Who needs football anyway?

David Runciman

In the end, the 2014 World Cup final turned out like the 2010 final. A scoreless match that seemed to be heading for penalties was only settled at the death when a composed, compact player managed to hold his nerve in front of goal, after everyone else had lost theirs. Last time it was Iniesta. Yesterday it was Götze. But really it was a different sort of match, as befits a different sort of tournament. The 2010 final was overshadowed by the performance of the referee, Howard Webb, who failed to control the spoiling tactics of the Dutch. This time, each side gave as good as it got and the contest had a proper shape to it. Had Higuaín’s first-half goal, which was correctly ruled out for offside, been allowed to stand, it would have been a very different occasion. But the officials got the important decisions right. Argentina fluffed each of their legitimate chances and have no one to blame but themselves. The game spoke for itself.

So did Germany’s victory. It is hard not to be struck by what Louise Taylor calls ‘the startling synchronicity between the philosophies behind Germany’s economic and footballing revivals’. The best team in the tournament, responsible for its most memorable performance, came from the country that is performing best off the field as well. When Spain won in 2010, that was definitely not the case. Footballing triumph went along with looming economic disaster: the best team in the world came from a country that was tiptoeing towards possible bankruptcy. Its star players belonged to clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona that were floating on a sea of debt. This German team, with its nucleus from Bayern Munich, is a much more secure enterprise. The victorious Spanish were given a heroes’ welcome by the then prime minister, Zapatero, who hoped to harness some of their kudos to his own ends. Merkel doesn’t need to try nearly so hard. There is a picture of her after last night’s game in the German dressing room, surrounded by the players and smiling bashfully. Has a politician ever looked so at home among the sweaty jocks? They really are all in this together.

The Germans have an amazing knack for producing World Cup champions at politically apposite times. The ‘Miracle of Bern’ in 1954 signalled West Germany’s rebirth as a nation. Their victory in 1974, after a tournament in which West Germany managed to lose a group match to East Germany, came at the height of Ostpolitik. When they won in 1990, it was shortly before German reunification. Now they have a world-beating team made up of players drawn from East and West, many of whom have been working steadily together for nearly a decade. Their triumph is the result of long-term planning and a refusal to kowtow to passing fashions. The progress has been both smooth and spectacular, combining technical know-how with moments of real flair. They are the envy of the world. It can’t last, because nothing ever does. But for now it’s hard to see what’s going to stop them.

This has been an enjoyable tournament to write about because it too has had a nice shape to it. The passing dramas and electrifying moments – Suárez, Rodriguez, Chile, USA, Robben, Van Persie – have been subsumed in a single, overarching narrative of German ascent and Brazilian demise, which climaxed in the most unexpected half an hour of football of this or any other tournament. Still, my lasting memory relates back to something I wrote about at the beginning. I described the contrasting fates of two East London boys who grew up playing football together. One, Raheem Sterling, ended up at the World Cup. The other, whose footballing career was curtailed by injury, ended up at my college in Cambridge, where he had just sat his exams. I said I hoped they would both have good tournaments. Well, Sterling’s didn’t last long. But my guy got a first. Who needs football anyway?


  • 14 July 2014 at 1:53pm
    PD says:
    Any affirming football-politics connection doesn't come from Germany's economic policies, when austerity has hurt so many other European countries. It comes from having a Germany team that has evolved to embrace the country's diversity somewhat, with Ozil, Khedira, and Boateng all starters.

    You say they're "made up of players drawn from East and West." I believe (the wildly overrated) Kroos is the only player actually from the old East Germany. Podolski and Klose were born in Poland of course.

    Finally, the 2010 final wasn't just ruined by Dutch fouling, or Howard Webb missing Nigel de Jong's bad foul on Xabi Alonso, or whatever (he cautioned Van Bommel quickly after all). It was also spoiled by Spain's endless diving, their demands that the ball be put out of play while players were obviously faking injuries, Xavi's on-field lectures to the Dutch on the importance of putting the ball out as a courtesy to faking Spanish players, and so on. Both teams contributed to an awful match.

    This was better and Germany, while riding their luck and missing Khedira badly yesterday, still earned it.

  • 14 July 2014 at 2:10pm
    Dave Boyle says:
    The only decision I think they got wrong was not sending Neuer off for his leap into Higuain. I really, really like Neuer and he's a player remaking the possibilities and expectations of the position, but his leap concentrated all his force into his knee and he leapt knowing that only dumb luck would mean he missed connecting with his knee into the side of Higuain's skull. That he didn't is something both can be grateful for.

    It took time for the over-the-ball challenge to become a straight red, and it is given because intent or success at winning the ball isn't a factor. It's because the challenge means whether the challenge breaks a leg or not is entirely dependent on the micro-physics of the way the player being challenged's legs are planted, or not. By making the challenge, you are not in control of whether a serious injury will occur, which needs to be stopped, and the automatic red is the means to do so.

    Had an outfield player made that leap to win a header, he'd have been walking. The presumption of frailty which goalkeepers benefitted from belongs to an since passed era of static keepers needing protection from outfield players leaping with intent and momentum into them.

    This needs to change as Neuer-style goalkeeping becomes the norm, as does having independent assessors to take obviously concussed players out of the game for their health. Any player will profess to be in good enough shape to carry on, just as any floored boxer will tell a referee he's fit to fight on. That decision is now possible for the referee, and some similar independent mechanism is needed in football. Kramer was clearly in a bad way by the time he came off, despite having been allowed to play on (and indeed, the game carried on for a minute whilst he lay prone, with his own team ignorant of what might have occurred).

  • 15 July 2014 at 12:27am
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    Had an outfield player made that leap to win a header, he’d have been walking.

    I'm not so sure about that. It wasn't a Schumacher-Battiston moment at all. If Neuer had missed the ball then yes it should have been a penalty and probably a yellow card at least but the player who wins the ball in a 50-50 enjoys force majeure provided his challenge isn't inherently dangerous, as in the two feet off the ground flying lunge. I think it's debateable whether the position of Neuer's leg is similarly reckless in that situation. It's a grey area akin to the flailing elbows of outfield players jumping for headers - it's a natural posture adopted in the action of jumping.

    As for the concussion question I absolutely agree. The episode with the Uruguayan defender earlier in the tournament was worse as he had clearly been knocked unconscious and I was staggered that the team doctor allowed him back on. In rugby there would be no question of letting a concussed player resume.