The goals record for the modern era could be broken in Brazil as the world hopes the drama will continue in the knockout stage
Sometimes, it is the little moments from these tournaments that linger in the memory. The night this week, for example, when a group of 20 or so Mexicans made their way along Copacabana, past all the battered old camper vans parked on Avenida Atlântica, calling in at every open-air bar along the strip to gesture they wanted total silence. It took some doing but eventually they managed it. They were bare-chested, clutching beer cans, rocking the Red Hot Chili Peppers look, and once they had everyone’s full attention they shattered their own silence. It was the loudest, most impassioned rendition of the Himno Nacional Mexicano their audience may ever hear.
That stretch of sand has become a kaleidoscope of different coloured flags and football kits over the past few weeks. A lot of the vans, with Chilean ribbons fluttering from the aerials and windows, have navigated their way across the Andes. Others have come from Argentina, decked out in the colours of the Albicelestes and hired out as self-catering hotels. Kids from the favelas offer bags of nuts and home-made caipirinha. Street-sellers hawk Neymar tops. It’s always Neymar. There are even dogs in Rio de Janeiro wearing Neymar jackets.
Goalposts rise from the sand and it does not take long, watching those games of four-against-four, one-touch headers and volleys, back and forth over the nets, to understand what happened to David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers when Manchester United came here in 2000. Some of the locals challenged them to a game. “Me, Gaz, Becks and Scholesy,” Phil Neville recalls. Four England internationals who finished their careers with a combined 325 caps. “We got beat 21-6.”
Brazil, with its “pais do futebol” banners, has certainly lived up to expectations even if, every so often, there are still reminders of the other side to this tournament. At the Maracanã the other day, they could be seen scrubbing off the latest wave of anti-Fifa graffiti from the side of the stadium.
Then there are the vast numbers of riot police who suddenly appear in the side streets when Brazil are playing. The security outside the Copacabana Palace hotel, where various Fifa officials have been staying, tells its own story. Brazil play Chile in Belo Horizonte on Saturday in the first of the knockout matches and nobody here can be sure what will happen if Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team are eliminated from their own competition.
For now, though, there is a happy feel to the World Cup and it is shaping up to be the tournament the sport wanted. There was always going to be wonderful colour and energy at the home of jogo bonito but a great tournament needs great football before anything else and this one will be a classic if the vibrancy of the group stages extends to the next fortnight.
When Jan Vertonghen put the ball past the South Korean goalkeeper, Kim Seung-gyu, in the Arena Corinthians on Thursday, it took the number of goals to 136. In South Africa four years ago, it was 101 at this stage. In 2006, it was 117. There were 130 in 2002 and 126 in 1998, when the current format began and the final number, 171, was the highest goal-count in the history of the competition. At the current rate, this tournament is well on course to establish a new record.
It has been the tournament when Thomas Müller, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have confirmed their reputations, James Rodríguez has fully announced himself on the highest stage and Lionel Messi has set about trying to end the argument once and for all about whether he warrants his place alongside Maradona and Pelé as football’s elite.
Everybody knew Messi had the gifts to make Argentina formidable opponents. What we have seen so far is hard evidence that he intends to sprinkle his authentic greatness on the tournament. He still might not emulate the mind-bending brilliance of Maradona in 1986 – who could? – but he is face to face with the best chance he will ever get and so far he has played like someone who understands this is his time.
Six of the eight South American teams have made it through to the knockout stages, in keeping with the lesson of history when the World Cup is held on this continent. By winning their groups, Argentina and Brazil have also conjured up the possibility of the dream final on 13 July.
Argentina face Switzerland in São Paulo on Tuesday, with Belgium or USA to follow in the quarter-finals, and Alejandro Sabella’s team will take some stopping. Brazil have also played with distinction, though perhaps too reliant on one man bearing in mind that gem of a line from Tostão this week. Brazil, he said, had two strategies. “First, give the ball to Neymar. Second, give the ball to Neymar.”
Fortunately for Brazil, Neymar has played as though oblivious to the pressures, to the extent that it has begun to feel like his fitful first season for Barcelona must have been a trick of our imaginations. All the same, Brazil will have their work cut out to reach the quarter-finals bearing in mind the part Chile have already played in Spain’s downfall and that defining headline – “The End” – in Marca last week.
Only six of the 13 European teams who began the competition are still here, which is probably the spread that might have been anticipated even if few would have imagined Greece and Switzerland making it through rather than Spain and Italy.
Of the five African sides, meanwhile, Nigeria and Algeria have reached the next round, but three wins from a combined 15 games is a revealing statistic. There was something wonderfully entertaining about that passage of play after Ghana had taken the lead against Germany in Fortaleza last weekend and started showboating to the soundtrack of the crowd’s olés.
Equally, their tournament ended in enough chaos to reinforce the theory that African football has found it harder closing the gap than they might have hoped, or expected, when Roger Milla was wiggling his hips by Italian corner flags back in 1990. In fairness, they could probably say the same of the England team.
Looking ahead, there is the potential for a France-Germany quarter-final in Rio on Friday if they can overcome the two remaining African nations. Holland will have to hope they did not peak too soon with their dismantling of Spain, but look a good bet to reach the last four. Louis van Gaal’s team take on Mexico in Fortaleza on Sundaytomorrow and the winners will face Costa Rica or Greece in the final eight.
Holland’s performances so far certainly epitomise the spirit of the competition, in stark contrast to what happened in 2010, when they lost the plot and the final. Again, the refereeing has been erratic, but not as ghastly, perhaps, as might have been suspected after the way the Japanese official, Yuichi Nishimura, scarred the opening game between Brazil and Croatia.
That just leaves Luis Suárez and his apparent determination to leave this World Cup with a streak of notoriety, following on from Harald Schumacher in 1982, Frank Rijkaard in 1990 and Zinedine Zidane in 2006, and meaning a decent windfall for the 100 or so people who were tempted by 175-1 odds and placed bets on the Uruguayan biting someone.
The front page of O Globo on Friday was taken up with a long-range shot of Suárez, on his hotel balcony, tearfully embracing a member of Uruguay’s backroom staff and the headline Partiu! (Gone!). In several newspapers worldwide, including the Guardian, the main picture showed tourists on Copacabana queuing up by a billboard of Suárez, teeth bared, to mock up photos of him biting various parts of their bodies.
The people of Uruguay will not be trying to lever off the halo they have fastened to Suárez’s head and their complaints will go up in volume again if they cannot get past Colombia at the Maracanã on Saturday to face the winners of the Brazil-Chile tie. Yet there is already the sense that the rest of the tournament is ready to move on. Too much has been happening elsewhere.
The World Cup has been having too much fun to be fixated on someone as light in the head as he is on his feet.