Well, the World Cup is over. And I must say, it really couldn't have come to a better conclusion. The winning team, Brazil, was also the team that played the most attractive, aggressive, optimistic -- joyful -- football all month, and if there were doubts about them coming in, there's really little doubt that they deserved to win this tournament. The best player, Ronaldo, was one of the most likeable characters, as well. Coming off of a pregame nervous breakdown (or something) four years ago, and two years of career-threatening leg injuries and doubts since then, he played with an infectious enthusiasm that was a pure pleasure to watch.
Germany was a game and worthy dance partner; missing their best player to suspension, they nonetheless took their shots, had a few chances, and generally played a far less cynical game than many had expected. Even the third-place game (often a desultory affair) was a pleasure -- Turkey scored the earliest goal in WC history, within the first 12 seconds; both teams played with imagination and flair, and their post-game celebration and joint salute to the outstanding Korean fans was as fine a moment of sportsmanship as any I've seen.
And for U.S. fans, the WC was a spectacular success. We can console ourselves that we could have (probably should have) beaten Germany, that a number of players greatly advanced their careers, and that this was a team of youth and potential. But what really stood out is that, for the first time perhaps ever, the Americans played as if they truly belonged here, not as if they had snuck in through a back door and were afraid to make any noise lest they be discovered and tossed out on their ears.
On the political front, the egregious reign of FIFA President Sepp Blatter got a healthy dose of international scorn; and if the practice of assigning underqualified referees to curry political favor marred several of the early-round games, it was at least exposed, and the value of top-shelf refs was clearly on display in the final round. It's no coincidence that when the players trust and respect the ref, the play has a flow and temper that are sorely lacking when the game is in the hands of inexperienced Ecuadoreans and South Sea islanders.
So, what's next? See you in four years? Not hardly. As noted here last week, Major League Soccer is still in midseason and should get a boost from the success of its stars on the world stage. Elsewhere around the world, it's back to business. Most of the WC players get just about a month off now, before heading to training camps for their club teams; the major leagues in Europe and South America start up again in August and early September. Even before the final had ended, the wire services were abuzz with trade talk (and as suggested above, expect some of that to include Americans who made the most of their exposure on the world stage).
And of course, all across the globe, youth players and tiny nations have begun planning and dreaming about qualifying for WC2006 in Germany. Why, even as Brazil and Germany prepared to kickoff in Yokohama, Bhutan was cementing its position as the 201st best team in the world, with a solid 4-0 win over No. 202 Monserrat.