It feels a little uncomfortable. The payoffs, the cartels, the sinister and seemingly relentless smog that's clouded the sport for years. And then there's a World Cup like this and you remember why you keep watching. You remember that it's not about the administrators but the players and supporters. It hooks you back in, just when you needed it.
Of course, the feel-good fuzz will last fleetingly. And we should enjoy it while we can. Brazil was a carnival, a festival of fun. It was open and free and genuine. And temporarily, the social ills that had whipped protesters into a frenzy were pushed aside. There was a romance to the tournament, though no such narrative is complete without some heartbreak. On Monday morning, as disappointed Argentines held each other close and watched the sun come up on the Copacabana, it seemed a metaphor for something else. Like all holiday dalliances, that moment is inevitable. After some dizzying nights, after the unadulterated joy, there's the goodbye. And it always hurts.
Someone far more clever than I would say we've seen the future and it's murder. On the horizon is Russia in 2018 and Qatar four years later. Both tournaments have been shrouded in controversy since the bidding processes took place. The organizing committees can expect an intense grilling from the media but perhaps Russia can take inspiration from their recent hosting of the Winter Olympics. Beforehand, there was so much scrutiny of the alleged corruption, the jaw-dropping cost, the oddness of staging such an event in a sub-tropical climate and the country's anti-gay laws. But, Russia's closed democracy was an organizer's dream. 'Protest-zones' were set up, essentially, in the middle of nowhere. Hordes of security kept a watchful eye on proceedings and everything went according to plan. The threats were eradicated. It was meticulously patrolled and controlled.
For FIFA, everything leading up to Brazil 2014 was a nightmare. The delays, the deaths, the din of those pesky street protesters with their screaming and shouting and their 'F*** FIFA' banners. Everything was too loose. Over the next two World Cup tournaments, we can expect a complete contrast. Both Russia and Qatar will take pride in rigid, military-like precision. There won't be such a relaxed approach to deadlines. There won't be such a panic about infrastructure and travel and telecommunications. From an organizational perspective, everything will run smoothly. But will that be enough?
This summer, soccer went back. There was a retro feel to a South American tournament. After two decades spent tampering with the idea of new markets and bringing the World Cup to North America and Africa, there was a spark to Brazil hosting. There was a natural vibrancy that was spectacularly complemented by the product. This was a World Cup where the methodical and chess-like tiki taka died. Spain, the side that revolutionized the sport, died. The Brazilian team, so many convinced by its credentials, died. But where there was death, there was life, too. This was a World Cup of new beginnings, of new approaches. This was a World Cup where the great individuals were beaten by great teams. This was a World Cup of emotion, of huge highs and dramatic lows. And though pragmatism reaped certain rewards, it was optimism that ultimately prevailed.
With Spain's cycle of success coming to an end, it's tough to see a similar period of domination begin right away. Many will point to the German squad as being the heirs to the throne but they're close to a dramatic transition, too. Jogi Low has been in charge for eight years and is surely contemplating moving on to a new project. Elsewhere within the squad, Philipp Lahm will be 34 in 2018, Bastian Schweinsteiger will be 33. And it's not entirely about the age profile but about the amount of soccer they've already played. Hanging around with the same desire and motivation for a further four years is doubtful though many will point to the likes of Mario Goetze, Thomas Mueller, Mats Hummels, Julian Draxler, Toni Kroos and Andre Schurrle as a rich conveyor belt of talent to count on. And it is. But after a 10-year project, this seems like Germany's crowning glory rather than anything else.
[PHOTOS: A look at Qatar's stadiums for 2022]
So, if we're set for something lower-key in Russia and beyond, what will stimulate? Will a new team make a statement? Will a radical rethinking of how the game is played come to the fore? Well, maybe North and Central America can build on their impressive momentum in Brazil? The US, Mexico and Costa Rica made many friends at the tournament with their spirit and energy and determination. The Mexicans provided a more polished, technical approach but suddenly it's not so outlandish anymore to think three teams from the confederation can reach the last eight of a World Cup.
Perhaps that's the biggest legacy of this tournament: that regardless of size and reputation, anything is possible if certain things are abided by. The Germans were forced to rethink their strategy. They were being left behind. It took them a decade but that planning and research and execution ended in celebration. And it was a fitting end to the tournament. Because, as always, sport is an extension of something else, something bigger. And that's why we keep watching.
- Sports & Recreation