When I was four my father decided to teach me about football. He had been a star of the Lancashire Combination League, scoring 120 goals in one 40-game season, after which Liverpool signed him. I asked him about the 120 goals. Well, he said, it’s not as good as it sounds. Ten of them were penalties. I asked how many penalties he missed. He looked surprised. None, he said. No footballer should ever miss a penalty. Never ever.
I was useless at football compared to my father, but I remember that lesson well. It recurs to me powerfully after the Ghana-Uruguay game, with the chances Ghana threw away – the last-minute penalty fired high and then the poorly taken penalties in the shoot-out. Of course, one could argue that Suarez’s deliberate hand ball should have been punished with the award of a penalty goal, but I can sympathise with a referee who did not want that decision to be the one to decide a quarter-final.
Looking at the way Netherlands stormed to beat Brazil, it probably doesn’t matter: the Netherlands would probably beat either Uruguay or Ghana. But pleasure at the sterling Dutch performance is lessened by the fact that the most stirring sight in world soccer is undoubtedly the silky forward-flowing Brazil in their yellow shirts, blue shorts and white socks – indeed, that they forsook this trademark for the Dutch game was the first bad augury. And Dunga’s defensive tactics meant we saw only fleeting flashes of the old attacking style. This is a huge loss to the game. People who celebrate the wonderful Brazil team of 1970 often forget that they conceded seven goals on their way to the championship, something no one’s done since. For the 1970 team operated on the principle that goals against didn’t really matter, they would always outscore their opponents – and they did. They won all their qualifying matches, all their group games and then all the rest.
The real damage was done in 1982 when Brazil fielded another wonder team, including Falcao, Zico, Socrates, Junior and Eder – and yet they lost to Italy in the second round, Italy who had got through the first round without winning a game and who were all about tight defence. That defeat seems to have scarred Brazil permanently. The team which stands out this year for its free flowing attacking style is Germany and we could well be on our way to a repeat of the 1974 final of Netherlands v. Germany. There are certainly worse fates than that.