THE sun has set on a World Cup which has bestowed the globe with plenty of gifts in the spiritual home of the beautiful game – even if the benevolence of the host nation came in an unexpected guise.
The competition began with grave fears that mass protests surrounding the Brazilian government’s largesse in spending £11bn on it would overshadow the football.
Thankfully these proved largely unfounded, with the main recriminations coming after the hosts’ catastrophic exit in arguably the most remarkable World Cup fixture of all time.
During the month-long festival supporters stood shoulder to shoulder in their respective nation’s shirt, intermingled with those wearing club jerseys from every leading football nation.
All got drunk on the World Cup and partied like it was 1999.
From the 200,000 Argentines in the southern city of Porto Alegre for La Albiceleste’s last group game against Nigeria, to the home nation, fans were as one in their evangelical outpourings of support, from Fortaleza in the north to Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte in the south-east. Until the Brazilian tears in Belo last Tuesday, at any rate.
That dramatic 7-1 disintegration to Germany was the night when Brazil’s reverential yellow jersey lost its captivating hue.
Not so much the colour of a golden yoke anymore, more a dingy transport cafe egg yellow, with their only sunshine boy being Neymar, who ended the competition prostrate like his compatriots but through injury not humiliation.
The Selecao were demystified on a night of footballing carnage when the world was agog and a nation sank to its knees.
The inquest will be long and painful and not without casualties.
But, in the final analysis, it was beautiful football that won that night, with the home supporters casting aside tears to applaud the Germans’ brilliance speaking volumes.
The performance of Joachim Low’s magnificent side in Estadio Mineirao blessed the tournament with something that commentators said was lacking – a great team, who fittingly took on their rivals with indisputably the greatest individual talent in Argentina’s Lionel Messi in last night’s showpiece at Rio Maracana Stadium.
There may have been a paucity of great teams and some attrition as the competition reached high-level business mode.
But there were some games to savour which made for compulsive viewing. Brazil against Chile as a starter for ten? What about Belgium v USA, Germany v Algeria?
Who was not spellbound by Holland starting the dethroning of the Spanish footballing empire in Salvador on June 13, with the similarly adept Chileans finishing off the abdication process in Rio five days later?
Then we had Germany versus Ghana, USA against Portugal and Argentina versus Nigeria in a group stage which saw the classy Colombians, cajoled by the wonderful James Rodriguez, and the free French also take bows.
What about the leading cast of players? Arjen Robben and Messi brought some choice offerings to the table, even if the former also showed his penchant for the over-threatrical.
Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mats Hummels, Alexis Sanchez, Javier Mascherano and Karim Benzema were other top names to walk the walk, not forgetting the incomparable Manuel Neuer.
A number of lesser-known names, from the likes of Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri to Juan Cuadrado and Stefan De Vrij – part of Holland’s thriving Feyenoord contingent – also admirably strutted their stuff.
In a tournament in which just one powerhouse, in the Germans, flexed their muscles, the walls came tumbling down for pre-tournament favourites Spain and Brazil, under the sage and seemingly assured command of Vicente Del Bosque and Luis Felipe Scolari. All this just 12 months on from the nations contesting the Confederations Cup final in a tantalising hors oeuvre.
For the Portuguese, Italians and English, it was a competition lacking any lustre, and for the French and feted Belgians, respectability yes, but a sense of ‘if only’.
North Africa returned to the footballing map in the guise of the refreshing Algerians, impressively led by Bosnian-born coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who has since resigned after taking the nation to the last 16 for the first time.
It is likely he will not be short of job offers and while his authoritarian attitude and stern demeanour drew comparisons with the likes of former USSR coach Valeri Lobanovskyi, his side – like Lobanovskyi’s – were far more than regimented, proving passionate and vibrant in intoxicating performances against Germany, Russia and the Korean Republic.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA displayed all those similarly commendable characteristics in abundance, with their buccaneering comeback in extra-time against the Belgians being a performance that will live long in the memory of not just Stars and Stripes supporters, but those who hold football close to their hearts the world over.
The global game had previously got lost in translation for many among the American public. Not any more after a tournament which should represent a game-changer in the USA, with their national team watched by record audiences back home, backed by a vast army of travelling supporters, and with President Barack Obama paying tribute to their efforts in his Independence Day address. Commendations do not come any higher.
Just as the USA and Algeria proved welcome standard-bearers for North America and North Africa, respectively, so Costa Rica, under manager Jorge Luis Pinto, took considerable kudos from the tournament.
They flew the flag for Central America, with CONCACAF overlords rightly proud of their members’ telling contributions.
The often overlooked sides of the federation conclusively proved that the days when they are just happy to be at the party are long gone.
Three of its members, Costa Rica, the USA and Mexico, reached the knockout stages for the first time in World Cup history.
The latter two may have bowed out at the last 16, but with their heads held high. A far cry from the days of 1982, when El Salvador were trashed 10-1 by Hungary and CONCACAF’S reputation was in tatters.
The exploits of the Costa Ricans deserve some context.
They topped a group of three previous World Cup winners and provided some genuine stars of the competition in Keylor Navas, Celso Borges and Bryan Ruiz. Bravo Los Ticos.
Alongside the European losers were Asia, with Japan and the Republic of Korea bowing out by the back door, although credit Iran for the boldest of performances in almost thwarting Argentina ahead of late brilliance from Messi.
For sub-Saharan Africa, it was a tournament hamstrung with problems behind the scenes for Ghana and Cameroon and a family tragedy for the Ivory Coast’s Toure brothers – yet the main news headline was provided by Luis Suarez. Notorious in Natal.
But his early exit was his loss from a World Cup which gave plenty, despite the lack of a home fairytale.