The 10 Most Memorable Football Moments of 2014

Standard

What a year it’s been for football.

2014 saw the best World Cup in recent memory, one the most exciting Premier League title races ever and the most unlikely Ireland result in the most dramatic of circumstances. This year had so many unforgettable football moments, here’s our 10 most memorable.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

10. Luis Suárez’s second goal against England

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The then Liverpool forward underwent knee surgery on May 21st, was expected to be out of action for six weeks but returned on June 19th to effectively knock England out of the World Cup. As the game was entering its final minutes, Luis Suárez was hobbling around the pitch, no-where near full fitness, but instinctively reacted to a misplaced Steven Gerrard header, went through on goal and smashed the ball home.

A fantastic World Cup moment, full of narrative and drama, the camera panned from the ecstasy of Suarez and the Uruguayans to the despair of Gerrard and England. A man who’d been in a wheelchair weeks before crushes a nation’s hopes.

https://vine.co/v/MTeaHj123up/embed/postcard

9. Eamon Dunphy curses live on air during the World Cup. Eamon Dunphy 17/5/2012RTE have just come back on air before the game between Brazil and Mexico in the World Cup. ‘The pitch was a fucking bog’, Eamon Dunphy doesn’t seem to realise it though. ‘You can see the level of expectancy,’ Bill O’Herlihy notes to the panel. ‘When Neymar was shaping up to take that penalty’ Dunphy continues, ‘I thought he was fucking… dreading it’.  The host takes a sharp intake of breath as Dunphy curses and it becomes apparent, the pundit has dropped a series of F-bombs on live television. Even by his own Olympic-like dedication and mastery of saying controversial things, this was a special moment.

‘We’re on air?!’ , O’Herlihy asks.‘Oh we’re not, are we?!’ Dunphy says, squirming in his seat and momentarily raising his hand to cover his mouth. Bill awkwardly laughs it off and when the programme returns from a break Dunphy says sorry for his slip. But, like a schoolboy apologising for misbehaving, Dunphy has a twinkle in his eye and you know he’s not really sorry. Never change Eamon.

8. James Rodriguez goal against Uruguay Colombia v Uruguay: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilJames Rodriguez was already the best performer at the World Cup before the last-16 tie with Uruguay. The Colombian had scored two and and assisted two in the group stages, but this goal raised his profile to superstar level. Rodriguez drifted into a pocket of space between Uruguay’s defence and midfield, took a quick glance towards goal before cushioning a pass with his chest and, in one motion, turned and volleyed a peach of a shot in off the underside of the bar. Rodriguez nonchalantly saunters off and signs for Real Madrid for €80 million a few weeks later. A star is born.

7.Sergio Ramos last minute Champions League final goal against Atletico Madrid Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final La Décima, the title Real Madrid, a club that has everything, craves more than anything is about to be lost to their city rivals. Atletico Madrid, the plucky underdogs, upstarts who were not expected to get anywhere near this stage, are seconds from completing the most improbable of league and Champions League doubles. Real need a hero.  https://vine.co/v/MdjJlggWwVw/embed/postcard

Sergio Ramos, like some Iberian Chuck Norris, arrives to save the day. Out jumping everyone, the defender powers home an equaliser and sparks manic celebrations for Real.

https://vine.co/v/MwgYQuh7nIZ/embed/postcard

6. David Moyes gets sacked by Manchester United

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League

A highly regarded manager becomes a laughing stock as years of hard work is forgotten in months, a dream job becomes a nightmare and one man gets the blame for turning the Premier League champions into also-rans. ‘The Chosen One’ became ‘The Wrong One’. Poor David Moyes.

There were so many moments of Moyes in 2014, with each passing week Manchester United appeared to sink deeper into mediocrity as the ghost of Alex Ferguson watched on from the stands and their manager seemingly aged years in the process. When the inevitable happened, and news broke that United would part company with the Glaswegian on April 21st, Moyes was no more sacked than put out of his misery. Although handled pretty poorly by the club – journalists had told him of his sacking before the club did – releasing Moyes was the humane thing to do.

https://vine.co/v/MBpqrlKUWnz/embed/postcard

5. Luis Suárez bites Giorgio Chiellini Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil When a person does something for the third time, you’d imagine it wouldn’t be all that memorable. However, when that someone is Luis Suárez, the action is him biting an opponent on the pitch and the stage is a crucial World Cup game with millions watching, it becomes unforgettable. Suárez almost broke the internet. Reactions went from shock, to laughter, to indignation, and back again. The maddest of Suárez’s many mad moments, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon.

https://vine.co/v/MtghFjrFzlI/embed/postcard

4. Steven Gerrard slips

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

As cruel for Liverpool fans as it was funny for Manchester United fans as it was unforgettable for football fans. Steven Gerrard slipping in the decisive game on their unlikely title push was the Premier League’s most memorable moment of 2014. Just two weeks previously, Anfield was rocking as Liverpool beat eventual champions Manchester City 3-2 on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A tearful, exhausted Gerrard addressed his team on the Anfield pitch, and told them ‘this does not slip’.

In the next game at the ground, he slipped. The dream of Liverpool being crowned champions for the first time in 24 years was gone. Gerrard, the one-club man, the team’s hero over 15 years and symbol of the club became the victim of the most cruelest of ironies.

https://vine.co/v/M6MtJ3gTePl/embed/postcard

3. John O’Shea’s last minute equaliser against Germany

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

Ireland are trailing to the world champions, there are seconds remaining on the clock and it looks like they’ll be returning home with nothing. Up steps John O’Shea, wearing the captain’s armband, on his 100th cap to guide home a deft finish. Incredible stuff. Ireland nick a point from the mighty Germany and fans of the Irish team have something to sit alongside the great moments of the past.

https://vine.co/v/Oqiadqj1hH6/embed/postcard

What made the goal all the sweeter and more memorable is the lack of such in a moment in recent Irish football history. Not since Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Italy in 2009 had there being such a moment of pure, explosive joy for followers of the national team. The crushing disappointment of Euro 2012 carried on into a equally depressing qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, when Ireland were hammered 6-1 by Germany. If we were compiling a list of most memorable Irish football moments, there’s no doubt John O’Shea’s last minute goal against the world champions would be in first spot.

2.Van Persie’s goal against Spain

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Robin van Persie’s goal was breathtaking, a truly unique piece of skill rarely seen before or unlikely to be repeated. Daley Blind’s diagonal ball was precise and perfectly weighted, but Van Persie’s movement and speed of thought was stunning. When watching the replay it’s almost as though you can see the cogs in his head working.

The Dutch striker arrived onto the ball just inside Spain’s penalty area, having run off their flat defence, and seems to instantly measure the distance between the goal and Iker Casillas. He then leaps at the ball, almost performing a corkscrew motion to send it over the stranded goalkeeper.

https://vine.co/v/MFT6LgeP3ie/embed/postcard

The goal itself is unforgettable, but, when considering the wider significance of the moment, it becomes even more memorable. Van Persie’s header was the exact moment the aura of the World and European Champions, the most dominant international side in football history, was shattered. Until that point Spain were leading 1-0 and were cruising and the Netherlands had barely a kick in the game. The Manchester United striker’s goal burst Spain’s bubble.

An incredible act of skill, athleticism, speed of thought and execution, a goal that will be replayed for years to come. It’d make you wonder how the hell van Persie, after scoring such an amazing goal, then lacked the co-ordination to properly high five Louis van Gaal.

1.   Germany destroy Brazil

Brazil v Germany: Semi Final - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Football’s JFK moment. A seismic event that saw a simultaneous dropping of jaws across the globe. This game was the most tweeted about sport event of 2014, but transcended football or sport, it was as though we were watching a nation disintegrate in front of our eyes. Germany were as relentless as Brazil were hideously awful.

The hosts had bulldozed their way through the tournament, playing awful football and almost kicked their opponents Colombia more than the ball in the Quarter-Finals. When Thomas Muller opened the scoring you could see Brazil deflate, like a bully who’d been hit back for the first time, their perceived confidence had been shown to be bluster. David Luiz went rouge as the team crumbled and no-one could believe what they were watching.

Not only the most memorable football moment of 2014, Germany’s demolition of Brazil is the most memorable football moment of the 21st century and, it could be argued, potentially the most memorable football moment ever. Brazil’s collapse will never be forgotten.

REALITY BITES FOR LIVERPOOL AFTER SPRINGTIME IN DREAMLAND BUT WHAT AWAITS IN 2015?

Standard

Make Us Dream, They Dared to Dream, We Go Again and Poetry In Motion, these are all titles of some of the books you can buy this Christmas and they all tell the same story.

A plucky underdog rises from relative obscurity, dispatches all before them before a fatal slip brings them crashing back to earth. The books are about Liverpool’s season 2013-14 season, each a celebration of the club almost winning the league.

It would be interesting to see what authors would title books based solely on Liverpool’s 2014. This year the club went from 11 victories in a row to winning one in eight, from the explosive genius of Luis Suárez to the frustration and mediocrity of Mario Balotelli. The cusp of the league title in May to crashing out of the Champions League and struggling in the Premier League as the year closes. Brendan Rodgers going from winning manager of the year to admitting he may be the first top-flight boss to get sacked this season.

No football club has had as polarising a year as Liverpool.

The club entered 2014 on the back of consecutive losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, but sat in fourth spot and on course to meet their primary aim of Champions League qualification. However, following the stunning 5-1 victory over Arsenal at the beginning of February, Liverpool set off on an incredible run of form, an emotional rollercoaster that reached its crescendo against Manchester City in April.

On the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool won 3-2 to go five points clear of Chelsea in second place, and seven clear of City, although both had games in hand.

Yet with the sight of the Kop in full voice as a tearful, exhausted Steven Gerrard passionately addressed his team, and with just four games remaining, it seemed destined for Liverpool to win their first league crown in 24 years. But then the most unlikely title victory in Premier League history was dashed as cruel fate intervened. Jose Mourinho, Tony Pulis and the most unfortunate of slips from Gerrard tore up the romantic script.

‘What leaps off the page,’ BBC journalist Ben Smith said of Make Us Dream, ‘is the feeling of reclamation, the feeling of a city and a football club finding harmony’. However, seven months after daring to dream, the club and its fans have awoken to a uncertain and frustrating reality.

Last season’s harmony is long gone, departing, ironically, with Suárez, the most inharmonious of figures. Like Alex Ferguson it appears, through genius and ruthless determination, one man was capable of lifting an entire team to another level. If Suárez was Liverpool’s equivalent of Ferguson, then the club signed a team of David Moyes’ in the summer.

That ‘feeling of reclamation’ that grew in the final months of last season now seems like a cruel tease for fans. Liverpool’s shot at the title seemed to be the beginning of a return to the glory years. The team represented the club the fans believe Liverpool were and should still be. A club that wins titles and plays attractive attacking football, led by a talismanic genius and an articulate, innovative manager. However, as the year ends, nothing has been reclaimed.

Liverpool v Everton - Premier League

Luis Suárez carrying Liverpool on his back.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season, the manager dismissed suggestions the side would struggle without their departed talisman. Rodgers has been right to champion the team’s qualities, and his ambitions have been somewhat thwarted by the long-term injury to striker Daniel Sturridge. However, there is no escaping the questions surrounding Rodgers’ management of the side. Just as the first half of 2014 seemed to convey Rodgers coaching ability, eye for a player and tactical acumen, this season has suggested the opposite.

Liverpool’s defence was weak last season and the manager has seemingly done little to fix the problems. At almost every defensive set-piece Martin Skrtel grabs his opponent’s jersey instead of attacking the ball, the defender is like a drowning man, frantically attempting to pull himself to safety. His erstwhile partner, £20 million summer signing Dejan Lovren, has struggled to the point where veteran Kolo Toure looks a more calming influence. Liverpool’s defence has underperformed and looks completely devoid of confidence, but there is little sign they are working from a cohesive plan.

Despite the much-maligned ‘transfer committee’ Liverpool employ, Rodgers is ultimately responsible for the team’s performances. He apparently has the power of veto over any signing and is meant to be one of the game’s brightest coaches. Circumstances, such as injuries, a busted flush of a goalkeeper and the decline of Gerrard, have gone against the manager. But such events can be the making of a coach, the ability to adjust in situations of ill-fortune.

He has shown signs of adapting in the past, but it is as though there have been three versions of Rodgers at Liverpool. Year One was filled with buzzwords of footballing philosophy, ‘death by football’. Year Two the team was more reactive, playing their best football when breaking fast up the pitch. For the majority of this season, though, it has been hard to recognise any plan.

Just as the fans seem to suffering for their exuberance over last season’s false dawn, Rodgers is paying for some of his comments over the last year. Saying it is ‘easy’ to organise a defence, following Liverpool’s loss to Chelsea in April, reflects poorly on him when one watches Liverpool hopelessly attempt to defend. Deriding Tottenham Hotspur last season for not challenging for the league after spending £100million on new players may now bring a wry smile to some faces, but for Liverpool fans it must sting.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season at to Southampton, the manager said: ‘People in football say that it might have been our best chance to win the league, but this year might be our best chance. We will have more belief. We will be stronger this season’. Needless to say, the team have not been stronger in any way. 2014 offered a glimpse at the club Liverpool want to be, but also an image of what the club will be in the immediate future, and it is troubling.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

For all of Rodgers’ mishaps, Liverpool’s poor performances and the departure of Suárez, the club have been in this situation before. When tasked with building on success, they have taken one step forward, only to then take two steps backwards. Liverpool finished second in 2001-02 season, ahead of Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League era, having won a cup treble the previous year. That summer El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou arrived and subsequently flopped, becoming by-words for poor transfer dealings. The club exited the Champions League early and finished fifth in the league. Within two years manager Gerrard Houllier had departed and Liverpool were back at square one.

Seven years later, Rafa Benitez’s side also finished second and went into the transfer market in a position of strength. Midfield dynamo Xabi Alonso left for Real Madrid, but the club signed Alberto Aquilani to replace the Spaniard and had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at the peak of their abilities. Liverpool began the 2009-10 season as favourites for the title. The summer signings made no impact as the team finished seventh and crashed out the Champions League in the group stage.

However, the immediate problems facing Liverpool go deeper than Rodgers. In an era of petro-dollar fuelled football clubs, and the new Galactico transfer policy of commercial juggernauts Manchester United, a club like Liverpool simply cannot afford to make mistakes in the transfer market. A club that has just spent over £100 million in the transfer market should not currently look like they need to spend another £100 million.

Just as Liverpool were stronger in the second half of last season, Rodgers will be hoping for a similar upturn in 2015. However, qualifying for the Champions League, the objective at the start of the season, seems unlikely, putting Rodgers at risk of the same fate as predecessors Houllier and Benitez.

In modern football, titles are won by commercial leviathans or clubs pumped with petro-dollars. Competing with this giants is hard enough without Liverpool’s many mishaps.

If Liverpool dared to dream in the first half of 2014, and the final six months has been a rude awakening, 2015 could represent a frustrating reality.

Ugly Brazil team unworthy of World Cup glory

Standard

Originally published by Back Page Football 4/6/2014.

Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff was appalled after watching his country play Spain in the World Cup final four years ago. Referring to the Netherlands as: ‘ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic’ Cruyff, the iconic leader and symbol of the great total-football Netherlands and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and architect of the current style of Barcelona and Spain, said the Dutch: ‘were playing anti-football’.

The Netherlands kicked and hacked their way through a gruelling 120 minutes, committing twenty-eight fouls, receiving eight yellow cards and had, fortuitously, just one player dismissed. The team, rather than the wonderful attacking Dutch sides of the past, featuring players such as Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten, was typified by the aggression and gamesmanship of players such Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The classic, romantic image of technical, graceful Netherlands teams was firmly dented when de Jong karate-kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso.

Spain still prevailed though, winning 1-0 thanks to an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta. The tournament had been dour, the final was ugly but the Spanish were worthy winners, a measure of saving grace for an otherwise forgettable month of football. The 2014 World Cup does not require such redemption as it is on course to be widely considered as the best tournament in recent memory.

Within this festival of football there have been some disappointments. The most notable being Luis Suarez’s bite, the performance of some European teams and the petty squabbling among the Ghana and Cameroon sides. However, the biggest disappointment of the tournament, with the possible exception of one hungry Uruguayan, has been the Brazil national team.

The hosts, with the exception of golden boy Neymar, have failed to adequately contribute to their own party or come close to playing the type of samba football synonymous with the country. Following their controversial, unconvincing opening victory over Croatia, Brazil laboured to a goalless draw with Mexico and secured top spot in Group A with a 4-1 victory over hapless Cameroon. They now face Colombia in the quarter-final after eliminating Chile in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

For those who watched last summer’s Confederation Cup, the sight of a functional, aggressive, hard pressing Brazil team, relying on some Neymar magic to save the day, will be familiar. Indeed, there has not been a Brazil team to fit the romantic image, forged by the great teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in over thirty years. It has been well documented that the 1982 World Cup team are considered the last to match the famous ideal of Brazilian jogo bonito.

That Brazil side, featuring some of the country’s greatest ever players such as Zico, Socrates and Falcão, were playing exhilarating, fluid attacking football. However, their defensive failings were exposed by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick as they crashed out 3-2, in the second group stage, to eventual winners Italy. Zico said the game was ‘the day football died’.

While that description may be dramatic, subsequent Brazil teams, such the teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, have been more functional than fantastic. Each side have had ultra-attacking full backs, a plethora of defensive midfielders and individual brilliance from a star forward. However, if one ascribes to Zico’s view that the classic, romantic Brazilian nature of football died in 1982, then the current side must resemble the equivalent of Brazilian football zombies.

Brazil now treats the centre circle as though it is a shark infested lake, repeatedly hoofing long balls into the opposition final third in hope something will land for Neymar. They attempted almost sixty long passes against Cameroon and again in the second-round tie with Chile. In both games they played just a handful of through balls and against Cameroon their main pass combination was between midfielder Luis Gustavo and central defender David Luiz.

Neymar said this week:

The games are very hotly contested and equal and whoever shows the most commitment is the winner. Brazil didn’t come to put on a show, we came to win.

Further evidence, if any was needed, that the image of beautiful Brazilian football now borders on myth. This team is built on an ethos of ‘commitment’, which seemingly extends to their embarrassingly overly emotional rendition of the national anthem and crying before penalty shootouts.

Brazil are also committed to a tactical plan that involves pumping the ball as far down the pitch as they possibly can, abjectly defending, physically bullying the opposition and desperately relying on Neymar. The defence is creaky, the midfield lacks incision, and gets bypassed anyway, and to claim Fred is misfiring would be incorrect because that involve the striker actually shooting.

One may argue that Brazil do not have the required personnel to play an expansion, attacking game. That it is foolish to imagine Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Hulk could play like Zico, Socrates or Ronaldinho. However, we have seen apparent lesser teams, such as Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico, play in an attacking style with cohesion, neat passing and tactical discipline. The current Brazil side may not have to tools to mirror the famed teams of the past, but that does not automatically mean they should resort to playing like the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s and 90’s.

Regardless of whether one is viewing through a purist or pragmatist prism, Brazil verge between being ineffectual, ugly and, at times, difficult to comprehend, typified by David Luiz. In the 73rd minute of the host’s game with Cameroon, Luiz, the most expensive defender in the world, stepped onto a misplaced opposition header around thirty-five yards from his own goal. Brazil was leading 3-1 against a dispirited team who had already been eliminated.

However, Luiz, under no opposition pressure, rather than taking the ball down, playing a short pass or even attempting to pick out one of his attacking teammates, aimlessly smashed a volley seventy yards down the pitch. If this was to occur during an over forties Sunday league match it would be a needless waste of possession. However, this was a Brazilian player with undoubted technical ability, in the World Cup in Brazil, and in a situation that presented vast scope for personal expression. In this context, the act was infuriating, nonsensical and dispiriting.

Next up for Brazil is South American rivals Colombia in Friday’s quarter-final in Fortaleza. Los Cafeteros have comfortably dispatched each side they have faced thus far and have, arguably, the tournament’s star performer in the form of James Rodriguez. The Monaco forward has been a revelation and, with Brazil’s defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo suspended, could be in line to continue his heroics. Colombia looked primed to provide the Seleção with their toughest test of the tournament so far and cause a potential upset.

Cruyff was asked, prior to the World Cup final in 2010, if the Netherlands would mirror Inter Milan’s defensive performance in their aggregate victory over Barcelona in that year’s Champions League semi-final.

I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style… I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style.

This Brazil team has seemingly taken such a path, but they are neither pragmatic nor purist. They instead resemble a parody and perversion of past Seleção sides and the supposed footballing ideals of a country regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game.

A victory for Brazil would be a triumph for FIFA and the ruling establishment within the country, both of whom will wish to use a sixth World Cup title as a way to paper over the failings of the tournament’s organisation, corruption allegations and the plundering of Brazil’s economy and poorest citizens. A final perversion, but this time also serving to distract from the failings of the Seleção, and an unfitting outcome to a wonderful festival of football.

England and Uruguay – Football Pioneers

Standard

Originally published by Back Page Football 18/06/2014.

The fixture between Uruguay and England on Thursday in Sao Paulo is set to be the pivotal fixture in Group D. Both sides lost their opening games so another defeat for either will spell the end of their campaign.

However, the match will also be notable for a number other reasons. It will feature the country that invented football against the first great international team. England and Uruguay are two nations that have had sharply contrasting international football success, despite radically different resources. It could also be billed as a battle between each team’s most high-profile players, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter may have claimed that China is the birthplace of football, but, for the rest of us, there can be no denying that the version we all recognise was devised and first organised in English public schools in the 19th century. The students of these schools were a mixture of children of the old money, aristocracy, and the nouveu riche, middle class of the Industrial Revolution. Disobedience and violence was omnipresent among a large group of boys in a confined space.

The Victorian establishment were fixated with physical well-being and how it translated into living a healthy life for the country’s future power brokers. Games, such as football, would also provide an opportunity for the unruly youth to channel their energies into a cohesive exercise. Rather than kicking and chasing each other, they could kick and chase a ball around a field.

Football continued to develop and grow in popularity. The Football Association was formed and codified the game in 1863 and the first FA Cup final, in 1871, was won by Wanderers, a team of former Harrow public schoolboys. However, from beginnings as an aristocratic, amateur pastime, football, in the final decades of the 19th century, became colonised by the masses. The shortening of the industrial working week, combined with a rise in disposable income, gave forum for both participants and spectators. Clubs and leagues sprang up, particularly around Lancashire’s industrial hive, and football began spreading further south, before being exported throughout the world.

Wayne Rooney and Roy Hodgson

The story of the development of football is, in essence, the story of industrialisation and modernisation. England was the first country to experience mass industrialisation and through its global spanning formal and informal empire, the game grew. Throughout this vast empire, from Bilbao to Belfast, Glasgow to St Petersburg and Budapest to Sao Paulo, the spread of football can be sourced to the British expatriates organising games amongst themselves, as curious natives looked on

William Leslie Poole, a Scottish P.E. teacher at an English School in Montevideo, is credited with beginning the spread of football in Uruguay. Poole founded Albion Football Club in 1893, originally as a branch of the Albion’s cricket club. The pattern of football’s shift from being the mainstay of the elite minority, to working class dominance was accelerated in Uruguay by the country’s rapid industrialisation and droves of European settlers in the country in the late 19th century. In 1903 Nacional, a club founded by Hispanic students in Montevideo, represented Uruguay, against Argentina in Buenos Aires, in one of the country’s first international games and won 3-2.

Twenty seven years later Uruguay again faced Argentina. This time the tie between the neighbours was in Montevideo in the inaugural World Cup Final. Ninety-three thousand supporters crammed into Estadio Centenario to see the hosts win 4-2. FIFA had awarded them the staging of the tournament due to a consensus that the country was the best team in the world. Uruguay had won gold at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where they beat Switzerland 3-0, and retained their title at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, again victorious over Argentina. La Celeste had also won six of the previous twelve Copa Américas, but it was the World Cup final win which firmly cemented Uruguay’s place as international football’s first great team

The Parisian crowd, at the 1924 Olympics, were enthralled by the skills of the South American team. Uruguay, unlike their opponents, played a short passing game. Gabriel Hanot, a French journalist, summed up the spectators’ appreciation, writing: ‘They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective’. In an excerpt taken from David Goldblatt’s book, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Hanot was less kind towards English footballers. ‘Before these fine athletes, who are to the English professionals like Arab thoroughbreds next to farm horses, the Swiss were disconcerted’.

That estimation of the talents of English players may seem unfair, however, at the time, the country, was in a state of deliberate international football isolation. They declined entry to football at the Olympic Games during the 1920s, the World Cup tournaments in the 1930s and only played internationals with other ‘Home’ countries. When England first entered the tournament, in Brazil in 1950, the decedents of the beautiful game’s inventers received an earthshattering shock.

England, with players such as Billy Wright and Tom Finney, were perceived as favourites for their maiden World Cup. However, the ‘Kings of Football’ failed to advance from the initial group stage and lost 1-0 to USA, a team of part-time players. A seismic result, perhaps born out of England’s hubris regarding the game they had invented and one which would leave long-lasting scars. England had given the world football, but, in part due to their lofty isolation, they had been surpassed. Uruguay would win the tournament with perhaps the most iconic underdog result in World Cup history. In front of two-hundred-thousand fans at the Maracanã stadium, in the tournament’s final game, hosts Brazil succumbed to a 3-2 loss.

Luis Suarez Uruguay

Uruguay, with a population of just under three and a half million, is international football’s most successful country. They have won twenty titles in total, the most recent being the Copa América in 2011 and finished fourth at the last World Cup. If Uruguay is international football’s great over-achievers, the popular consensus has long been that England has been under-achievers at international level.

England’s World Cup win on home soil in 1966 is the only international title for the country which gave football to the world. Some would consider this a meagre return for a country with such seemingly superior resources. England’s population is sixteen times that of Uruguay, the country boasts a prominent domestic league and have produced great players. However, according to journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski, authors ofWhy England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, the tag of international underachievers is false. ‘The sad fact is that England are a good team that does better than most. This means they are not likely to win many tournaments, and they don’t’.

The authors use statistical data in an attempt to explain, among other things, the performance of the England national team. Their findings conclude that England’s win percentage, between 1970 and 2007, is on average 67 per cent, never lower than 62 per cent, and never higher than 70 per cent. A consistent and credible performance but, considering Brazil win on average 80 per cent of their games, England’s win percentage is not enough to achieve international glory. From 1981 to 2001, it was the tenth best in the World, hardly grounds for being labelled underachievers.

Statistical data may be able to debunk the idea of England underperforming on the international stage, however, for many fans, the sense that the anointed ‘Golden Generation’ underachieved still lingers. The final remnants of this crop of players, in the form of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, face their potential last stand on Thursday against Uruguay. The sense of underachievement is undoubtedly felt more in relation to Rooney than his teammates.

Indeed, it could be argued, that many have given up on Rooney, including England manager Roy Hodgson. The Manchester United forward was shifted to the left-wing in the 2-1 loss to Italy. He provided an excellent assist for Daniel Sturridge’s goal, but was unable to provide adequate defensive cover for left-back Leighton Baines.

This failure to perform a tactically disciplined role is a common feature of Rooney’s performances, but, as Irish Independent journalist Dion Fanning said: ‘Hodgson asked too much of him in Manaus when he was delegated to work up and down the left-wing, something he would struggle with on a mild October evening, let alone a suffocating night in the Amazon rainforest’.

It was not meant to be this way for Rooney. After his outstanding performances at Euro 2004 he became the great hope. A boy who played like a man, Rooney was raw, powerful, boundlessly energetic, possessing the fighting spirit English fans yearn for, but with the skillset of a South American.

Rooney’s former manager, David Moyes, said: ‘Wayne was the last of the classic street footballers’. The Liverpudlian is a product of the English urban working class and football’s colonisation by the masses and perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the street footballer. The decline of playing football in the street is seemingly mirrored by Rooney’s plight.

Whereas, Rooney was once the chosen one, he’s now the square peg. He is seemingly too famous to omit from the starting eleven, but no longer trusted to be the team’s focal point. Rooney’s only escape from this football purgatory will be a starring performance against Uruguay. If he cannot do this, it could be the last World Cup stand for the last of the street footballers.

If the teenage Rooney promised so much, the opposite was perhaps the case for his Uruguayan counterpart. Luis Suarez was not a child prodigy, but he is also a product of the urban working class, as he told journalist Sid Lowe: ‘I played in the streets with my friends, barefooted. That was the way we lived’. Simon Kuper said when the forward moved to Ajax, in 2007 aged 20, Marco Van Basten said that: ‘He can’t really play soccer’. The Liverpool forward, has since dramatically improved.

The popular consensus is that Rooney peaked at Suarez’s age; however the Uruguayan shows no sign of plateauing. In tandem with his supreme skills and spatial awareness, Suarez embodies his country’s fighting spirit, la garra charrua, named after the indigenous Uruguayan population. If Suarez is fit to play on Thursday, there is no chance of him being shunted out to the wings.

Hodgson said this week that: ‘You can be a great player in your league but for the world to recognise you are one of the all-time greats you have got to do it at the World Cup’. The England manager was speaking in relation to Suarez but perhaps he is also addressing Wayne Rooney. Indeed his comments could relate to the fortunes of both countries on the international stage.

Thursday’s game will be crucial for the World Cup fortunes of England and Uruguay, a chance for their most famous sons to make the telling difference, perhaps Rooney’s last, and another chapter in their long and proud football history.