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Why Germany won, Brazil lost, and Africa under-performed again

Football’s World Cup comes and goes every four years, and in its wake it alway leaves some valuable lessons. This column tries to chronicle them, so here is the 2014 edition.

In 2010 I wrote here that to win in football (or any collective endeavour) four ingredients are necessary: first, a great ethos and common sense of purpose; second, a ‘groove’ – a familiar and competent system of play (no matter what it is); third, some outstanding talent; and lastly, great leadership, on and off the playing arena.

Spain possessed all these ingredients in 2010, and duly won the trophy. This time it fell short on all four, and endured a humiliating first-round exit. Its ‘tiki-taka’ system had failed to evolve, and had been figured out by its opponents; its talent pool was ageing, and relying on the same old faces; its manager seemed to have lost his energy and enthusiasm; and leadership was clearly lacking on the pitch when things went wrong. Bye bye, Spain.

What about the host nation, those majestic Brazilians, five-time champions, with the added advantage of playing on familiar terrain in front of millions of adoring fans? They were, rightly, the pre-tournament favourites. They started well enough, but suffered a dramatic implosion. Their net ballooned with ten goals shipped by their opponents in their last two games. They, too, left in tears.

What went wrong here? First and foremost, both ‘ethos’ and ‘system’ were suspect. Brazil is renowned for its ‘samba’ style of football, the one that regales every schoolboy and makes fans jump from their seats: flamboyant, skilful, even playful. It’s what we love them for. But that style has been missing in action for a while now, diluted by the cynics of modern football who play safe ‘percentage’ football. That confusion was all too evident on the pitch, as Brazil’s top talents struggled to contain their natural instincts and play an unfamiliar game of disciplined positioning instead.

This was not the most talented bunch of players that we have seen coming out of Brazil, either. In the past, two or three outstanding players have tended to bring the trophy home. That was conspicuously missing this time. And leadership was just woeful. Their near-total collapse in morale in the 7-1 thrashing from Brazil was painful to watch. And I don’t think I have ever seen a captain (David Luiz) do a post-match interview in which he sobs and cries throughout…

Argentina also flattered to deceive. Their system is an anti-football one: it aims not to win matches, but to make opponents lose them. It is aimed at choking the game, and waiting for one fatal error in the opposing half. Hence the large number of one-nil victories. A waste of talent, and a dispiriting ethos to have. And Captain Lionel Messi’s may be the world’s finest player, but he’s no leader on the pitch.

Which leaves us with the Germans, deserved winners, and displaying all four of my organizational ingredients. A calm, collected, limelight-avoiding captain in Philipp Lahm, supported by a wonderful blood-and-guts flag-waver called Bastian Schweinsteiger; a very settled ‘groove’ of fast, interlinking play; talent all over the pitch (but not too much); and a national ethos and appetite for methodical achievement that is undeniable.

It’s also worth noting what the Germans avoided: a system centred on one, larger-than-life individual; and a short-term, cynical attitude to winning. The current German team has been a work-in-progress since 2002.

So there you are. Where does that leave our African teams, who again failed to get past the early stages? There are four ingredients, people, and we have only one: talent. Until we sort out the other three, African football teams will keep spinning their wheels.

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