Back to reality

I regret to inform you that the World Cup has ended.

I know, I know, it’s not fair. Yes, we should have it every year (preferably in Brazil), and no, things will not be the same now that it has gone. Unfortunately, we have to wipe away the tears and get on with our lives.

The 2014 World Cup was a spectacular month of football, friendship and education. A celebration of the best things this wonderful sport has to offer, as well as pages and pages of narratives and subplots. As usual, it was great to see teams from all around the world, principally those outside of my region. Costa Rica were a surprise and a joy, with their superb spine of Keylor Navas, Giancarlo González, Celso Borges and Joel Campbell. Algeria’s first half performance against South Korea was one of the best moments of the tournament, only Germany in their first half against Brazil were more deadly.

Speaking of the German side, everyone was left in no doubt that the best team came out on top. This current Germany setup has given an example of planning and organisation which every footballing country around the world can learn from – their fourth World Cup trophy was more than deserved.

Anyway, it is time to return to reality. The wallchart has been folded away and kept in a safe place, the flags have been taken down from the windows and the television is showing soap operas and awful films in the slots the football has vacated.

Many football fans have expressed their desire to take a rest from the game, a couple of weeks of recovery and relaxation, allowing for a smooth comedown and a fresh appetite for the start of the European season. Fans in Brazil, however, have no such luxury.

Due to the Brazilian FA’s complete ignorance of how to create a spectacle, the Brazilian championship gets back underway this evening, only two days after the World Cup final was played at the Maracanã.

Six of the 12 World Cup stadiums will be in use in this midweek round of games, although only three of those are for top-flight matches. In the second division, Recife’s Arena Pernambuco will host Náutico v Sampaio Corrêa, Arena das Dunas in Natal will see América-RN v Bragantino, while the Arena Pantanal in the centre-west city of Cuiabá is strangely hosting Vasco da Gama (from Rio de Janeiro, in the south-east) against Santa Cruz (from Recife, in the north-east).

Why would Vasco choose to play a home match around 1,000 miles away from Rio de Janeiro? They are serving the final match of a punishment handed to them by the CBF for fan violence, forbidding them from playing at their home stadium. Instead of staging the game just outside of Rio, they are trying to ride Cuiabá’s World Cup wave and squeeze as much money as they can out of the situation.

In the first division, Corinthians will take on Internacional in their first match at the brand-new Arena Corinthians since Fifa handed over the keys last week. Bahia will host São Paulo at the gorgeous Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, while Cruzeiro return to the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte (the site of Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany) to play Vitória.

In the weekend rounds of the first and second divisions, only four of the stadiums will be in use.

More frustrating than this are the ticket prices stipulated for these matches. In tonight’s second division matches, the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pernambuco is R$ 50 (around £13), while any Vasco or Santa Cruz fans willing to make the trek to Cuiabá will have to fork out R$ 60 for the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pantanal.

The first division matches are not much better, Corinthians and Cruzeiro have set their cheapest tickets at R$ 50, bearing in mind that this only accounts for a small section of the stadium. Seats with reasonable views are going for anything between R$ 80 and R$ 180.

This might not sound like much compared to British prices, but when put up against the average monthly salary in Brazil, these are the most expensive tickets in world football. In 2012, a study was conducted to this end and showed the Brazilian league to have the highest ticket prices compared to average earnings, using a mean price of only R$ 38. If this post-World Cup trend continues, the average will increase further and more and more will be excluded from the sport.

Turning attentions to on-pitch matters, the expectation for this post-World Cup stage of the Brazilian championship is that we will see a group of title challengers begin to pull away from the rest over the next few weeks. Leaders and reigning champions Cruzeiro will be looking to open up some space between themselves and second-placed Fluminense, while Corinthians, São Paulo, Internacional and Grêmio will battle for one of the four Copa Libertadores places up for grabs.

The transfer window has been positive for most of these top-half teams, especially Corinthians and Grêmio. The former have made some impressive signings, bringing in experienced defender Ânderson Martins, Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro and hard-working midfielder Elias. All three will go straight into the starting lineup.

Grêmio have also strengthened their team considerably, repatriating midfielder Giuliano, who was extremely promising when taking Grêmio’s rivals Internacional to the Copa Libertadores title of 2010 and has been playing in Ukraine since. Winger Fernandinho has joined from Atlético Mineiro and flying right-back Matías Fernández signed from Sampdoria. The southern side already had a decent squad before the World Cup break, with some exciting young talent breaking through. They will be worth keeping an eye on between now and December.

Day six: Don’t blame it on the sunshine …

Yesterday, minutes after I published my glowing report on the World Cup so far, we were subjected to the tournament’s first goalless draw, between Iran and Nigeria. However, anyone familiar with either side or who had bothered to do some research would have been able to tell you the match was never likely to be entertaining.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has often spoke about the limitations of his squad, while Nigeria is a side set up to cause problems on the counterattack and exploit spaces that Iran were never going to give them. The Super Eagles tried to change their approach by bringing on a pure centre-forward in Shola Ameobi, but it was jarring, they did not appear to be used to the different approach.

It is likely that both sides will prefer playing against Argentina and Bosnia, where they are not expected to control the match and will try to frustrate technically superior opposition while posing a counterattacking threat.

The match was played in Curitiba, the last of Brazil’s host cities to debut in this tournament. The stadium looked great, but there were problems: those present complained of a faulty speaker system while the playing surface did not look ideal. The grass was clumpy and could cause problems to possession-based teams such as Spain, who will play Australia there next week.

It may be interesting to see how results pan out in matches played in Curitiba and Porto Alegre, the two southernmost venues. The region of the country is noticably cooler, especially with a cold front set to arrive this week. It is unlikely to be uncomfortable for any teams, considering “cold” by Brazilian standards is something approaching a central European spring, but the conditions are conducive to defensive football. Players are not inhibited by the heat and can close down for the full 90 minutes, reducing the space available on the pitch.

Although some reporting of Brazil’s climate has been blown out of proportion at this World Cup, it will certainly make some sort of impact. Players were visibly exhausted in the second halves of Chile v Australia, Italy v England and Switzerland v Ecuador. In warm and/or humid conditions, players either become tired quicker or make conscious efforts to economise their energy, which leads to matches with more spaces, allowing for more opportunities to be created and the chance of more goals. Germany, playing their group matches in Salvador, Fortaleza and Recife, made an excellent choice and have been training in Bahia since their arrival in the country, helping them to become accustomed to the conditions of Brazil’s north-east.

In 1977, Pelé predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000. Although he is rarely correct with these things (as shown by a Colombian television appeal for the King not to pick their country as his World Cup favourites), this did not seem like Pelé’s worst piece of forecasting. Some of the African sides in the 1990s showed superb individual talent and flair, seeming so close to mounting a genuine title challenge.

So, what happened? The quality would appear to have regressed, and what we have seen so far from the African countries in this year’s World Cup has been disappointing.

African football, much like in South America lives only to produce players for sale to Europe. Modern football requires athleticism, so young African players are lifting weights and running sprints before they learn to pass a ball.

Cameroon and Nigeria were particularly unimpressive, and while Ivory Coast, Ghana and Algeria showed some promising flashes, they are still some way away from the expectations placed upon them. The Ivorians have a clear attacking approach, pushing their wing-backs forward (against Japan, Serge Aurier played particularly well) and bombarding the opposition with crosses, they also have more quality that their peers with Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony and Drogba coming off the bench. They are likely to qualify alongside Colombia. Ghana, however, look to be heading home after losing to the USA.

Algeria played an excellent first half against Belgium, happy to invite pressure from the opposition while looking efficient and dangerous on the counterattack. They were eventually outdone in the second half, but on this evidence they could still get out of their group.