Brazil's World Cup party goes out with a bang
BEN STANLEY IN RIO DE JANEIRO
OPINION: For 32 days, it was the best party on the planet.
It was wild, wondrous and utterly unpredictable, with a cast of characters and narratives to surpass the best hooley you've ever gone to.
But like any party, the World Cup in Brazil had to end sometime - and that sometime was this morning at Rio de Janeiro's Estadio do Maracana.
It went out with a bang too; with an utterly absorbing final between the world's best overall team - Germany - and the team with the world's best player, Lionel Messi.
It might not have had many goals, but it had everything. Blows, and counterblows, momentum shifts, moments of suspense and brutality, and missed chances that will haunt players for their lifetimes.
Without A Selecao (the Brazilian team) in the final, the buildup to the game at Brazil's biggest sporting cathedral took on a strange edge around Rio.
In Copacabana and Ipanema, the beaches and streets were crammed full of Argentinians, who had travelled in their tens of thousands from across the border to be in Rio for the final.
This was their first chance since 1990 - ironically the last time Germany won the World Cup - to take the stage in football's Big Dance. Plenty of people wanted the chance to say: "I was there in Rio when we did it."
Of course, there were plenty of Germans, too - and an army of fans from every corner of the globe wanting to plug themselves into the tense, joyful energy only a Would Cup final can give off.
The locals found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.
The shadows of those seven infamous German goals in Belo Horizonte stretched to their third place playoff game the night before, where they were played off the park by the Netherlands.
At the Copacabana bar where I watched the game, Brazilians ironically cheered the Dutch goals on. Their team's fall from grace had now become a cartoonish act.
"Mais um!, [Another!]," they laughed.
Now Germany was all that stood between Argentina and Brazil's worst nightmare.
Definitely. If the Argies won a World Cup final on Brazilian soil, they would never, ever let their neighbours hear the end of it.
Imagine the Wallabies lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup at Eden Park after the All Blacks had been knocked out in the semis. Yep, that bad.
However, while the yellow jersey of Brazil wasn't on the pitch at the Maracana, in plenty of respects it was as metaphorically Brazilian as a final could get.
There was the flamboyance and flair on the paddock, with dash and bravado from both combatants.
And there were flaws; a media tribune without internet for the world's journalists to file from, a streaker who made it onto the pitch despite the two rings of security around it and a host of missed opportunities to score for both teams.
Gonzalo Higuain's appalling 20th-minute missed shot on goal was an opportunity 90 per cent of professional strikers should bury - while Rodrigo Palacio's mistimed second-half chip off Manuel Neuer should have been fired home.
Neuer provided a moment of brutality in the second half when he collided with Higuain on the edge of the box; a moment that, on another day, could have provided the South Americans with a penalty.
It was Argentina who looked the better team for the majority of the match.
Their backline handled the ever-creative Germans well, with left back Marcos Rojo effectively marking the sublime Thomas Muller out of the game.
But the Germans showed poise and calmness, as they always do, and found a way through, when Mario Goetze coolly slotted past Sergio Romero with just seven minutes left in extra time to go 1-0 up.
The Maracana's 74,738 fans looked to Messi. What can you do, kid? Can you bring your lads home?
He couldn't and in 15 minutes, he would be standing at halfway glumly starring at his boots while the jubilant Germans did their victory lap - and Pharrell Williams' pop anthem, Happy, rang out.
As they were the winners, World Cup 2014 will ultimately be remembered as Germany's tournament.
But there were many others who can claim ownership of this tournament, in different ways.
How about plucky Costa Rica, who were knocked out only on penalties to the Netherlands?
How about Colombia's James Rodriguez, and that stunning left-footed volley against Uruguay? How about the goalkeepers of the tournament - especially Neuer, USA's Tim Howard, Costa Rica's Keylor Navas and Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa?
Luis Suarez - that bastard - and the teeth marks he left in Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder? Brazil's Neymar; whose absence from his team seemed to take on a life of its own at the Cup?
For me, my tournament favourites came from people who, mostly, never set foot in the stadiums; they were the people of Brazil.
They were generous and welcoming. They supported their team with a passion, and pride, I've never seen before.
They roared in the Florianopolis bar when Neymar scored that opener against Croatia. They wept openly in Sao Paulo when A Vergonha de Belo (the shame of Belo), referring to their semifinal defeat to Germany, unfolded.
They gave the world the best damn party it could - and it was a ripper. Like any party, it had to end.
They'll be hangovers tomorrow - but great memories too.
Obrigado, Brasil. Ele foi o melhor. (Thank you, Brazil. It was the best.)
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