither side left the field with their dignity intact. But the Italians departed with their reputation in tatters. The first foul occured after just twelve seconds. The first sending off, for a punch, after 12 minutes. Technically he was sent off. In reality he was dragged off the pitch by police, having refused to go for an early shower. The police were forced to intervene several more times as fists continued to fly. The referee, an Englishman, did little to intervene. He did go on to invent the yellow and red card though.

 

The Russian Linesman

Dodgy offside calls, missed fouls, wrongly given or ruled out goals – the poor referee and his linesmen have long been getting it in the neck for getting things wrong. But the grand daddy of dubious decision belongs to a Russian. Actually, he wasn’t Russian. He was from Azerbaijan. But everyone thinks he was Russian. In 1966 at Wembley, in extra time of a thrilling final between England and Germany, Geoff Hurst thundered a shot against the underside of the bar and over the line. Or not over the line. No one really knows. It will never be settled one way or the other. The referee wasn’t sure. But the Russian linesman, he was sure. He waved his flag, had a chat to the ref and the goal was given. England went on to score another, Geoff Hurst netting his third, the only hat-trick ever scored in a final.

 

The Shock

A David versus Goliath battle always catches the imagination. When David wins…well, you’d write a chapter for a book about it, wouldn’t you. At the very least. There are plenty of candidates for shock results. England’s defeat by the USA in Brazil 1950 sent shock waves through the world of football. But perhaps the honour of the greatest shocks belongs to North Korea. The communists out east played a starring role in the World Cup in England. But before the Russian linesman got to take to the stage, a team of North Korean no-hopers took on the might of Italy.  A beat them.

The Match of the Century

The 1970 tournament in Mexico was the the tournament that just kept on giving. Early on, the two giants of the game at the time played a fabulous match. England were the reigning champions, taking on the favourites Brazil. The game is famous for the greatest save ever made, one of the finest tackles and an iconic photo of two true champions embracing in an era when sport was still sport.

But this was not the Match of the Century. That came in the semi final. To be fair, the first 90 minutes were very ordinary. Dull, even. But with extra time under way, the two giants of European football slugged it out, trading blow for blow. Video fails to catch the drama, tension and fear that enveloped the game as it headed towards a goal fest climax. Italy triumphed over the Germans and went through to the final.

Perhaps in hindsight they’d wish they hadn’t. Because…

The Beautiful Game

It is said that the English invented the game. And Brazil made it beautiful. Both statements are correct. The latter sentiment was etched into history in the final of the 1970 World Cup. A magnificent Brazil played the game how it should be played. The way you’d play in your dreams. With flair, daring, genius. The defensive fortress of Italy was put to the test by the finest attacking team in history. An immoveable object against an irresistible force. One had to give, and it was the Italians, swept aside by a relentless tide of green and yellow sporting gods. The fourth goal trascended normal sport. It was poetry in motion. Moving art. Pele, the conductor of a footballing orchestra of unsurpassed quality defined what football is, was and forever should be.

 

German Blitzkrieg

In American football, a blitz is a defined as an attack on a player as soon as the ball is snapped. He is charged and taken out of the game. This isn’t a move that is technically permitted in normal football. Not within the rules. Normally. How apt that it was a German who imported the move. There have been many moments of brutality on the football field, but no single incident springs so readily to mind that that inflicted on the French player Patrick Battiston by the German keeper Harald Schumacher.

Astonishingly, the referee failed to even so much as award a foul. How he felt that Battiston ended up on the floor unconscious with smashed up teeth and vertebrae – well, only he knows. The game itself was also a classic, decided on penalties after the sides had drawn 3-3 after the end of extra time.

 

Death of Football

Brazil made football beautiful. Their great teams of 1958, 1962 and 1970 have gone down in footballing folklore. They played with a sense of flair, panache and imagination that every other team in the world aspires to. They set the bar for footballing excellence. But it’s been a while since the Brazilians themselves have managed to field a team that comes close to reaching that bar.

The last time? That would be Spain in 1982. Zico, Socrates, Junior, Eder and Falcao provided an attacking force that lived up to all expectations. True, their defence was known to be a little suspect. But that shouldn’t have mattered. They sent ten goals flying past their three opponents in the first group stage.  In the second round group of three the comfortably despatched fierce rivals and reigning champions Argentina 3 to 1. Which left them needing just a single point from their second game in order to proceed to the semi finals.

It was to be another battle of traditional flair, wrapped in a Brazilian flag, against a functional, defensive Italian team spearheaded by Paolo Rossi – a player who should have been serving the final year of a three year ban for match fixing. What transpired was a game for the ages, but a horror show for the purist. And the death of football as it should be played. At least from a Brazilian perspective.

 

Hand of God

There is a fine line between madness and genius. And plenty of examples to prove the point. Diego Maradona being football’s prime example. When he wasn’t shooting up drugs or shooting at journalists, he was scoring the most sublime goals the game has seen. He was famed for single handedly dragging inferior teams to ultimate glory. Yet, he could also express the darker side of his nature of the pitch too.

In less that five minutes of mayhem and magic in the Estadio Azteca in 1986, he demonstrated both facets of his character. In a quarter final against England, fuelled into a fervently hostile clash thanks to the recent Falklands War, Maradona first cheated his way to a goal – the infamous Hand of God – and then scored the finest individual goal the tournament has ever seen. The rest, as they say, is history. And the World Cup was won a week or so later, and on a plane back to Buenos Airies.

 

The Comeback

Every game so far has been a World Cup games, featuring national teams. Not this one. But this one is special. It captured the imagination of football fans across the world. It is the very definition of a comeback. Sure, there have been games where a team has pulled back a greater deficit. But never on a stage this big. Never against a team of the likes of AC Milan. Never in the style of this Liverpool team.

What do you want from your game of football? Forty thousand screaming red fans? A giant and the underdog? A first half crushing that would demoralise your opponents and cast them into despair? A rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone as the teams return to the field for the second half. Seven minutes of insanity as the scores are brought level? Two ridiculously improbable saves? And to finish, the drama of a penalty shoot out. Check, check, check, check, check, check and check.

 

The Crying Game

And we come full circle, ending the post where I started it. With Brazil’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany. Yes, most other teams have suffered a humiliation from time to time. The Germans are still trying to forget being thumped 5-1 by England in their own Olympic stadium in 2002. In turn England are trying to forget about their German thumping four years ago. Or at least, we will remind you of the scandalously disallowed Lampard goal.

But this was a World Cup semi final. In Brazil’s own World Cup. With so much Brazilian hype prior to this game. To be fair, many people saw it coming. More than a month ago, when Brazil manager picked Jo and Fred over Ronaldinho, Kaka or Coutinho, the signs were there. Tactically they’ve been off. Going forward they were toothless. They were fortunate to get a result against Croatia, were held easily by Mexico, and were lucky to get past Chile. They played better against Colombia but also showed their nasty side and were fortunate to get past them as well.

But still. No matter how you word it. No matter what excuses you make. From this point forward, any team can suffer any result and still say, ‘well things could be worse – we could be Brazil’.

 

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