Was that the greatest World Cup of our lifetimes? The answer, unequivocally, has to be yes. Now let’s be fair, and note that after a spectacular Group Stage unequaled in World Cup History, the cup petered out a bit as the tournament was left with the top 16 teams to advance out of their respective groups, and each pulled back a bit to play more conservatively knowing one wrong step would mean expulsion from the tournament. The knockout stages included only 4 games with 3 or more goals scored, 25%, while 6 of the 16 matches included zero goals in regulation or 37.5% of the matches, this underlines how cautious strategic decision making was down the stretch, and considering this, the fact that this cup tied the record for the most goals ever scored underlines just how unpredictable the group stage was. By cups end we would see 37 goals scored in the final 10 minutes+stoppage time of the 64 games, more than half featured fireworks in the closing minutes, in addition to that extra time was also hugely competitive in the knockout stage with 8 goals combined being scored in the 8 knockout round games (half of the knockouts) that required extra time to determine a victor. Perhaps most thrilling of all, there were 14 stoppage time goals in this tournament in 64 games, or one goal in the final 3-4 minutes of every 4.5th game. Incredible. Without question the most thrilling cup ever, particularly in the group stage. What were the other high’s and lows of Brazil 2014?
Unlike World Cup 2014 which featured several teams that imploded on the world stage and/or played horrifically from start to finish, only Cameroon and Honduras looked out of their depth in Brazil, and only 6 of the 32 sides in the tournament were knocked out after two matches, meaning fully 81% of the sides of the tournament were still alive and fighting for a knockout round down the stretch, only Cameroon, Spain, Australia, England, Honduras, and Bosnia were out after matchday 2.
Additionally there were only ten uncompetitive matches in total throughout the world cup, a true rarity for the competition. The Knockout rounds, as previously mentioned went to extra time in half the matches, and were decided by 1 goal or less (penalties) in 12 of 16 matches (with one being the irrelevant third place match).
Before the tournament, many had felt this was the most competitive collection of 32 teams ever selected for a World Cup, and it’s hard to argue with that analysis after the tournament, with only 2 sides stinking up the tournament, and both were predicted to be amongst the three worst before the tournament actually started (Cameroon, and Honduras). We can only hope Russia in 2018 is just as competitive, it’s hard to imagine it will be considering the difficulties sides from Asia, and Africa have when playing in major tournaments on the European continent (perhaps the Russia factor could help the AFC?).
The top 10 moments:
10. The Farce:
The tournament opens with a spectacularly poor decision from the ref in the Brazil-Croatia match that gifts Brazil a victory. This poor Brazilian performance foreshadowed the struggles Brazil would have throughout the tournament, and the ref help and luck they’d need to get as far as they did.
9. The Battle of Fortaleza:
Memo Ochoa came into the tournament as a relatively unpopular choice to backstop Mexico. He’d been inconsistent at best at keeper and been surpassed by Jose Corona before the tournament, but a poor performance by Corona in a friendly in the spring cost Corona the job. Ochoa used this fortuitous opportunity to put on a clinic of stunning proportions, shutting out Cameroon, then showcasing in the Battle of Fortaleza where he managed to stop 8 shots on goal and made what many consider the save of the tournament off a Neymar snap header to the near post.
8. The Redemption of Colombia and the birth of James Rodriguez
Twenty years after the heartbreak of USA ’94, and the murder of Andres Escobar, Colombia returned to the World Cup for only the second time (they had performed poorly in 1998 as well), and already had been forced to endure the loss of superstar forward Radamel Falcao. Despite the loss of Falcao, Colombia entered the tournament bound and determined to do so in style, and samba’d their way past Greece in their opener, beat Ivory Coast in their round of 16 clinching second match, destroyed Japan in a group finale they didn’t need, and destroyed a Chupacabra-less Uruguay thanks to yet another wonder goal from James Rodriguez.
7. The Death of a Dream
Few noted it at the time, but when Ivory Coast gave up a crushing stoppage time penalty in their group stage finale against Greece, handing over a desperately desired first time ticket to the World Cup’s knockout rounds, it was the end of an era for African football. Ivory Coast had announced it’s presence with a Civil War defying World Cup qualification in 2005, and with a team featuring some of the best attacking and defensive talent in the world, it was expected that Ivory Coast would have a stunning, fairy tale run atop the stage in Africa in the ensuing decade but that wasn’t to be. Despite the wealth of talent (Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony to name a few), Ivory Coast would fail to collect a single Cup of Nations trophy in five attempts, and would crash and burn in the group stage of three consecutive World Cup tournaments. While in 2014, failure wasn’t entirely a surprise as the team was aging, a failure to collect any hardware in Africa, or a knockout round advancement at the World Cup between 2006-2013 was less forgivable, especially considering Ghana had advanced out of groups of death in 2 out of 3 tries, and had consistently performed well at the Cup of Nations, even if they didn’t collect a single cup either.
It’s a tragedy for the worlds game that Ivory Coast couldn’t get past the defensive minded Portugal and Greek teams that ousted them in 2010 and 2014, as they almost certainly would have provided the world with quite a show, even in defeat, and certainly more entertainment than Portugal or Greece provided in their stultifying crash outs in the previous two world cups but at the end of the day, Ivory Coast has no one to blame but themselves. Ghana, Costa Rica, and the United States and Chile showed Ivory Coast exactly how to handle difficult draws in 2006, 2010 and 2014, in upsetting heavy favorites, but at the end of the day, Ivory Coast was never quite able to perform up to their talent level, and crashed out, just as they had begun their rise to power, disappointing the world with a feeble performance in the biggest tournament of their lives.
6. Costa Rica shocks the world, and then shocks them again, and again, again and again…
For those paying attention, I had predicted before the tournament that Costa Rica would shock the world. The difference, however, and it is a big one, is that I predicted they would shock the world in one match, possibly 2, not in five. Costa Rica had a strong history in the world cup in recent decades having played exceptionally well in 1990 and in 2002 (if not 2006), and they had a proven track record at the Copa America, having advanced to the knockouts in their 2 fully trained for participations (they were rushed in as a replacement for Japan in 2011 after the nuclear disaster, but that performance was a disaster), but I would never have predicted that they’d throttle Uruguay (admittedly a side without Suarez, largely toothless), dismantle Italy (totally dominant in a match where they were denied a clear penalty), snuff out England, beat Greece despite playing down a man, and force the best Dutch generation since the 1974-1978 sides to penalties.
Costa Rica’s core is quite young as well, particularly their very best players, and as a result, they should be back in Russia in four years time. Their performance will largely hinge on their ability to play in the tournament while fully healthy as they lack depth (a problem you can have with a population of only 3 million).
5. The Chupacabra strikes again
Honestly, I have no idea what to say about Luis Suarez’ attempt to drink the blood of noted scum bag Giorgio Chiellini, other than that his explanation is nearly as insane as the attack itself (to paraphrase ‘his shoulder attacked my defenseless mouth and teeth’).
4. USA, USA, USA
If you had told any US fan that five players would suffer severe hamstring injuries, that Altidore would be lost after just 20 minutes, that Aron Johannson would need ankle surgery, that Chris “Why did we take him over Landon Donovan and Terrence Boyd again” Wondolowski would blow a key sitter, or that we’d give up a goal in the 94th minute of a match against Portugal, the the US would still come within one poorly timed slip of forcing penalties in the Round of 16 after having climbed out of the Group of Death I would have told you you were insane. But that’s just what happened, the US managed to pull off a last minute victory against Ghana despite multiple serious injuries, shocked Portugal (and then their crushed fans), nearly drew Germany despite being outplayed, and advanced to the knockouts pushing Belgium to the near breaking point in a spectacular Round of 16 match where Tim Howard set a goal keeping record. All done despite a mass of injuries, and this supposedly being a between generations side with too many players past their prime, and too many pre-prime.
4. Robben: Hero or SuperFlopper
After a tournament which featured double digit assaults on the poor anguished Arjen Robben, it’s difficult to tell whether his flop against Mexico was a heroic attempt to defeat Mexico, or a cowardly cheat of the once much maligned, but now darling of many American Soccer fans. Robben is a stunningly talented soccer player, and yes refs remain god awful, even at the elite level, but do you really have to throw your arms out, and how in agony like the famed “death of a Spaniard” soldier in that famed Robert Capa Spanish Civil War photo every freaking time your fouled, and even when you’re not fouled?
3. The Rise of the Rest of the world
Since 2002 we’ve seen a slowly evolving changing of the guard in soccer, and the performance of several sides in Brazil began to etch these changes into stone. Quite simply, the rest of the world is beginning to catch up with the perennial powers of Europe and South America, and while the true cream continues to remain Supreme w/the temporary exception crash outs (Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Argentina), it has become increasingly clear that the strength and power of once dormant regions in North, Central, and South America, Africa, and even the disappointing Asia has arrived or is clearly in the process of arriving. Mexico finished off it’s seventh consecutive successful trip out of group stage to firmly announce that if not a top side in the world, they were certainly one of the best fifteen or sixteen sides in the world, while the United States advanced to the knockouts for a third time in four trips, and played their 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th consecutive highly competitive matches (they haven’t been blown out since getting torn apart by the Czech’s in their World Cup 2006 opener), Costa Rica shocked the world, and South America, which has grown from a region that was largely Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and ‘everybody else,’ now had featured a fourth and fifth side that played elite soccer throughout the tournament in Chile, and Colombia who played superior soccer to Brazil and Argentina. Moving East you find Africa advancing two sides to the knockout rounds for the first time ever in surprise side Algeria (who I nailed as a surprise team), and Nigeria, who parlayed some poor ref decisions into a trip to the knockouts. In addition Ghana proved to be the only team in the entire tournament to outplay Germany (another prediction of mine), and Ivory Coast, if not successful, did have a solid tournament. Asia had a total debacle but considering that South Korea, and Australia entered the tournament in rebuild stage, it wasn’t terribly surprising. What was, for conservative soccer fans, was the second consecutive World Cup in which more than half of the European participants in the cup crashed out in the group stage. Considering that Europe consistently advanced at least 70-80% of their entrants virtually every single tournament until 2002, this proved once and for all that if the rest of the world hadn’t quite figured out how to play up to the level of Germany, or the Dutch, the rest of the world had more than figured out how to play with Italy, Spain, England, Croatia, Bosnia, Russia and Portugal. Europe is on notice, and to hold serve, Europe will need to continue to dominate and hold serve at home, something they’ve done consistently, but it looks like 2018 will be different, at least in terms of Mexico, the US, Ghana, Nigeria and Algeria.
2. Reborn Delayed
Perhaps the four true rising powers capable of shocking the world in Brazil and Russia include three sides that crashed out in the quarters, and one that crashed out in the Round of 16. In Europe, Chile and Colombia were two of the four most impressive sides in the entire tournament, both ended up crashing out to Brazil+Neymar, but both sides looked better, and more complete, as teams than Brazil, particularly Chile, and one can only imagine how much more Brazil would have struggled if they’d been without Neymar, as Colombia was without Falcao in their classico. In 2018 Colombia and Chile will feature stars entering and just beginning to exit their primes, if they can handle a cup held in the cold confines of Russia, they could shock the world.
In Europe France and Belgium, after disappointing their fans for the vast bulk of the past twelve years, announced their incipient arrival with successful group stage victories and trips to the knockout rounds after defeating Nigeria and the US in the round of 16. Both sides are exceptionally young, and aren’t quite ready to dominate the world stage, but you’d be hard pressed to find any sides in the world capable of beating either of them today not named Germany, Chile, Colombia or Messi. If you can get your hands on World Cup 2018 futures, laying some money down on France or Belgium or Colombia or Chile wouldn’t be so unwise, especially if you put a nice chunk on Germany first, as those are four of the eight most likely participants in the quarterfinals in four years time.
1. Germany: A dozen years in the making
Between World Cup 1998, and Euro 2004 Germany entered and exited it’s one and only decline since 1950. During this time period Germany’s results against European teams+the kings of CONMEBOL in major tournaments were like so:
1. Germany 2 Yugoslavia 2: Draw
2. Germany 0 Croatia 3: Loss
3. Germany 1 Romania 1: Draw
4. Germany 0 England 1: Loss
5. Germany 0 Portugal 3: Loss
6. Germany 1 Ireland 1: Draw
7. Germany 0 Brazil 2: Loss
8. Germany 1 Netherlands 1: Draw
9. Germany 0 Latvia 0: Draw
10. Germany 1 Czech Republic 2: Loss
A record of 0-5-5 in 10 matches.
Germany began the process of restructuring their development programs both on a club level, as well as at the international level based loosely on the French model that was so famed after their back to back victories at WC ’98 and Euro ’00, and then accelerated the program at the senior level when Klinsy took over in 2004. The results in these five tournaments (just one more tournament than their down period 1998-2004) speak for themselves: after earning zero wins, five losses, and five draws in ten matches against UEFA sides, and Brazil, Germany has 17 wins, 0 draws and 6 losses against Europe+Brazil+Argentina since it hosted World Cup 2006 in major tournaments. Incredible.
The scary part is that this German side is largely young, and their kids are just as impressive as their veterans, and having dominated the Champions League in recent years with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund repeatedly making runs to the semi-finals, and the Final, it’s hard to imagine their era of dominance is ready to come to an end, perhaps it is only just beginning.