Very famously Sir Alex Ferguson, the now-retired manager of Manchester United, once described the football in the World Cup as being “second class” compared with the knockout stages of the Uefa Champions League.
“Do you remember the World Cup in South Africa?” he asked me at one conference about the business of football. “It was like a visit to the dentist!”
Plainly, Ferguson and his dentist were not the greatest of friends. But his point was well made. The World Cup of 2010 in South Africa was not so much about the quality of football, it was all about whether one of the world’s two sports mega events could be staged in Africa at all.
Fifa, as the responsible world federation, threw enormous resources at South Africa in terms of money, personnel, expertise, support. There was even a Fifa office in the new headquarters of the South African Football Association so that president Sepp Blatter’s “spies” could keep a close watch on what the local organising committee was doing and how it was using all this “new money”.
To this extent, the World Cup in South Africa was a success. It proved it is possible to take a World Cup or Olympic Games to any country, anywhere on the planet.
But the major problem was that, in 2010, the football itself was forgotten. Very few matches live on in the memory. Very few great individual performances can be recalled. Instead the last memory of the 2010 World Cup was of the bad-tempered final in which Holland tried to kick Spain off the pitch.
Thankfully, they failed, although it took a late goal in extra time from Andres Iniesta for the “good guys” to win.
Hence it was crucial for Fifa and for football that the World Cup in Brazil — where better? — should be a sporting success. Then children will want to go on playing it and, commercially, sponsors will want to go on financing it.
Fifa has problems of its own. So the worldwide “football family” has put its trust in the coaches and players of the 32 competing nations. This trust has not always been repaid in the past.
The World Cup has seen too much negative football from countries whose success was “only” in reaching the finals.
Fortunately, this time, we can say that the World Cup has been revived, resurrected, reborn. The credit goes not to Fifa but to Luiz Felipe Scolari, Louis Van Gaal, Joachim Low and their fellow coaches. It also belongs to the players who have treated the World Cup as a privilege, as the greatest stage on which to display and indulge their own talent.
Hence, the first 16 matches have produced 49 goals at an average of just over three per game. The unfolding first sequence of entertaining and exciting matches generated scoring ratios not witnessed at the World Cup since 1958.
This is the answer. But the question is: Why?
Even Van Gaal, in his last weeks as coach of Holland before he takes over at Manchester United, has been surprised. He admitted as much after seeing his own team’s remarkable 5-1 demolition of defending world champions Spain in their opening game in Group B.
Van Gaal is a coaching professor. He was youth academy manager at Ajax before stepping out on the big stage himself so he knows football coaching from the grassroots upwards and should have most of the answers.
He said: “What happened in our match against Spain was not what you would expect from your first World Cup match. It’s everything to do with strategy and the willingness of the players to convert their chances with conviction.
“Then, the more confidence players gain the more willing they become to play the ball around, to ‘skip stations’ in play and take the game forward.”
Physical preparation is also crucial. Van Gaal said: “Our staff made sure our team is fit. There was a great deal of discussion about this ahead of the finals. We knew about this heat and humidity and you have to be prepared, not only physically but also technically. This is something you see which has changed at this World Cup with much more thought about preparing the whole player.
“You can’t play hard, attacking football for the whole 90 minutes in these conditions so — for us — we made sure we played compact football and looked to use our centre-forwards. This means more attacking football. If you have the fitness and the strategy to sprint forward on the counter-attack, things can happen, you can get goals — as we saw.”
The importance of matching the technical and physical approach has been stressed, too, by Gerard Houllier, the former national coach of France who heads up Fifa’s technical study group. This is a “squad” of veteran coaches who attend all the matches and look for trends in the football.
Houllier loves talking football. Also, like any Frenchman in the game, he enjoys talking about the game in semi-intellectual terms. For him, football is a physical manifestation of a mental and psychological strategy.
He told me: “Freshness of mind and body is a key criteria and ingredient for success in a big competitionů because speed and power combined with a high level of skill play an important part in a big competition.
“Fortunately (for the World Cup), apart from the teams that played the Champions League final, all the teams had time to recover properly. But a number of players from Spain (Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Diego Costa) had played the final which was a nerve-breaking type of final which drains a lot of your energy.”
Concern was expressed after South Africa that the quality of football suffered because a majority of the World Cup players came from European clubs and had only recently tough, hard league seasons.
This is also true in Brazil but coaches and their fitness staff have learned the lesson of four years ago.
England’s players, for example, were ordered to take their families away on a short holiday before returning for World Cup preparation. As manager Roy Hodgson said: “They were able to wind down after the season so that we could then wind them up, fresh, for the World Cup.”
Changes in the laws of the game have helped. A ban on the goalkeeper handling a back pass brought more “game time” into a match and the freedom now to use three substitutes per team means teams can play faster and for longer.
Belgium, notably, capitalised against Algeria. At half-time, Belgium were losing 1-0 and going nowhere. The opportunity to use so many substitutes gave coach Marc Wilmots the chance not only to change tired players but to turn his entire tactical approach inside out.
It worked: Belgium scored two late goals to win the match and — equally important in the overall scheme of the World Cup — contribute yet another dramatic and memorable chapter to the 2014 history book.
Very possibly, as the Cup runs on and injuries and fatigue and pressure build up, the goals ratio will fall and matches will become tighter. This is a particular possibility in the knockout stages. But that is merely a different form of drama.
As of now, the World Cup has “captured” the sporting world. It is, once more, the Beautiful Game.