World Cup 2014: Why has this World Cup been so good to watch?

What are the reasons behind the success of this tournament?

From almost the moment it kicked off, this World Cup has been a roaring success.

With the exception of Iran and Nigeria's turgid 0-0 draw, almost every game has provided excitement of some kind. But what are the reasons behind this tournament's success?

1. The Ball

A good football, like a good referee, goes unnoticed. After the disastrous Jabulani ball spoiled the 2010 finals the pressure was on adidas to deliver. They have.

Aside from complaints over the £100 price tag there has been barely a mention of the Brazuca, but it is a fundamental part of this tournament’s success. Wheras in 2010 crosses and free-kicks were constantly over-hit as the Jabulani took flight this time there have been an unusually high proportion of goals from crosses with players able to drop the ball exactly where they intended.

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This applies whether it be Daley Blind’s long deep cross for Robin van Persie’s spectacular header against Spain, Serge Aurier’s brace of on-the-run whipped balls in for Wilfred Bony and Gervinho to score against Japan, or the free-kick expertise of United States’ Graham Zusi which served up John Brooks’ dramatic goal.

True, there have not been many successful strikes from long range, or direct free-kicks testing goalkeepers, but that is partly because the ball flies so true only a magician such as Andrea Pirlo can make it deviate in mid-air.

Brazuca match balls for the FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazuca match balls for the FIFA World Cup 2014
That is not just good for goalkeepers, it rewards ability rather than those speculative pot-shots players resort to when short of ideas and options. The Brazuca has been the unsung hero of this World Cup. And it even looks good.

2. The stars

Pele in 1970, Diego Maradona in 1986, Zinedine Zidane in 1998. Some World Cups are defined by one player, and all need its stars to shine. In Brazil many of them they have.

Lionel Messi, Neymar, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Mario Balotelli are all off the mark, so, too, notables such as Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller, Oscar, Edinson Cavani and Daniel Sturridge, plus national heroes Alexis Sanchez, Tim Cahill, Clint Dempsey, Keisuke Honda and Andre Ayew.

Robin van Persie's astonishing header against Spain Robin van Persie's astonishing header against Spain
It is quite a list for week one, even if there is one major omission in Cristiano Ronaldo – or two from a domestic viewpoint with Wayne Rooney also yet to score.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden did not qualify, Franck Ribery and Radamel Falcao are injured, and Luis Suarez’s fitness remains unclear, but it is already evident that many of the players who decorate boot manufacturers’ advertisements are going to have a good World Cup.

Maybe the extra week’s pre-tournament rest enforced by Fifa after the 2002 finals, when holders France went into the tournament on their knees with exhaustion, and David Beckham, the most recognizable player in Japan, if not the best, was half-fit, is taking effect.

3. The tactics

It had been feared that the heat at some venues would create pedestrian matches, as happened at Mexico 1986, and the effects of a long European season would further lower energy levels.

However, aside from Russia-South Korea, which was played in a steam bath at walking pace for 70 minutes, the matches have been bursting with vitality.

This is partly because the current tactical trend is a high-tempo game, whether it be high pressing or counter-attacking. Due to the conditions few teams have sustained a high press, but they have looked to break quickly on transitions. This has led to open contests, particularly in the later stages of games.

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Two other key factors are that first–half goals were scored in 15 of the 18 first-round matches, forcing opponents to be adventurous, and there has often been a pleasing contrast in styles.

Gone are the days when everyone played 4-2-3-1 and, too often, cancelled each other out. Teams have played three at the back, two up front, and a variety of midfield structures. They have often changed formations mid-game.

Daniel Sturridge wheels away in celebration against Italy
Moreover in several teams, including England (admittedly through circumstance as much as design), the players used as holding midfielders are not naturally defensive-minded. Most of all, many teams, perhaps infected by the location, have been attack-minded. England v Italy was a prime example. Cesare Prandelli told right-back Matteo Darmian to push at every opportunity, Roy Hodgson had Rooney, then Danny Welbeck, wide left with no midfield cover. Both teams scored on that flank, and both conceded from it.

4. The referees

Every event needs a bit of controversy and it is often the referees who provide it. Yuichi Nishimura kicked things off in the opening game by giving conspiracy theorists plenty to work with when he failed to dismiss Neymar for elbowing Luka Modric, gifted Brazil a penalty, and denied Croatia an equaliser.

 

The theory (that Brazil must be allowed to prosper or else there will be riots in the streets) was debunked by Cuneyt Cakir’s handling of Brazil’s next match, but by then the focus had moved on, to Goal Line Technology, the Muller-Pepe spat, and, for Englishmen, Rooney’s Facebook takedown of his media critics.

Since the first two matches (in the second Mexico had two legitimate goals chalked off) the refereeing has actually been very good with officials clearly instructed to let the matches flow. The downside of this has been the tolerating of some excessive tackling, notably by Honduras against France but in several other games too, such as Brazil-Mexico. It is to be hope this does not lead to players being injured.

Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura sprays a line after calling for a free kick for Brazil Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura sprays a line after calling for a free kick for Brazil
The novelty of referees using vanishing spray has also added to the competition’s allure.

5. The coverage

BBC and ITV have their critics but the coverage appears pretty good to someone who attended the last four World Cups, and thus followed the host nation productions.

Robbie Savage, Clarence Seedorf and Thierry Henry in the BBC World Cup studio  

It is galling to see Gary, Adrian and company sitting above Copacabana Beach every day, especially if it has been rainy here, yet once the envy is parked the three-games-a-day diet of football is a rich one. There are some co-commentators best avoided but BBC’s red button option of combining radio commentary and TV pictures is a savior.

Hopefully for 2018 an matching agreement will be struck between ITV and TalkSPORT. There are also some pundits who offer very little, but on a three-person panel they are usually in the minority. Generally the analysis has been very good, mercifully gimmick-free, and with Neil Lennon a real find.

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