Feature

Three 2014 World Cup moments etched in my memory

Germany players celebrate their 2014 FIFA World Cup final win over Argentina. (AAP)

With South American football currently slumbering through its high summer siesta, I hope I might be forgiven for glancing backwards at what has just become last year's World Cup.

The tournament was well worth remembering – for the protests it engendered beforehand, for the spectacle it provided us with during and for the memories that linger afterwards. These are some of mine.

Argentina v Bosnia

This, in Rio's giant Maracana stadium, was the first World Cup match I had ever attended, the first glance of the stars of the tournament (those Argentina fans) and the first game Bosnia had ever played at this level. It was, then, a special occasion.

Perhaps the aspect that made it most special was the pressure on Lionel Messi. This was his third crack at the World Cup, and surely his best chance of making his definitive statement as an international footballer. Could Brazil 2014 be to Messi what Mexico 86 was to Diego Maradona? In the course of the qualification campaign Messi had finally begun to reproduce his club form for his country. This was the moment when the world was expecting him to deliver.

For a long time in the Maracana he failed to live up to expectations – though, to be fair, his team-mates were worse. Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella seemed to have lost his nerve, abandoning the open 4-3-3 his side had been using for a cautious back 5 that left the side disjointed and apparently unsure of what it was supposed to be doing. Sabella admitted his mistake at half time, switching back to 4-3-3, and just past the hour mark came the moment everyone had been waiting for. Messi scored a goal of trademark brilliance, picking up from deep, working his way down the right channel, cutting in on an exchange of passes with Higuain and curling his finish in off the far post.

In the short term – an outpouring of emotion. In the long – a theme that comes to the fore at all contemporary end of season tournaments; would Messi have enough gas in the tank to produce moments like that over the complete course of the coming month?

Brazil v Mexico

In the light of the drama that unfolded in all of Brazil's knock out games, it is easy to overlook the importance of this group encounter in Fortaleza.

This was the city where, a year earlier in the Confederations Cup, the crowd and the players had begun the custom of singing the national anthem unaccompanied after the music cut out. It was always an intense moment, a mass demonstration of the tide of emotion which Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari hoped would carry his side all the way to the title.

In hindsight it is easy to forget that Brazil went into the World Cup as justified favourite. It had won 16 of its previous 17 matches, the only interruption a single goal defeat to Switzerland in the notoriously unreliable (and since discontinued) August FIFA date. The Brazil team that took the field against Mexico was on a run of 10 straight victories, 32 goals scored, three conceded. True, Brazil had been unimpressive in its previous game, the World Cup curtain raiser against Croatia. But that, surely, was first night nerves. With all of that out of the way, back on a happy hunting ground for the team, we would see the real Brazil.

Which, I suppose, we probably did. It took a wonderful display by Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa to ensure the game finished goalless, but the sad fact was that Brazil looked so ordinary. My lasting memory of being in the stadium is the way the crowd went quiet, the belief slowly sucked out of it. There had been warning signs – captain Thiago Silva had confessed to losing sleep over the pressure of the tournament. And this 0-0 draw was the moment when those doubts and fears began to feel justified. The message a few weeks earlier when the Brazil players had assembled was that they already had one hand on the World Cup. The Mexico game released the grip, and was an important stage on the way to the emotional collapse the team suffered in the semi-final.

Germany v Argentina

To be there in the Maracana for the World Cup Final was an enormous privilege. But what stays with me more vividly is the atmosphere a few hours later on Rio's Copacabana beach. After the match I had done numerous TV and radio interviews, and descended to the stadium press centre to write three different articles. I then made the short journey home to do more radio, before having a short nap. It had to be a quick one – I had agreed to do some more radio for BBC World Service in the small hours at Copacabana. I bitterly regretted agreeing to do this. I had barely slept for a month, and without the alarm clock on my mobile phone I would have slept right through and missed the radio programme.

Somewhat disgruntled I got up, had a quick shower and made the short journey over – and instantly regretted any earlier reluctance. Copacabana was still living the tournament in all of its intensity. The beachfront was a glorious multinational parade. Pride of place, of course, went to the Argentine fans, still belting out their songs as if their team had just won the game. But everyone was on a high. No one wanted to go to bed, wake up and realise that the 2014 World Cup now belonged to history. As long as we all stayed awake, the competition was still real, vivid, alive, and we all enjoyed a last bite of a misformed but nevertheless delicious cherry.