Is this the best World Cup ever?

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Robin van Persie scores from a diving header against Spain. Photo / AP
Robin van Persie scores from a diving header against Spain. Photo / AP

Herald football writer Steven Holloway and his father Bruce, two time New Zealand football writer of the year, argue over whether the 2014 World Cup is the best edition ever.

Steven Holloway - Why 2014 is the Best World Cup ever

It would be foolish to proclaim a movie "the best ever" without first watching the final scene.

And it would be wrong to call a joke "the greatest" without hearing the punchline.

But this World Cup has been so good that it can be judged before the final act.

Germany or Argentina, it doesn't really matter, the narrative works either way.

It has been an un-paralleled roller-coaster of drama, entertainment and quality. All the boxes are ticked and the jury is in; this has been the best World Cup ever.

As someone who has only consciously taken in six World Cups, I'll be the first to admit my judging criteria may be flawed and biased. While I have watched nearly every second of the last four World Cups live, the much celebrated 1970, 1982 and 1986 finals are poorly represented through grainy YouTube highlights, lavish long-reads, stories of "the glory days" and the old man's yarns.

But that doesn't mean my opinion is wrong. There is considerable flexibility of interpretation with regard to what constitutes a great World Cup. Some prioritise excellence, others excitement. Some like shocks; others like a heavyweight last four. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Previous versions had many, but not all. This one has. But most importantly it's had great games. So many great games.

Spain 1 Holland 5, Brazil 1 Germany 7 and Germany 2 Ghana 2 would all comfortably make the top 50 World Cup matches of all time, but even the 0-0 draws were thrilling (Germany v Algeria, anyone?) Eight matches have seen teams come from behind to grab all three points and the goals have rained down thicker and faster than a Ghanaian counter-attack. In fact, there were so few dud games you could almost name them (Iran v Nigeria, Costa Rica v England, Japan v Greece, Korea v Belgium, Argentina v Netherlands).

It's hard to genuinely compare and contrast the quality of every match of a tournament - especially one played over 28 years ago (with the most recent contender arguably 1986). But we can surmise that the standard of professional football is better now, individuals are faster, stronger and more skilled and advances in technology have made our viewing experience more enjoyable.

The first 30 minutes of Brazil's demise against Germany will be talked about for the next 50 years. So will the story of Lionel Messi, the greatest player of all time who single-footedly lead Argentina to victory, or alternatively his denial, and the triumph of a truly world-class German side.

Mexico 1986 had Maradona, Mexico 1970 had a spate of world-class individuals and Spain 1982 had a mesmerising Brazil team. But 2014 has it all, only better.

Bruce Holloway - Why it is not the greatest

Brazil 2014 has been an exuberant, effervescent World Cup after the duff football tournaments of 2010, 2006, and 2002.

But it's unremarkable compared to the 1982, 1986 and 1970 finals, which overflowed with skill, drama, controversy and compelling social narratives.

Any measure of football greatness is subjective, but those who use blunt statistical instruments such as the number of goals should remember we seldom rank our best books on how many chapters they have, or our best movies by the number of car chases.

Spain 1982 was memorable not for Italy winning - but more for a mesmerising Brazil team featuring Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Eder failing to do so.

Brazil were a joy to watch, fluid and inventive.

They became the best team never to win the World Cup, falling to a brilliant hat-trick from golden boot Paolo Rossi (Italy).

There were plenty of other sub-plots, as West Germany beat France 5-4 in the first penalty shoot-out at a finals, after a dramatic 3-3 semifinal draw - widely considered the best World Cup game of all time.

This was despite the skulduggery of the era, when brutal tackles from behind were de rigueur.

Claudio Gentile (Italy), the most inappropriately named player in history, had free reign to kick lumps out of the fanny dancers - a dimension lost to today's game.

Mexico 1986 was breath-taking, with the narrative personalised around the ascension of Diego Maradona, who dominated a World Cup like no other.

Lionel Messi can be just as technically brilliant today - the difference back then was in how we consumed the game.

These days the world's greatest regularly peddle their wares through wall-to-wall coverage of Europe's Champions League.

But in 1986 the phenomenon of Maradona was magnified by the fact we'd never seen such displays.

You dared not miss a beat as Maradona revealed an astonishing bag of tricks - including the craftiness of his "hand of God" goal, and the utterly magnificent "Maradona Turn" goal against England.

The accuracy of his first-time touches, weighting of passes, and lightning movement put him in a class of his own.

Acceleration, control and strength only deepened the mystery of why such a genius needed to cheat.

But for football purity, Mexico 1970 remains the Holy Grail.

Reigning champions England had the class of Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.

Italy had elegance in Facchetti, Rivera, Mazzola and Riva. West Germany featured Franz Beckenbauer and the lethal Gerd Muller.

But Brazil boasted the greatest team of all time, with Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Gerson, Rivelino, Tostao and a chap by the name of Pele.

All had exquisite skills. Jairzinho scored in every match as Brazil triumphed.

And Pele, in the twilight of his career, finished a memorable tournament with a perfect piece of football simplicity, setting up a spectacular last goal in the 4-1 final win against Italy.

It's too early to ultimately judge the merits of Brazil 2014.

But the bar is already set too high for it to rank among the top three finals.

- NZ Herald

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