Five things we learned from an unforgettable World Cup

The Rio Report

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So the best team won the World Cup and Brazil 2014 will go down in history as one of the finest tournaments in recent memory. Here are five things that we will remember from this World Cup:

Suarez, not Messi, is this generation’s Maradona

Just when you thought Luis Suarez had overturned the narrative, spent one year doing great things on and off the pitch, taking notice of his wife Sofia’s warnings about his on-field behaviour, he bites back. Again. If there was something depressing about Suarez sinking his teeth into the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini, his reaction after it, and that of the Uruguay team-mates, coach, and indeed the country’s president, was also unsettling. No apology, no remorse, no admission of the severity (or at least, the weirdness) of the player’s third such offence – at least until it was too late, and seemed forced.

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And in that respect, Suarez could be compared to Diego Maradona, for whom the moments of genius on the pitch always came at a cost (though Maradona’s problems were always away from the pitch, while Suarez off the pitch is exemplary). Four years ago, Suarez’s handball on the goal-line helped Uruguay reach the semi-finals. This time, Uruguay went on to beat Italy to get out of Group D but lost their next match to Colombia. This time, the ends did not justify the means. But one thing is for sure: the incident certainly expedited his departure from Liverpool. That wasn't Suarez’s end-game all along, was it? And what happens if the time comes when he wants to leave Barcelona?

Coaches can make the difference

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Roy Hodgson gave a fascinating, yet startling, interview before the World Cup in which he compared this England team to Germany in 2006 (turns out both teams have ‘transition between generations’ in common but that's about all, as Germany reached the semi-final). He was also asked what his signature style was and told France Football: “How many coaches in the world have that? I do the same as 99% of them! There is nothing that we do which is radically different from what others are doing. What varies from one team to another, it is the quality of the players.”

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What we saw proved Hodgson’s words patently untrue. How else could you explain Costa Rica topping their group and coming a penalty shoot-out away from a semi-final spot? What about Netherlands, whose constantly evolving tactical shape helped them finish third, with six players based in the Eredivisie? Chile, Mexico, Australia, Greece, Algeria: they all had tactical plans and executed them. That is down to the coaches, who get little time to work with their players during a season and yet for the last month, have (mostly) given a master-class into how to get the best out of their players – not to mention the penalty shoot-out scenario, where Louis van Gaal switched goalkeepers, uniquely at this level of competition, to provide his team with an edge that proved decisive.

The final summed up these tactical differences perfectly, as the two teams trusted in their styles and went for it. And once again, two substitutes made all the difference: Andre Schuerrle crossing for Mario Goetze for the winning goal. What does it tell us? Not necessarily that having ‘a philosophy’ or ‘an identity’ works, but that Hodgson was off-beam. The beauty of Brazil 2014 was that we saw many coaches try something different – the likes of Jorge Luis Pinto, Van Gaal, Vahid Halilhodzic and Jorge Sampaoli – and for most of them, it worked. Not quite so much for the Italian trio of Alberto Zaccheroni (Japan), Fabio Capello (Russia) and Cesare Prandelli (Italy) – all went home after the group stage.

Time to take head injuries seriously

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Alvaro Pereira against England; Javier Mascherano against Netherlands; Christoph Kramer against Argentina. The first two were knocked out cold and yet completed their matches – in Mascherano’s case, he was man of the match – while two medical staff had to guide off a wobbly Kramer 10 minutes after his initial collision. These three incidents of head injuries do not fit into the narrative of ‘sexy football’ in Brazil but they at least make a serious issue of it. The world players’ union Fifpro have pushed for a rule change over the issue while FIFA ratified a regulation in November 2012 that all players suffering concussion need to leave the field immediately. It has not happened and the fact that Pereira and Mascherano played on means nothing; the governing body has a duty to protect its players and needs to clamp down on the rules.

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Goalkeepers still under-valued

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It was a pre-World Cup transfer that almost went under the radar. Levante goalkeeper Keylor Navas had agreed terms to join FC Porto and the Portuguese club was prepared to pay €3m for the Costa Rican. Five games later, and the asking-price is nearer €10m. That's what a decent World Cup can do to a transfer (and why smart business is done before the tournament). But while this competition gave some players the chance to shine – and possibly earn moves on the back of it – the real lesson should be the importance that goalkeepers have had. The likes of Tim Howard, Vincent Enyeama, Guillermo Ochoa, David Ospina were all key players for their teams.

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“The role of the goalkeepers here has been fundamental,” said Manuel Neuer, who cemented his status as the world’s best goalkeeper. “We have seen a lot of good performances. More than four years ago. You must also notice that the level of the goalkeepers who play for little nations is better.” As for €10m for Navas – even at that price, it could well be a bargain. And Neuer may have won the Golden Glove for best goalkeeper, but in a non-FIFA world, he may also have been voted best player of the tournament as well.

International football still matters

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There were so many memorable moments, and fantastic stories, at this World Cup: from Robin van Persie’s flying header to Colombia goalkeeper Ospina’s reaction to being replaced by 43-year-old Farid Mondragon; the surprise (or not) failures of Spain and England, and the glorious defeats of Algeria and USA; Bosnia-Herzegovina’s World Cup debut and Iran’s brave but ultimately futile resistance against Argentina; Netherlands' Tim Krul-inspired shoot-out drama and Brazil’s relief from 12 yards against Chile (I wonder if Luiz Felipe Scolari wishes that Chile had won that game, so avoiding that momentous semi-final defeat).

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And of course that iconic semi-final result, Germany’s 7-1 win, a result and performance that will come, rightly or wrongly, to represent Brazil 2014, as the emotion of the host nation, grieving the injury of one player, wilted in the face of a clinical attacking force. These games were important and they will live long in the memory. For all the talk that the Champions League provides better quality, this competition remains the pinnacle for any professional. As Gary Lineker put it before a ball was kicked: “What you do at a World Cup will overshadow anything else you may achieve in club football. It’s what you do in a World Cup that can define you.” Mario Goetze is just about to discover that.

Ben Lyttleton | Follow on Twitter

Ben is the author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, out now - you can buy it from here

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