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has the world cup been that good?

This is the question Nick Hornby is asking, and since Hornby is something of a patron saint around here (I quote him in the final post of each World Cup), I thought to talk about his question for a bit.

Honestly, I’ve been asking myself the same question. No question the group stage was very good, as good as it gets in many ways. But the knockout phase hasn’t been up to its predecessor. And, as Hornby writes, “World Cups have to stand and fall on their knockout games, and the business end of this one -- with the exception of one extraordinary, earth-shaking match -- has been average and occasionally deeply depressing.” (The identity of that one earth-shaker may surprise you.)

What are his complaints about the knockout matches? Well, for one thing, he’s not very fond of the Dutch team that he found “dismal, cynical, life-sapping”. Then there was the lack of upsets in the Round of 16: “[I]n every single match in the round of 16, the favourites beat the underdogs narrowly without ever playing very well.” Nor was he impressed by the quarter-finals. I called France-Germany “a bit of a snoozer,” liked Argentina-Belgium largely because it lacked the ugly violence of Brazil-Colombia, and the less said about the Dutch, the better.

There was that Brazil-Colombia match. As I said at the time, “This match had everything, including stuff I don’t like to see.” Sadly, the latter was evident throughout.

Hornby also found the refereeing to be “robotic”:

Officials had clearly been given three instructions and they made a great show of obeying all of them. The first was to make sure that all players knew where to place their hands when standing in the wall -- big deal -- and the second was to separate wrestling opponents before a corner was taken, without ever doing anything to stop the grappling when the ball was in play. The third was to keep their cards in their pocket during the first half.

It was the last of the three, of course, that has caused so much controversy, culminating in Brazil-Colombia, where the fouls piled up but the cards stayed in the pocket.

And what was the one Round of 16 match Hornby liked? Belgium-USA, which he called “probably the best World Cup match of the 21st century”. That might be going a bit far. But the second half and extra time made for a wildly entertaining blog post, if nothing else (and if I do say so myself), wherein I just posted the text-message updates I was sending to my son.

Yet, Belgium-USA won’t be remembered in the future, except by Tim Howard fans. The most memorable match of the knockout phase was Brazil-Germany. Hornby again:

[T]he tournament has thrown up one of the most extraordinary 30 minutes that football fans -- sports fans -- have ever seen. Unlike anything comparable, however -- maybe Bob Beamon's jump in '68, or Cassius Clay beating Sonny Liston -- it wasn't uncomplicated fun. I know a couple of people who couldn't bear to watch, and left the room because they were squirming too much. The Brazil vs. Germany game was much more like a fox hunt -- the part where the fox gets ripped to pieces, not the reportedly jolly chasing part.

(He also said “Thank heavens, then, for Germany, as nobody has said very often. They have kept the cheating to a minimum, they have tried to score goals in every game and they have played with panache, even though they are apparently doomed to be described, at least in England, as ‘ruthless’ and ‘efficient’ until the end of time.” Which certainly relates to my earlier post about national stereotypes, and how hard it is to change them.)

So, on to my goofy template for deciding if a match was good. (Reminder: The margin of victory is one goal, or the match is a draw, and at least one of the teams must score multiple goals.) Here are the matches that have made it so far:

  • England 1-2 Italy and Ivory Coast 2-1 Japan on June 14. The first was a decent match, the second not so much. Who would have guessed that none of these four teams would get past the group stage?
  • Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador and Argentina 2-1 Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 15. The first had a thrilling finish, the second had Messi Magic.
  • Ghana 1-2 United States on June 16. It had its moments, and it was the only win the U.S. managed during the tournament. John Brooks.
  • Belgium 2-1 Algeria on June 17. OK, nothing more.
  • Australia 2-3 Netherlands on June 18. Back when Holland was still scoring goals.
  • Colombia 2-1 Ivory Coast and Uruguay 2-1 England on June 19. Colombia was one of the most entertaining teams in the tournament, while we saw Suárez before the fall.
  • Honduras 1-2 Ecuador on June 20. Good match between two well-matched teams (i.e. they were both about the same level of bad).
  • Germany 2-2 Ghana on June 21. A terrific second half.
  • United States 2-2 Portugal on June 22. Inspired the following tweet: “Best. World. Cup. Ever.”
  • Greece 2-1 Ivory Coast on June 24. The Ivory Coast didn’t get past the group stage, but every one of their matches made this list. This was part of a thrilling last-day-of-group-matches.
  • Nigeria 2-3 Argentina on June 25. Lots of AZO! AZO! AZO! in this one.
  • Portugal 2-1 Ghana on June 26. Ghana is another team that went home after the group stage but made the list in all three games. Cristiano Ronaldo went home, too.
  • Netherlands 2-1 Mexico on June 29. The last time the Dutch would score.
  • Germany 2-1 Algeria on June 30. Luis Omar Tapia vs. Schweinsteiger.
  • Belgium 2-1 United States on July 1. Give the Americans credit, three of their four matches made the list.
  • Brazil 2-1 Colombia on July 4. The match that gives the lie to any notion that my little template has actual meaning.

So that’s it … 62 matches, 19 template matches. 15 out of 48 group stage matches, 4 out of 14 knockout matches so far.

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