For a certain generation of football fan, Puccini’s Nessun Dorma will forever be associated with the 1990 World Cup held in Italy. Even now, the merest snippet of Pavarotti’s booming rendition brings back memories of that heady summer, when Toto Schillaci and Roger Milla surprised the world, England came so close to glory and the Germans triumphed over the genius of Maradona.
Of course, ‘heady’ is just the way I remember it. Italia 90 is generally regarded as one of the poorest World Cups in history, blighted by defensive tactics, including in the final, and with a record low goals ratio. Nevertheless, as the first World Cup I ever watched, it remains uniquely evocative. This phenomenon is commonplace in football, with fans reserving a special nostalgia for the era in which they discovered their love of the game. However, there is another reason that modern tournaments do not quite have the same feel. Part of the romance of World Cups was in discovering the unknown. There was a certain sense of wonder at witnessing the goalscoring exploits of Schillaci and Milla, the blistering pace of Claudio Caniggia, the technical prowess of a young Robert Prosinecki. These were unfamiliar players doing extraordinary things, and it was thrilling to watch. The World Cup truly felt like competition on a higher level, far removed both in terms of style and distance from the routine of domestic football. With the advent of the internet and wall-to-wall football coverage on TV, those feelings are now far more difficult to generate. We are accustomed to knowing everything about everyone in football, or at least thinking we do.
Which is perhaps why Brazil 2014 has been so surprisingly refreshing to watch. The goals and the drama have been reason enough for this to be remembered as one of the best World Cups, but somehow it has succeeded in restoring some of the sense of intrigue that has been missing from many recent tournaments. The success of teams from the Americas, inherently more unfamiliar to a European audience, invigorated the tournament. Their stars have been players far less recognizable. James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado have long been recognised for their potential, but few would have predicted the brilliance with which they inspired Colombia to their finest World Cup performance. Rarely can the goalkeeping at a major tournament have been so highly admired, with Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa, Algeria’s Rais M’bohli and Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas all running eventual Golden Glove winner Manuel Neuer close. The USA won many foreign friends, which is not often the case in sports, and the likes of Matt Besler and DeAndre Yedlin have surely increased the number of global fans taking an interest in the MLS next season.
Meanwhile, many of the players with more pressure on them to perform have also played their part. It was said that Neymar carried the hopes of his nation solely on his shoulders, and it wasn’t until his World Cup was cruelly cut short in the quarter-finals that the weight of that burden became so evident. Up until that point, he had seemed to revel in the spotlight. Likewise, the evergreen Arjen Robben, who seems to have been around for an eternity, yet at the age of 30 still has the pace and trickery to trouble any full back in the world. Which brings us to the player subjected to the brightest spotlight of all – Lionel Messi. One of the few remaining criticisms of Messi, often quoted unfairly with reference to Diego Maradona, was that he had not reached the heights of his club career with Argentina. Sadly for him, this World Cup will not quite put those arguments to rest, regardless of whatever ludicrous system FIFA used to award him the Golden Ball. Nevertheless, it is hard to not feel sympathy for him - a player with the expectation of the world on his shoulders, clearly exhausted by his workload of the last few seasons, who so nearly dragged his nation to glory.
In contrast, Germany were the ultimate example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts. There are several excellent individuals in the German ranks, but together they blended the clichéd German efficiency with a brand of adaptable, exciting football that surely heralds a new era, with Joachim Low as the chief architect of the post-tiki taka movement. Rarely can there have been more deserving champions. And it is likely to be a long time before another tournament is more memorable.