GAME OVER! Check out the finalists in EXB's World Cup photo competition.
My friend Khaled says the World Cup is like Ramadan, but with goals. Everything stops for it. Having said that, Khaled knows as much about football as I do about religious fasting periods. The World Cup is nothing like Ramadan.
A month of all of our lives is over and the only ones to come out with much of anything are a psychic octopus, a Dutch beer company, Iker Casillas‘ girlfriend, Per Mertesacker's face, Germany's favourite scapegoat Kevin-Prince Boateng, Louis Van Gaal, the Chinese manafacturers of plastic trumpets, fans dressed as bowling pins, the fan with a cooking pot on his head, Bobbi Eden (she didn't have to), the population of Buenos Aires (nor did Diego), Karim Benzema, Joe Hart, Javier Zanetti, Didier Drogba‘s surgeon, whoever it was that cursed Mick Jagger and Nike, the supporters of technology, the makers of a certain mobile phone, Stéphane Lannoy‘s optician, Basta, Toshiba, the French FA‘s travel agent and the makers of not-round-enough footballs the world over. Those of us who confidently predicted an Italy vs Mexico final didn't quite come out of it covered in glory, but then neither did Italy.
Actually, it was okay, mostly just okay, but when the third place playoff is miles better than the final then it can't have been that great. Maybe the problem is with the expectation. The inevitable tsunami of hype that can never be lived up to. Maybe it's my fault for believing the execrable Tim Lovejoy and all the others who had a vested interest in this being THE tournament of our lives. It can't be. Seen one, seen them all. I had the privilege of watching the Germany vs Spain semi final with an eight year old who actually felt it. England's, er, performances to me felt more like a slow burial than a catastrophic demise, but for little Leo David Villa‘s winner and the subsequent smothering of the game really hurt.
"It's okay mate," I tried to explain, "you‘ll get used to it" - but my German failed me at the critical moment. He has a lot to look forward to, and if it had been Thomas Müller there instead of Toni Kroos then maybe things would have been different. It's unlikely though. As well and as admirably the young side had played, they came unstuck against the first decent side they met (excepting maybe Ghana). The fantastic victories against Argentina and England were misleading in that the opposition were bereft of ideas (no Veron, Heskey on for Defoe?) and were as there for the taking as a Robbie Earle freebie. The best storylines - apart from the Edgar Allen Poe-scripted bird on the crossbar for England (and to Aaron Lennon, quoth the raven, nevermore) - tended to contain either healthy doses of outrage or condescension. Ghana no more deserved our support "just because they are African" than France's early departure deserved our glee "just because they‘re French". The calls for the use of technology, or the ridiculous idea of a penalty goal, felt more like just that. Something to talk about.
In a surprising twist the very German fans who had revelled in their team's performances mostly came out in support of their supposed nemesis Holland. I was braced for a weekend's worth of caravan on the Autobahn-based cartoons in the tabloids, but instead found myself sat behid a table full of irritating non-football fans who cheered every Van Bommel scythe, Robben roll and even Nigel De Jongs attack on Xavi Alonso. Maybe it was the German connections (Bayern, ex-Hamburg and Bayern) but I wanted these guys to be supporting the losing team more than ever. Fortunately Casillas earned his post-match snog, and saved at Robben's feet. Iniesta deserved his winner (despite what Van Persie would whinge about), and the World Cup at least ended up being won by one of the nice guys. Alongside Golden Boot and Young Player of the Tournament Müller, and Golden Ball winner Diego Forlán, the ones who deserved it had prospered. But then so did pragmatism. It seems like I have spent a month watching Spain play beautiful triangles, whilst shouting at the telly "For Christ's sake, just kick it in the goal!" For every Slovakia against Italy, there seemed to be a hundred Paraguay vs Japans. For every Keisuke Honda, a Mark van Bommel. A consequence of too many teams and too much pressure. This is the way it will continue to go as FIFA's tax-free coffers puff up like a pre-Castro Maradona. Enjoy Euro 2012 while you can cos it‘ll be the last with only 16 teams competing and, like a reverse Solomon Burke, the fatter it gets, the less of a spectacle will be there to be seen.