Who needs football anyway?
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?