Soccer

Jack: Semi-finalists begin their pursuit of greatness

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Kristian Jack
7/5/2014 7:21:47 PM
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 To this day, in his mind, his side were the best team.
 
"We knew we were much better than them, we were not afraid at all."
 
Johan Cruyff shakes his head when thinking back to the day his Dutch side lost in the 1974 World Cup final to hosts West Germany.
 
The shake, however, is not full of bitterness, bewilderness or even disappointment.
 
Cruyff didn't need a trophy to tell him his team was the best.
 
After all, for the next 40 years, all he and the rest of us have heard is how good that team was.
 
It speaks volumes about Cruyff, and indeed the Dutch philosophy, that they were happy to be the People's Champions, rather than the World Champions.
 
Greatness, instead, is used to describe the team that came from behind to beat them that day, a team featuring stars like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner.
 
Sixteen years later, in Rome, West Germany became World Champions once again. Great players like Lothar Matthaus, Andreas Brehme and Jurgen Klinsmann helped to dispose of an extremely average Argentina team.
 
It was only one game of football. The same length of a match that can happen at your local park. Yet, despite it being an awful match, it accomplished something so important.
 
It was able to separate greatness and mediocrity, ensuring the chronicles of football history were told the way they should.
 
Since then five other teams would go on to win the World Cup in their own different ways. Some were better than others, but all of them deserved to win it and were better than their opponents.
 
In Brazil we are now down to the final four. It has been a great World Cup, full of great moments, many of them coming from great players. However, where greatness has yet to be sprinkled is upon any of the teams.
 
Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Netherlands is a wonderful final group to have in the semi-finals. Indeed, it is the first time ever that the two South American powerhouses have been at this stage in the same World Cup. All four are true giants in the game, without question, but so far the 2014 versions have been far from great.

They all head into the final two laps of this World Cup knowing one of them will become the champions when they cross the line for the final time next Sunday inside the famous Maracana.
 
All four have shown glimpses of individual greatness. Netherlands, who had to come from behind against Spain, Australia and Mexico, are inexperienced in defence and have significant weaknesses in midfield but they have lethal, clinical, great finishers who have helped them get this far although Robin Van Persie has gotten progressively worse as the tournament has gone on.
 
Argentina saved their best performance for their latest victory, a 1-0 quarter-final defeat of Belgium. However, it was far from an outstanding performance. Coach Alejandro Sabella will be glad some players stepped up in key areas that badly needed to be improved but they remain a team that is very vulnerable in defence and the collective balance of the side is still nowhere near complete. Lionel Messi has been great at this World Cup, scoring or assisting on five of their eight goals so far, but Argentina have benefitted from a very kind draw and, other than at Messi, it would be wrong to place any kind of greatness on anyone else at the moment.

In fact, it has been a clinic in countering the argument that Messi himself must carry Argentina to glory, showing glaring examples of how average the team really is.
 
The same can be said for Brazil, whose two truly great players will not feature for them in the semi-finals. Thiago Silva (suspension) and Neymar (back injury) will be a huge loss for the hosts against Germany. However, what this allows us all to do is to sit back and see if greatness can be found by others. It will be up to the other eleven players for Brazil to see if they can reach the final in front of an expectant home crowd.
 
The Brazilian public often demands to see winners, while being entertained at the same time, and so far the team has only managed to, barely, win. With two games to go to win an historic World Cup on home soil it appears, based on the quarter-final crowd, that the winning ugly method is fine as long as they keep jumping the hurdles towards greatness.
 
However, more often than not, winning ugly and losing usually meet at the same point. Eventually. Luiz Felipe Scolari's side have not been anywhere close to great at this World Cup but have two games left to save their reputation and cast aside any labels that have been thrown at them so far.
 
Standing in their way is a Germany team who has also showed some significant flaws getting to the last four. Their captain Philipp Lahm hasn't been at his best, in either position he has been played at, while Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze have been dubbed 'the invisible duo' by the German press while coach Joachin Low remains undecided on who plays up front.
 
However, their latest victory, a narrow 1-0 win over France in the quarter-finals, did give us a glimpse into what could be a victorious German team going forward. The balance of the midfield is better with the outstanding Sami Khedira in it, Bastian Schweinsteiger is starting to look more and more fit and influential, while Mats Hummels returned from the flu and ensured the back four were excellent for the first time.
 
Make no mistake, this is not a great team. Yet. However, of the final four, they look the closest to such a label at the moment. It is a team that relies heavily on the influence of its Bayern Munich players, winners who have succeeded at the highest level of the game. It is a team that has learned how to lose at the international level and modeled themselves on past victors, Spain.
 
Spain are on their holidays now but they have played an enormous part of what is happening in Brazil. Four years ago, at this stage, they were preparing for a game against the aforementioned Germans, after finally getting over the hump of the World Cup quarter-finals, a hurdle that had knocked them out so many times before.
 
Their run to the trophy in South Africa showed us all what greatness was. This time we have had to wait much longer for it to show up. With one week left to go at this World Cup we still need to be patient. Four teams in a knock-out stage tournament where only one will reign supreme. Thankfully, we know from past years that at least the World Cup will hand us a deserved winner. There is still time for a 'People's Champion' to be crowned but there is no time for more than one team to become great. It has taken some time but it is coming.

Paulinho Thiago Silva (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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