Should a champion have to play well, or simply win the game? As a player or manager certainly all that matters is lifting the trophy after the last match and wiping confetti off of your shoulders as you do a “clap lap” around the stadium. But what about the fans? Especially the “neutrals”, do they harbor the same feelings for the last team standing that they would for the team that played fluid, beautiful football?
The Netherlands’ performance against Spain is very arguably the best of the tournament so far. The problem is that was their opening match. Since then they gutted out a win vs Australia. Beat Chile late on. Needed Arjen Robben to do what Arjen Robben does (read: fall to the ground with both hands and both legs spread out wide while looking at the ref during the descent) in order to obtain a penalty kick to beat Mexico. And then a penalty kick win after 120 minutes of nil nil “excitement” versus Costa Rica.
Would a neutral believe that Robin Van Persie has an EPL golden boot on his trophy shelf? Would they believe that the Dutch had invented “total football” and were at one time the precise athletic embodiment of their nickname “the clockwork orange”? I know that I would have a hard time convincing them that the Dutch were anything more than a team with a couple of superstars who’ve been more than a bit lucky throughout the tournament. So hungry are the talking heads of the media for anything good to say about the Dutch that they termed Van Gaal’s substituting his open play keeper for his shot stopping keeper that more than a few have slapped together articles proclaiming his “tactical genius”. Putting in your keeper who’s better at stopping penalties isn’t genius, that’s what used to be known as “common sense”. Tactical genius would’ve been starting Huntelaar, playing with only one defensive midfielder, and winning the easily by at least a few goals.
On the same side of the bracket you have another team performing in a similar manner. Argentina defeated Belgium after a nothing cross took a funny bounce to a suddenly in space Higuain who did what a striker should do and put it in the back of the net. I’m an agreeable fellow so if you want to say the finish was top class, by all means, I’ll agree with you. But what about the other 89 minutes and 50 seconds? Messi had a one on one with Courtois at end, and the keeper saved it. There were no other “wow” moments. The wow moments were the continual “wow, I can’t believe that Belgium aren’t much better” or “wow, how come a player as good as Eden Hazard is he’s doing absolutely nothing in this tournament” or most importantly “wow, Lukaku isn’t starting?”
As Tony Dungee would say, “you play to win the game”. And at the end of the day both teams did that. They’re obligated to win and advance, not to impress the writers at worldsoccertalk.com. But as a person who watches the EPL, La Liga, League 1, and the Bundesliga every weekend I know that these players are better than what they’ve shown. And as a person who tries to convert the sports heathens who continually dismiss soccer as “a bunch of pansies who roll on the ground every time someone breathes on them” players like Arjen Robben aren’t making it easy. When I talk about how Messi, Higuain, Lavezzi, and Di Maria are not only some of the fastest, most creative athletes on the planet, but they’re all on the same team, well, then I kind of need them to dispatch Switzerland in less than 120 minutes. I need them to do more than win 1-0 on fluke goals. I want what’s best for everyone. And what’s best for everyone is all the world’s most talented players playing really well. Continually impressing and entertaining while the eyes of the entire world are upon them.