Experienced Names in World Cup Semi-Finals, but Smaller Nations Learning Fast

Guillem BalagueFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2014

PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL - JUNE 18:  Arjen Robben of the Netherlands and Jason Davidson of Australia battle for the ball on the pitch during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Australia and Netherlands at Estadio Beira-Rio on June 18, 2014 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

All things being equal, with everyone getting a fair shake of the dice and the vagaries of good fortune being evenly distributed, just what does it take to win a World Cup?

I’ve been speaking to a number of coaches in Brazil, and the general consensus of opinion is that success in football should be built the same way as a sturdy four-legged table. Remove one leg and it might still stand up, but it won’t be anything nearly as solid. Take away a second leg and you’re in trouble. Saw off a third and you’re dead.

Leg No. 1 involves physical fitness and general condition. Teams that have been unfit, tired or both (Spain, for one) were soon resting on the beach.

Costa Ricaalthough now out because of penalties against the Netherlandsshowed just how important physical fitness has been for sides in this tournament. The Ticos had an outstanding showing in Brazil.

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 05:  Stefan De Vrij (L)  of the Netherlands tackles Marcos Urena of Costa Rica as Ron Vlaar closes in during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Quarter Final match between the Netherlands and Costa Rica at Arena Fonte Nova on July 5, 2
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Secondly, even among this gathering of the greatest players in the world, the presence of individual magnificence that turns up for the party fighting fit and raring to go will always give you a head start.

If you want to see how important it is for the cream to rise to the top, look no further than Leo Messi’s influence for Argentina. Or, look at the Brazilian gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts that followed Neymar’s premature departure from the competition.

Then there’s the structure and organisation that existsbe it defensive or offensive. Without a plan that everyone believes in and can work with, a plan that is flexible enough to adjust during the course of a match if necessary, the ultimate prize will almost certainly be unattainable.

Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

Think of the Netherlands, for example. The Dutch were just six minutes from being knocked out in the round of 16 before the tactical intervention of Louis van Gaal, who brought on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, combined with the clinical brilliance of Wesley Sneijder—not to mention the cuteness of Arjen Robben—and the momentum of the match turned. It took only a moment before Mexico was destined to pick up their boarding passes.

Germany also showed in their quarter-final against France just how you change tactics midstream. Having gone a goal up after just 11 minutes, Joachim Low's side reverted to the good old days of solid lines and well-marshaled defence. In a match played in horribly humid conditions, the order of the day was to not surrender possession but always with the aim of getting the maximum result for the least-possible effort expended, and it worked a treat.

And Van Gaal brings me neatly to the fourth leg of the table: A leader who brings everyone together, the super glue that bonds the whole thing. He's a leader who can be loved and loathed in equal measure, but is always, unequivocally, the man in charge.

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JULY 04:  Head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari of Brazil reacts during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Quarter Final match between Brazil and Colombia at Castelao on July 4, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Image
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Think also here of Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolarispikier than a prickly pear as he throws himself into almost daily battles with a media that is not hostile, but that he wants to use as enemiesputting himself in the firing line to protect his men in an artificial "Us vs. the World" battle.

The four remaining teams in the competition have all, or at least most, of these four legs. But what else has this World Cup shown us?

Well, to start with, we can now see that South American sides have added a defensive organisation previously seen predominantly in Europe.

The best example of this is actually with Central America's Costa Rica, and while football matches aren't exactly chess or played on paper, you get the feeling they would be if their tactically obsessive coach Jorge Luis Pinto had his way.

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 05:  Head coach Jorge Luis Pinto of Costa Rica reacts after a defeat to the Netherlands in a penalty shootout in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Quarter Final match between the Netherlands and Costa Rica at Arena Fonte Nova on July
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Having learned his trade with 19 jobs in 30 years, no one encapsulated the organisational and structural ethiceven at the expense of individual qualitymore than Senor Pinto, and, as a result, his side finished within penalty kicks of causing the biggest upset in World Cup history.

With 11 disciplined guys all killing space and working hard for each other, coaches admired the way Costa Rica went about their work, and the same applies to the likes of Mexico, Colombia and especially Chile.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

In the final analysis, though, Costa Rica always needed that little bit extra to make the game plan more efficient.

Having said that, the Netherlands needed luck in the penalties, but you always felt Van Gaal’s team had put moreat least offensivelyinto that game than Costa Rica.

We also learned that against organisation and efficiency, what is needed is rapid counter-attacks, quick transitions and the occasional display of brilliance doesn’t go amiss, either.

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Every single aspect of that was covered by Angel Di Maria’s 118th-minute winner that saw off Switzerland and put Argentina into the quarter-finals.

But there is a new way, something Germany represents more than anybody. They want to have an organized attack.

It is not as simple as it sounds, and it is where football is evolving. They reverted to their old style against France, but Germany is tryingwith positional game, a clear idea of how to attack and alternatives upfrontto put a new gear into international football following the teachings of Pep Guardiola.

Football has evolved everywhere, although in some placespredominantly Asia, Africa and Australiacountries seem to be stuck between two stools, uncertain whether to import the latest idea or carry on playing the way they always have.

Australia, for example, have in the past brought in English, Dutch, German and Australian coaches and are currently looking for a new technical director. Foreign and with modern ideas. I will watch closely which path they take as it is potentially a strong sporting country.

But what they should be looking for first of all is the discovery of whatever style they are looking to produce, and where they want it to take them.

Then they can decide just who should lead them on that journey.