The 2014 FIFA World Cup is now concluded. The football megastars have given us a beautiful tournament that will live long in our collective memory. Here at SportsAspire, we present a review of the best matches and the most discussion-worthy incidents in the 4 weeks of the World Cup.
Did You Know?
The 2014 World Cup ranks joint first in terms of the total number of goals scored in the tournament. 171 goals were scored in the tournament, tying with the 1998 World Cup held in France.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup is now concluded. The action is over, though the dust will take some time to settle, especially if you are Brazilian. After the host nation were infamously destroyed in the semifinal by Germany, they were again dismantled by Central European opposition in the third place playoff, this time in the form of the Netherlands.
Germany won its first FIFA World Cup title since the reunification of the country, and its fourth title in total. With this victory, Germany moved level with Italy on 4 championship wins, and now only trail Brazil, who have 5.
Argentine hearts were broken in the heart of Brazilian football, the glorious Maracana stadium. The albiceleste fans, so joyously reveling in taunting Brazil over their semifinal humiliation, were themselves undone by an excellent German unit.
But such is the nature of the knockout rounds, and it is part of what makes this quadrennial football extravaganza the cynosure of all eyes around the world.
Here’s a wrapup of the pertinent facts about the 2014 World Cup, before we dive into the intangibles.
FIFA World Cup 2014: Cliff Notes
|Champions||Germany (4th title)|
|Golden Boot||James Rodriguez (Colombia, 6 goals)|
|Golden Ball||Lionel Messi (Argentina)|
|Best Young Player||
Paul Pogba (France)
|Golden Glove||Manuel Neuer (Germany)|
|Total Goals Scored||171 (2.67 PG)|
|Total Attendance||3,429,873 (53,592 PG)|
Disclaimer: Content written under the title of any given week has been written before the events of the next week.
2014 FIFA World Cup: Review and Analysis
Final Group Standings
Before diving into the action, let’s take a look at how things stood at the end of the group stage.
Click to see the entire Schedule and Results of World Cup 2014
Here’s a dissection of some of the most interesting tactics and strategies seen in this World Cup. Not all matches have been covered in this section, since that is pointless; let’s be honest, nobody wants to even mention the Iran-Nigeria game ever again! Only the noteworthy tactical aspects of certain matches have been covered here.
What the Hell Happened to Spain?
The most fascinating story in the first week of the World Cup, both for its value as a marketing tool for media outlets and as something for the football nerds to ruminate upon, is the utter destruction of the defending champions Spain.
Countless football experts had pointed out before the World Cup that the heart of the Spanish machine, which had won the Euro 2008 and 2012, with the World Cup 2010 sandwiched in between, was aging and replacements hadn’t been groomed in the national team. Also, the famous ‘tiki-taka’ strategy of Spain was becoming boringly predictable. Barcelona, the club that birthed the tiki-taka style of play, had been utterly dismantled by the powerful counterattacks of Bayern Munich in 2013, and Bayern themselves had been undone through the same tactics by Real Madrid in 2014. However, these warning signs were not heeded, and Vicente del Bosque led out a squad that was as predictable as the weather forecast in Britain.
The Netherlands, coached by the adaptable and pragmatic Louis van Gaal, set out to deny Spain any time on the ball, and employed a three-man central defense aided by two energetic wingbacks as well as two holding midfielders. Wesley Sneijder, captain Robin van Persie, and Arjen Robben were left up front in an interchangeable front three that would focus almost completely on counterattacking when the Spanish attacks broke down. Holland’s high pressing hurt the Spanish badly, particularly in the second half, when Arjen Robben ran rings around the Spanish defense.
The same flaws hurt Spain badly against Chile, who are looking like one of the best teams of the World Cup. The Chileans were incomparably fitter and sharper than the Spaniards, and didn’t give Spain any room to execute their preferred game plan.
Del Bosque’s curious loyalty to a few players, and puzzling decisions with regard to a few others, raised quite a few questions. Iker Casillas, legend as he is in Spain, hadn’t had the best of seasons at Real Madrid, being firmly demoted to the bench by the impressive Diego Lopez, and making a few high-profile howlers when he was played in goal. However, alternative options such as Manchester United’s David de Gea and Napoli’s (on loan from Liverpool) Pepe Reina (Victor Valdes being injured and Lopez, weirdly, never really being in the picture) weren’t tried out in friendlies, and were denied a chance to play in the World Cup. Casillas was directly responsible for at least 3 of the 7 goals Spain have conceded so far, being haplessly caught in no man’s land for Van Persie’s equalizer, hopelessly fumbling a Soccer-101 pass from Sergio Ramos on Van Persie’s second, and then inexplicably choosing to punch a rather tame Alexis Sanchez free kick straight back into the goalmouth melee, leading to Chile’s second goal.
The decision to persuade Diego Costa to abandon his Brazilian roots and play for his adopted country seemed a stroke of brilliance, as he would offer Spain an alternative route against defensively set teams. But since Spain model their play on Barcelona, fielding a player used to a completely different style of football at Atletico Madrid was always risky. With all due respect, even a fully-fit and gamma-ray-infused Costa is not Messi, let alone a Costa who had only been fit enough to play less than twenty minutes in the last two matches of the season put together. When his club teammate Koke came on in the second half against Chile, Costa seemed to have finally come alive, but it was too little too late.
Messi Needs a 4-3-3
For the first half of their match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Argentina were looking far from the championship favorites everyone (including yours truly, admittedly) has made them out to be. Their famed attacking strength had been disrupted by coach Alejandro Sabella’s ungainly formation (which is to say, the formation didn’t suit Messi), and the Bosnians were holding steady after conceding an unfortunate early own goal. Sabella’s 3-man central defense was being wasted on Bosnia’s solitary striker, and the Bosnians were using their numerical advantage in other zones to keep Argentina at bay.
In the second half, though, Sabella came to his senses and unleashed the trio of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Sergio Aguero on the Bosnian defense; things soon started to click together. Messi came into his own in the formation he has been playing in for more than 10 years at Barca, and responded by scoring the crucial second goal. If Sabella continues with this formation in the rest of the tournament (and he should), it would be interesting to see how the attack-heavy formation would fare in the knockout rounds.
Brazil Need a Center Forward (Who Isn’t Spanish)
In last year’s Confederations Cup, the at-times-breathtaking interplay between Brazil’s front four, Fred, Neymar, Hulk, and Oscar, was instrumental in their eventual victory in the tournament. Sadly, Fred and Hulk seem to have been replaced by Shaggy and Bruce Banner since the Confederations Cup, going by the tame, listless performances the two have given in the World Cup. Oscar is the only one of that quartet to have played well in both of Brazil’s games, effortlessly switching between the central playmaker role and the right wing, and marrying his devastating talent to a hard work ethic.
This was particularly obvious against Mexico, where the fearsome-on-paper Brazil attack lacked any direction against a team whose qualification campaign for the main tournament can only be called a miracle. Yes, the man we know as Guillermo Ochoa could have actually been a time-traveling Gordon Banks, but that is no excuse for Fred dithering like a six-year-old wallflower, and Hulk and Danny Alves forming one of the worst right flanks in Brazilian history.
England Can Play Rather Well
Okay, so England lost―nobody was expecting anything else. Okay, so the English defense was often a shambles―once again, no surprises. Okay, so Andrea Pirlo did two of the coolest things ever seen on the football pitch―you expect that from the man with the best beard in Brazil. But having said that, oh, the brilliance of that dummy! You could watch it over and over again, masticating over the subtleties of Pirlo’s inscrutable expression (and the un-ruffle-able beard). And the glorious late free kick that Joe Hart so nearly caught. But like I said, we have been spoiled by the continual magnificence of the imperious Pirlo and his beard, and we have come to expect these things from him.
What nobody expected to see was England attacking like they did. Raheem Sterling was surging all over the place, belying his tender years, Jordan Henderson ran his customary marathon before the sapping rainforest humidity of Manaus got the better of him, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard continued their excellent Liverpool form (though Gerrard was running on fumes for a long time before the final whistle), and Danny Welbeck managed to get in the mix on more than a few occasions. Who had thought England would be one of the better teams to watch in the World Cup? Better yet, who knew Roy Hodgson had been taking secret tuitions from Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez, and Arsene Wenger on the art of not caring about the defensive side of the game? May the exuberance continue!
As for Wayne Rooney, his cross for Sturridge’s goal was sumptuous, but so must have been the nine-course meal he presumably had had before putting on the jersey. While his Manchester United teammate Welbeck manfully strode the length of the pitch to cover for the errant Johnson, Rooney was nowhere to be seen when the poor Leighton Baines was regularly being outnumbered by Candreva and the excellent Darmian. With the progressive, all-action style enforced by the Merseyside contingent in vogue at the moment, Rooney needs a performance of a lifetime to remain in the good books of the English fans and media.
Both ‘Groups of Death’ have Delivered
When the group draws were announced, Group D, consisting of three former world champions, and Group G, consisting of fairly well-matched teams below the tournament favorites Germany, were considered the two Groups of Death. It’s fair to say that these two groups have given some of the most incident-filled and lively games in this tournament.
The ‘clash of kings’ in Group D threw up a huge surprise when Costa Rica, coached by the professor-like Jorge Luis Pinto, beat two former world champions in enthralling fashion and easily held the third (to be fair, it was only England) at bay to secure top spot, while Ghana’s 2-2 draw with Germany had one of the best second halves the World Cup has ever offered. Uruguay also bounced back in spectacular fashion after losing the opening game, though they will be severely tested without their talismanic striker, who seems to be is on his way to ‘having an old friend for dinner’ soon (more on that later).
Messi Spares Argentine Blushes
Argentina’s performances in the World Cup so far can be paralleled with those of Liverpool in last year’s Premier League, with an outstanding striker papering over the cracks of a flexible, attack-heavy, defensively suspect team. Sure, Jordan Henderson is no Angel di Maria, Fernando Gago is no Steven Gerrard (Gago has even managed to stay on his feet the whole time!), and Luis Suárez―however good he may have been in the last season―is no Leo Messi. But Argentina’s porous defense has been a constant source of problems for the team, with even lowly Iran coming close to causing an upset and Nigeria matching them blow-for-blow. Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, both excellent for Manchester City and Napoli, respectively, are looking like lost boys in their unfamiliar quasi-winger roles, and only Di Maria and Messi have been consistently good in the group stage.
We’ll come to the enthralling game against Nigeria a bit later, but Iran’s performance in the 1-0 defeat against favorites Argentina must have made manager Carlos Quieroz, renowned for his understanding of the defensive side of the game, very proud indeed. Alireza Haghighi, Jalal Hosseini, Amir Hossein Sadeghi, Pejman Montazeri, and Mehrdad Pooladi are not exactly members of soccer’s Hall of Fame, but they were responsible for one of the most determined, well-drilled, and resilient defensive performances seen at this World Cup tournament. Though ultimately left heartbroken by Messi’ moment of magic, the Iranian defense gave arguably the first genuinely admirable defensive performance in a topsy-turvy, goal-filled World Cup. The counterattacking setup led to quite a few gilt-edged chances, and a slightly better strikeforce could have completed a massive upset.
The Nigeria game was all about the two M’s: Messi for Argentina and Musa for Nigeria. Soon after the first M had given Argentina the lead with a thumping followup to Vincent Enyeama’s first of many saves from Angel di Maria (yet another M, weirdly enough), the second M equalized for the Africans with a scorching drive. Messi then reclaimed the lead for Argentina in first half stoppage time with a glorious free kick, but Musa equalized again moments after the second half started. Marcos Rojo concluded the crazy scoring sequence with a fortuitous tap-in with his knee, scoring what turned out to be the winner.
Like against Iran, the Argentine defense was caught out many times against Nigeria, and Musa’s second goal was a result of a disorganization within the defensive line that should have been avoided. Musa should have been closed down quicker for the first goal (though to be fair, it was a brilliant drive and deserves all the plaudits), while another counterattack later in the game, down the left flank, almost earned Nigeria a third equalizer, with Musa turning inside Pablo Zabaleta to make space for a shot. The reliable defender, though, recovered to make a timely block.
Though Argentina take a perfect record in the knockout rounds, they have been surprisingly unconvincing, and their top-heavy formation will be severely tested as early as in the Round of 16, with Switzerland looking like one of the better counterattacking teams in the tournament.
Brazil Yet to Click Into Gear
Like Argentina, the hosts Brazil still rely on one particularly talented individual to bail them out, and fortunately for them, Neymar has obliged. Cameroon have been arguably the worst team in this World Cup, closely followed by Honduras. Still, the Africans were able to equalize against the five-time champions, albeit with the help of an unfortunate deflection off Dani Alves. Brazil once again needed some Neymar Magic to get back on track, which they eventually did. The offside goal aside (Fred scoring being more of a marker of Cameroon’s inadequacy than his own ability), Brazil were good value for the win in the second half, but will need to improve massively for their knockout tie with the dynamic Chile.
France and Colombia Are Ominously Good
The French team has followed a curious pattern in recent World Cups: Champions in 1998, they crashed out ignominiously in 2002, reached the final in 2006 as one last hurrah for the Zidane-Vieira-Thuram generation, before redefining ‘ignominy’ through the player revolt in 2010 and once again exiting at the group stage. By that logic, they are due another final appearance in 2014.
While they have not been really challenged in a straightforward group, the harmonious, well-balanced squad has played some beautiful football and should set up an inviting quarterfinal with Germany.
Like France, Colombia’s supremacy in Group C has not been challenged at any point, and the team has coped with the absence of Radamel Falcao in style. Monaco’s James Rodriguez has led this group of talented cafeteros by becoming one of two players to score in each of his team’s group stage games (Lionel Messi is the other one). Colombia’s attractive, creative football will come under the microscope in the knockout round, where, if they overcome the defensively set up Uruguay, they will encounter either Chile or hosts Brazil.
Spain, Brazil, Germany, and Argentina were among the heaviest tournament favorites before the World Cup. The holders have already been unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament, and the other three have been very inconsistent, with a combination of confusing team structures, lack of creative spark, and defensive instability proving to be the Achilles’ heel of the three.
Brazil, who were extremely lucky to get their tournament off to the right start in their 3-1 opening win over Croatia, lacked attacking impetus in their draw against Mexico, and were also toothless against Chile. After taking the lead via a fortuitous combination of Gonzalo Jara and David Luiz (‘s T-shirt), they were immediately pegged back by a defensive lapse, which allowed Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez to draw them level. Chile were always threatening on the break, while Brazil couldn’t fashion clear opportunities. If Mauricio Pinilla’s last-minute shot had been a couple of inches lower, the resultant elimination would not have come as a major shock. Colombia, with their battery of creative midfielders and well-organized defensive unit, could and should cause Brazil some serious problems in the quarterfinals.
Germany are blessed to have the likes of Julian Draxler, André Schürrle, and Lukas Podolski on the bench, but the creative spark that made this team a joy to watch before the tournament has been missing. A team playing with a front three of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, and Thomas Müller, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos patrolling the midfield, really can have no excuses when it comes to unlocking defenses, but so far, the Germans have only been fluent in attack against 10-man Portugal. Confusing tactics from the manager have resulted in the Germans playing a ridiculously risky high defensive line, especially with the Fangorn-native Per Mertesacker playing in defense. Algeria, like Ghana in the group stage, were quick to exploit the space left behind the lumbering Arsenal defender, and Manuel Neuer had to repeatedly bail his team out by charging off his line. There may not be another goalkeeper in the world who’s better than Neuer at playing this keeper-sweeper role, but it could blow up in Joachim Löw’s face against the speedy and technically proficient French attackers.
Argentina have been completely reliant on the genius of Lionel Messi in this tournament, and so far he has delivered. The Swiss and their outgoing manager, Ottmar Hitzfeld, must have thought they had totally negated Messi’s influence on the game with a double-marking system being applied whenever he got on the ball. However, just as the rest of the world was getting ready for another penalty shootout, the little maestro broke free of the Swiss markers thanks to a slip-up by Stephan Lichtsteiner, and released a perfectly weighted pass for Ángel di María to stroke home. The goal, though assisted by Messi, was only the second scored by a non-Messi Argentine player, which demonstrates just how important the Barcelona wiz has been to his country’s progress to the quarters. Plucky Belgium await!
Messi Must Be Rather Cross
We all laughed at David Moyes when Manchester United launched an epic 81 crosses in an EPL match against Fulham. Alejandro Sabella, on the other hand, must have been taking copious notes.
Switzerland’s compact defensive shape was so well-maintained in their match against Argentina that the two-time world champions resorted to putting in 53 crosses into the Swiss box. This was in spite of the fact that apart from Gonzalo Higuaín, who stands at about 6 feet but isn’t exactly renowned for his heading prowess, no other Argentine striker or midfielder even approaches 5’10”! The great Argentine hope, Leo Messi, is a tiny 5’7”! Unsurprisingly, Argentina failed to break through the Swiss ranks, whose double marking system had kept Messi quiet for so long. The one time he was able to utilize the space in front of him, he sparked into life and provided the moment of magic for the game’s only goal.
What to Make of Belgium?
The Belgian golden generation competing in the 2014 World Cup, spearheaded by stars such as such as Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, and Thibaut Courtois, was talked about so frequently and loudly in the international sports media that they completely lost their ‘dark horse’ tag. On current performances, though, it’s harder to reconcile them with dark horses than to golden generations. Filled with top-tier talent to the brim, the rather crude, route-one tactics employed by Belgium coach Marc Wilmots had come under the scanner. They hadn’t been able to impose themselves on the game for any of their World Cup matches, and their victories in the group stage could be very easily attributed to them simply having more talented players than their opponents.
Their first knockout round must have gone some way in dispelling that predisposition. Though it wasn’t exactly ‘Dream Team’ stuff, the attack-and-defense drill against a curiously defensive USA went quite well for the Belgians, and the fans got a glimpse of exactly why this team is favored by so many analysts and experts. Led by the seemingly Liverpool-bound Divock Origi, the Belgians have started to come good at just the right time. Another misfiring team, Argentina, await in the quarterfinals.
Is It Rude to Point and Laugh?
If you are still in Brazil and want to get home alive, probably yes. Snickering is okay, but only behind closed doors. And don’t even think about the possibility of Argentina winning in the Maracana!
Brazil’s 1-7 defeat to Germany wasn’t so much a defeat as a methodical dissection performed by an experienced, battle-hardened surgeon. The Brazilians were missing their two most important players, but you can only beat what is in front of you. Going by the cold, ruthless performance of the Germans, it is hard to imagine Thiago Silva or Neymar making any difference.
This was, without any shadow of a doubt, Brazil’s most embarrassing defeat ever. The main aim of ‘Big Phil’ Scolari in 2014 was to eradicate the ghosts of 1950 and erase the haunting memories of the Maracanazo. However, banishing the memories of Brazil’s equivalent of Hiroshima by providing an even more shocking defeat wasn’t exactly the plan.
Brazil were never the favorites for this tie, having scraped through the previous rounds by the skin of their teeth, but nobody was expecting such a meek capitulation. After all, this was a match where the two teams had won 8 FIFA World Cups in total―a record for an international game―and one of the two had been undefeated at home for 62 matches, in a scarcely believable streak dating back to a 3-1 loss to Peru in the 1975 Copa America.
And yet, before anyone, including the Brazilian defenders, had had time to gather their wits and exclaim at what was happening, the hosts were being shredded to bits in a way they had never experienced. 5 goals were scored before half an hour―a World Cup record―including 4 soul-sucking goals in six stupefying minutes―the fastest that four goals have been scored in the World Cup. Brazilian legend Ronaldo had the misfortune to be commentating on the match in which his record of 15 all-time World Cup goals was broken by Miroslav Klose, but that was the least of the host nation’s worries.
The defeat, though emphatically secured by Germany, revealed more flaws in the Brazilian unit than aces up German sleeves. David Luiz was lost without the calming presence of regular captain Thiago Silva, reverting to his erratic best when his experience and leadership was necessary. Considering that Luiz will be Silva’s club teammate at PSG from the next season, the French champions must be squirming in their seat at the thought of an injury to Silva. Dante was supposed to be a dark horse, considering his knowledge of his German clubmates at Bayern Munich, but his unfamiliar partnership with David Luiz failed to thwart the German blitzkrieg, and he was completely overrun by Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Lahm, Müller, and co. However ruthless they may have been during the game, it was touching to see the German Bayern Munich players consoling Dante afterwards.
The Brazilian central midfield duo of Fernandinho and Luiz Gustavo was practically nonexistent in the first half, completely overwhelmed by the German trio of Schweinsteiger, Khedira, and the mercurial Kroos. That two of the latter three scored in open play was no surprise at all. Scolari’s innate conservatism led him to rein in Fernandinho to a defensive role, in stark contrast to German coach Joachim Löw, who pushed up Khedira into a more attacking role. While Fernandinho was magnificent alongside Yaya Toure in Manchester City’s title-winning run in 2013-14, he couldn’t strike up an understanding with Gustavo, Paulinho, or Oscar. Local boy Bernard ran his heart out to salvage something from the game, but it was too little (almost literally, considering Bernard’s minuscule stature) too late.
While it was unfair to boo Fred for the horror that was unfolding at the other end of the pitch, it is fair to say that he has been the most disappointing of the weakest Brazil squad in decades. Scolari’s loyalty to Fred was puzzling to many, but rather more curious was Scolari’s insistence to play a true ‘Number 9’ striker at a time when Brazil faced a serious dearth in that very position. His misplaced defiance towards the ‘false 9’ system adapted by many other nations (including Germany in many games) meant that he could only choose between Fred and Jo, a dilemma that would even give a certain Sophie some sense of perspective over hers. If Scolari had been a bit more flexible, he could have played the battering ram Hulk, the delightful Neymar, or even the plucky Oscar in the false nine role, with Willian or Bernard taking over the usual roles of the false nine players. Maybe if Diego Costa, ironically playing for a team oriented towards a false nine forward, had picked his country of birth, this World Cup could have been very different.
A Semifinal Worthy of the Name
After the utterly unprecedented mauling in the first semifinal, a tight, tense affair was expected in the second one, and Argentina and the Netherlands duly delivered, with one of the most cagey, tactical battles of the tournament.
Louis van Gaal’s charges did a great job of keeping Lionel Messi quiet, and apart from the occasional pass or free kick, the Argentine captain was nowhere to be seen. With Angel di Maria out of the game due to an injury sustained against Belgium, Enzo Perez and Ezequiel Lavezzi were Argentina’s most effective attacking outlets, smartly exploiting Daley Blind’s lack of outright speed. But for Ron Vlaar, who was rock-solid at the back for Netherlands, Argentina would have wrapped up the game by half time, with crosses from the right side finding both Higuain and Messi in space, only to be denied by last ditch blocks from the Aston Villa (yeah, Aston Villa! No, I don’t know why, you’ll have to ask his agent) defender.
After half-time, Louis van Gaal switched the willing runner Dirk Kuyt (who has now played in every position but central defense and goalkeeper in the 2014 tournament―talk about Total Football!) to the left side of the defense and switched the equally adaptable Daley Blind (who has played at wingback, center back, as well as defensive midfield) to central defense. Daryl Janmaat came on to take Kuyt’s place at the right side of defense, with the volatile Bruno Martins Indi coming off for him. This blocked off the preferred channel of attack of the Argentines, who in turn did a great job keeping Arjen Robben quiet by not allowing him space on the ball. Robben, Holland’s talisman so far in the World Cup, only had six touches on the ball in the first half!
Robben went close with a shot that the tigerish Mascherano did ever so well to block, and Gonzalo Higuain in particular was denied several times by the Dutch defenders. As the match went into extra time, there was only one possible outcome: penalty shootouts. Unlike the last round, where substitute Tim Krul broke Costa Rican hearts, Van Gaal was forced to use up his three subs by replacing the fading Robin van Persie with the hero of the Round of 16 match against Mexico, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Jasper Cillessen couldn’t replicate Krul’s heroics, and Sergio Romero became the darling of Argentina with a couple of penalty saves.
Van Gaal’s Fortune Runs Out
One round ago, Louis van Gaal was being hailed as a tactical genius―which, to be fair, he is―for his daring substitution of Jasper Cillessen for penalty shootout specialist Tim Krul. Krul went on to save two Costa Rican penalties, guessing correctly on each and every one, and sent the Netherlands into the semifinals. In the semis, though, the Netherlands had used up all three of their substitutions before the shootouts, and had to go with the shaky Cillessen. Whether he is really a worse shot stopper than Krul or his confidence was shaken by Van Gaal’s decision in the last round (his reaction to being substituted made obvious his frustration and anger at the decision) we won’t know, but with Cillessen in goal, the Netherlands went on to miss two of their penalties, and conceded 4 to send Argentina through to their fourth final.
What Van Gaal’s masterstroke masked was that his team hadn’t scored a single goal from open play in more than 240 minutes of football, including the extra time in both the quarters and the semis. So while the divisive manager’s stroke of genius could have worked again if Krul had been available in the semifinal shootout, it doesn’t make up for the fact that the Netherlands had undoubtedly cooled down after opening their campaign with three wins, one of them an all-time World Cup classic. Notching up the unusual statistic of being on the losing side in the last two World Cup semifinal penalty shootouts, the Netherlands exited the tournament with pride.
Mascherano Towering Above All Others
While this seems like a strange statement to make about a player who stands at just about 5′ 9”, the increasingly vital performances of Javier Mascherano in the heart of Argentina’s midfield deserve greater recognition.
While Messi is unquestionably the leading force of the Argentine assault, it’s Angel di Maria and Javier Mascherano who have kept the side ticking, with the former’s tireless running and positional intelligence providing balance to a top-heavy squad, and the latter proving why he was considered the best defensive midfielder in the world while at Liverpool, before Barcelona ridiculously decided to turn him into the shortest center back in history.
His influence on Argentina’s games could be clearly seen against Belgium, who repeatedly tried to bypass the midfield by launching long balls to their strikers, and the Dutch, who repeatedly ran into the bald-headed human wall just as an attack seemed to get going. Even a dizzying clash of heads, which nearly saw him lose consciousness on the field, couldn’t shake him off. He is absolutely critical to Argentina’s chances in the final against Germany, whose midfield trio ran riot against Brazil.
Brazil Found Wanting Again
We’ll get to the World Champions in a moment, but Brazil’s capitulation has been arguably the bigger story of this World Cup. The absence of the suspended captain Thiago Silva was used as an excuse for the humbling 7-1 defeat against Germany, but the return of the PSG skipper hardly made Brazil invulnerable. Displaying the kind of rash decision-making that should be weeded out in defenders from an early age, Silva conceded a penalty to hand Netherlands the perfect start. That he should have been sent off is another thing.
David Luiz then had one of his customary moments of unique silliness, heading a clearance straight at Daley Blind, who smashed it in to give Netherlands a 2-0 lead inside 20 minutes, and to give the decision-makers at PSG an acute attack of ‘what-the-hell-have-I-done-itosis’. This same defensive pairing, which had, to be fair, been exemplary before the 2014 World Cup, is suddenly looking―knee-jerk reaction alert―like a terrible investment.
Without Neymar to bail them out of tough spots, Brazil folded their World Cup campaign with two straight losses and now hold the unwanted record of having conceded the most goals by a host nation ever―14. Fred was mercifully spared the boos of the home crowd due to him being on the bench, but he will remember this tournament as…oh, let it go, we don’t like to kick a fallen man. It’s only slightly ironic, though, that his anonymity during the World Cup has now led to him seeking it after it.
Germany’s Mannschaft Triumphs
Germany has undergone an interesting journey in this World Cup, thanks to the pragmatism of Jogi Löw. Starting off as a team soaked in the Guardiola-edition Bayern Munich’s adherence to tiki-taka, Germany ended up looking like the love child of tiki taka and the Italian catenaccio, however contrasting those concepts may seem. This team has now found a wonderful balance between attack and defense, knowing just when and how to go all-out and when to fall back on German football’s genetic memory and keep infuriating the football purists.
The defeat of Brazil was notable for its virtually complete absence of technically proficient ‘wunderkids’ going on solo runs. Each goal was constructed by uncomplicated, one-touch passing, with off-the-ball movement opening up gaps in the Brazilian defense. This was in stark contrast to the other three semifinalists, all of whom relied on technical maestros (Neymar for Brazil, Messi for Argentina, Robben for Netherlands) for their attacking impetus. Even Germany’s winning goal in the Final came from a simple floated cross, with Götze’s clever movement getting him away from the hulking Demichelis, who misjudged the trajectory of the cross. This is how Spain’s passing game should have been played, instead of the anemic performances seen in their group stage games.
Argentina’s Defense Finally Gives Way
Like Germany, runners up Argentina have also undergone a curious transformation during the World Cup. Coming into the tournament, this Argentina side was described by many (including yours truly) as a top-heavy side with a nonexistent defense. Their group stage performances played up to that hype, with Nigeria exploiting the defensive instability, and Iran coming very close on their numerous counter attacks.
However, the introduction of Martin Demichelis changed this equation. This may sound weird to amateur followers of the English Premier League, but Demichelis is actually an excellent defender, his early struggles at Manchester City notwithstanding. First coming in against Belgium in the quarterfinals, Demichelis’ calming influence made the side much more balanced. The loss of Angel di Maria in the same match took away the driving force behind Argentina’s attacking triumvirate, and forced a more defensive setup for the rest of the tournament. Though it shackled Messi and reduced his influence to sporadic bursts, the rest of the squad looked much better and more comfortable in their own skins in the latter stages of the World Cup, and it should be interesting to see which way this talented Argentine unit heads off after the World Cup.
Major Talking Points
Simulation is Here to Stay
The World Cup has an obvious tradition of the referees favoring the host nation (South Korea in 2002 springs to mind), but one can’t but feel sorry for Croatia, who could have pulled off a fantastic upset in the opening match if not for the intervention of the Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura. First letting Neymar off with a yellow card for a swipe at Luka Modric’s neck, Nishimura then made himself the target of millions of Croatian as well as neutral fans by awarding a ridiculous penalty for Fred’s dive in the Croatian penalty area. There might have been as much contact as between my mousepad and the fly that just alighted on it, but Fred made the most of it, getting the hosts back in a game in which they really had struggled against Croatia’s midfield dominance.
Thomas Müller became the darling of the German football community by scoring a (without doubt, glorious) hattrick against Portugal, but along with the match ball, he also deserved to go home with an Academy Award nomination. Pepe’s part in the whole drama will be elaborated upon (with a lot of pointing and laughing), but it must be said that the headbutt was, in itself, not at all a bruising contact. Playing upon the defender’s ‘hard-earned’ reputation, Müller went down, which must have been awkward once he realized mid-fall that he was already lying on the ground. The referee, following the letter of the law, sent off Pepe for the headbutt, but surely there can’t be a stipulation that meant Müller couldn’t be booked for simulation as well! Germany, of course, profited hugely from Pepe’s dismissal and went on to thrash Portugal 4-0.
Luddites, Thy End is Nigh!
Didier Deschamps and Karim Benzema will be thanking their stars that FIFA finally decided to choose precision over tradition this time. France’s second goal against Honduras was the first to be decided by goal line technology (discounting, of course, the countless goals that were miles inside the goal but were still pointlessly and annoyingly replayed on the screens), and would almost certainly have not been given through traditional refereeing. There are still many protesting the merits of tradition over technology, and there certainly are many of those, but accuracy of decisions is definitely not one of those, as fans of England and Germany will unite in testifying.
Another equally important but slightly derided innovation is the self-vanishing foam spray used to mark a boundary for defenders facing a free kick. It is yet another step to ensure that the decisions are as accurate as possible every time.
Oh Pepe, When Will You Learn?
Imagine yourself in the shoes of Képler Laveran Lima Ferreira. You have played for one of the most decorated and most fervently followed clubs in the world for 7 years. You are a bedrock of your team’s defense. You were actually quite a good player before you decided to quit soccer and take up MMA classes. You are 29 years old and have been playing the game for close to fifteen years. As a result, you are one of your country’s most experienced players. You find yourself facing a player who is already down on the ground. You are in full view of the referee. What would you do?
Really, what other option did poor Pepe have? Not headbutting Müller? Not forgetting that his teammates were up against one of the best teams and some of the very elite individual talents in the world? Not losing his cool? Your heart truly bleeds for him, doesn’t it?
Honduras Need to Toughen Up…
… No wait, that’s not quite right, is it? Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba are still finding flakes of Honduran studs in their legs, the Honduras manager is tired of answering the question of why Honduras have barrels filled with wine grapes instead of a football pitch in their training complex. Wilson Palacios, meanwhile, is still trying to come to terms with the revelation that the weird round ball is actually the thing that’s supposed to be kicked.
Italy Right to Feel Aggrieved
Italy’s game against Uruguay in Group D, the outcome of which would decide which former world champion would join noisy upstarts Costa Rica in the knockout rounds, was one of the most eventful and controversial games of the tournament, even without Suárez’s vampire act.
Italy’s plan to hold Uruguay to a draw had been largely effective until Claudio Marchisio’s harsh red card. Trying to reclaim the ball after a clumsy first touch, Marchisio barged into the knee of Uruguayan midfielder Egidio Arévalo, and was shown a straight red card by the flaky Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez. The tackle was high, but it was clear that there was no malevolent intent, and a yellow card would have sufficed. The dismissal ruined Italy’s plans, and their nervousness started to show. Uruguay continued to build pressure on the Italians, and the goal eventually arrived in the 81st minute in slightly lucky fashion, captain Diego Godin directing the ball goalwards from a corner with the back of his head.
Cesare Prandelli had an adaptable (Mario Balotelli, notably, showing off his mastery of the high jump while playing a different sport), tactically astute, and successful group of players at his disposal at the World Cup, and, though unfortunate, the exit will register as a disappointment.
Seriously, they have all been used. They had all already been used last season, when Suárez bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic while playing for Liverpool. Since that incident, though, he had been an absolute good boy, not giving the notorious English press any chance to hound him like before. Unfortunately, the suppressed edge to his character rose through in Uruguay’s key match against Italy. Minutes before Diego Godin’s decisive goal, Suárez leant into Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the Italian penalty area. Initially, it seemed as if he had headbutted Chiellini, but replays―and Suárez ludicrously feeling his own teeth―suggested that the offence had been much more serious. The internet was soon awash with overworked memes and parodies, and Suárez had once again become the world’s favorite villain.
FIFA, taking swift action, handed down a 4-month ban on Suárez for all footballing activities, including even training for his club Liverpool. The ban will most probably be appealed by Liverpool, who have a fair case of being the unfortunate victims of an action in which they had no part to play, but Suárez will still miss the opening of the league season. The ban doesn’t extend to transfers, though, which should send the transfer rumor mills into overdrive.
Yuichi Nishimura Has a Playmate in Infamy
Although Italy have a case to claim that Marchisio’s red card was harsh, the fact was that Marco Rodríguez was just plain awful, and certainly not biased, in the match. He missed the Suárez incident, and more importantly, refused to acknowledge the teeth marks on Chiellini’s shoulder; Marchisio, of course, didn’t deserve red; Edinson Cavani also had a legitimate claim to a penalty obstinately turned down.
The match will rank alongside the opening Brazil-Croatia game as one of the worst officiated, and Rodríguez doesn’t even have the excuse of the pressures of the opening match in front of the raucous Brazil fans.
The White Elephant of Manaus
The public protests that dominated the headlines during the Confederations Cup and before the World Cup began are quiet for now, at least as long as Brazil don’t get eliminated. Should that travesty occur, though, the protesters will have the easy option of pointing to the Amazon Arena in Manaus.
When Switzerland’s match against Honduras was completed at about 6 pm local time on June 25, a grand total of five games had been played at the Amazon Arena, one of them being the meaningless opening game. Not bad, unless the stadium has been built from scratch at a cost of USD 270 million, and in a city that has had no club in the premier tier of the Brazilian League for more than 25 years; Nacional FC, the club that will inherit the stadium as its home ground, have not played in the Brasileirão since 1985, and only compete in the state league of Amazonas.
Built to display the geographical variety of Brazil, the stadium has now become virtually useless.
We Are With You, Niko!
Something unthinkable and obviously absolutely unacceptable happened in Recife before Croatia’s Group A game against Mexico. The ever-quotable Croatian coach Niko Kovac dared to claim in his press conference that his team was confident of beating Mexico.
No, that is really all that happened, but you wouldn’t think so, with headlines such as Croatia “talking a ton of trash” being published in response. The modern game is so cluttered with coaches taking a defensive tone in pre-game post conferences and talking about “respecting the opponent” that Kovac’s confidence was a refreshing change. Kovac maintained that though Mexico’s performances in the tournament had been impressive, Croatia’s creative talent would find a way past them. While the arrogance was great to see in a coach, the media was quick to jump on it and create what was described by ESPN as a ‘minor tempest’.
Croatia eventually lost the match, but Kovac was steadfast in his confidence in his team, and why the hell shouldn’t he? God save us if a coach dared to have confidence in his players!
The USA is Well and Truly Here
After years―decades, really― of being taunted over their preference of faster, more action-filled sports than soccer, the US national team has done the country proud, reaching the knockout stages and giving an excellent account of themselves in the defeat against Belgium. This team, coached by former German striker Jürgen Klinsmann, has turned the basketball-baseball-hockey obsessed USA into soccer fans, summed up by the now-famous photo of US President Barack Obama watching the team’s defeat to Germany aboard Air Force One. With the newfound liking to the game (albeit many Americans are still confused by the intricacies of the game), allied with new star entries into the cash-rich MLS, maybe there is a bright future for soccer in the USA after all.
A Litany of Heartbreaks
The 2014 World Cup saw the emergence of several well-drilled, well-coached teams that were also easy on the eye; the always-running Forrest Gumps of Chile and Costa Rica immediately spring to mind.
Sadly, though, this tournament has also been the perfect stage to illustrate that football is also cruel. Chile were ever so unlucky to be beaten by hosts Brazil, Switzerland’s well-drilled defense almost nullified Lionel Messi and by consequence Argentina, Algeria’s smart counterattacking unit were just one Manuel Neuer short of upsetting Germany, Nigeria’s uninhibited play was also admirable, and the adaptable USA finally ran out of ideas against the frustratingly talented Belgians. However, while Costa Rica soldier on, all the rest have bitten the dust thanks to cruel circumstances or the lack of talent to complement the often-perfect tactics.
However, the aggression of Costa Rica and Chile has at least given hope to football purists that the boring, defensive, counterattacking football in vogue at the 2010 World Cup is well and truly a thing of the past.
Best World Cup Ever?
The 2014 edition is claimed by many to be the best and most exciting World Cup tournament, and now there is some statistical proof to support that theory.
As mentioned before, this World Cup has already seen more goals before the quarterfinals than the last World Cup had in total. More goals were scored in the group stage of the tournament than any other edition, eclipsing the earlier record of 130, set in 2002, by 6. Only 7 group stage matches, constituting about 15% of the total group stage games played, were draws, and only 5 were goalless. Also, this World Cup is also among the highest for the number of matches where both teams have scored a goal, deviating from the one-sided beatings we sometimes suffer through.
All in all, Brazil is definitely giving the neutral fans the best World Cup we have seen in recent times.
Referees Need to Toughen Up
Yes, we know FIFA wants to cut down on the number of cards shown in a game, because it wants to reduce the stoppages. Yes, we know showing cards and sending off players can kill a contest. But Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo took things to an extreme by choosing to keep his cards firmly in his pockets for 64 minutes of the abrasive quarterfinal encounter between Brazil and Colombia. His first card, shown to Thiago SIlva for impeding the Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina, wasn’t even for a tackle. James Rodriguez was a marked man, as Brazilians took turns hacking at the Colombian playmaker, protected by Carballo’s reluctance to brandish a card. Though Neymar’s injury gained more notoriety, the tackle that caused it was relatively tame in comparison to most other tackles in the game.
The Overachievers of 2014
It feels weird to include traditional heavyweights France and the Netherlands in the same category as upstarts Costa Rica, but all three teams have gloriously overachieved at the 2014 World Cup, going way beyond their initial expectation.
France and Holland, traditionally racked by internal disputes, displayed model behavior in this tournament, exiting graciously in the quarters and the semis, respectively. Didier Deschamps, ridiculed by Eric Cantona as a ‘water carrier’ due to his unglamorous role in the team, has instilled real team spirit in the French unit, trying their best to move on from the disgraceful player revolt in 2010. Deschamps even went to the extreme measure of not picking potential troublemaker Samir Nasri in the World Cup squad, and few except those in Nasri’s closest circle are complaining. With youthful talents such as Paul Pogba, Rafael Varane, and Mamadou Sakho coming to the fore in this World Cup, the future seems to be bright for Les Bleus.
The Netherlands started off with a ragtag band of plucky young colts, augmented by just three genuinely world class players, all of them concentrated in the freestyle attack. Louis van Gaal’s adaptive, pragmatic leadership has carried the team through some rough patches, but attacking reinforcements are badly needed. The 30-plus players in the Netherlands team, such as Arjen Robben, Nigel de Jong, Robin van Persie, and Dirk Kuyt, have been absolutely vital to the team’s performance, and replacements need to be found for these player, who will most probably have hung up their boots by the time the World Cup moves to Russia.
To say that Costa Rica’s progress was a surprise is a massive understatement. Pitted in a group against three fading-but-formidable former world champions, Costa Rica sent shockwaves through the footballing world by topping the Group of Death and advancing to the quarterfinals. In the end, the lottery of the shootout (and cruel, cruel Tim Krul) denied them a dream ride into the semis. Their coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, will, no doubt, be serenaded by various European clubs, but as long as they maintain their ethos, this group of Costa Rican players could go on to pull off quite a few surprises.
Costa’s Career Killer
One of the bigger stories before the World Cup began was the allegiance of then-Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa. He had been ignored up till then by his home country Brazil, and was now eligible for Spanish citizenship, which would allow him to join the ranks of the reigning world and European champions. His inclusion would offer Spain coach Vicente del Bosque an alternate plan to his strikerless false-nine system, with a genuine Number 9 striker up front. On the other hand, Brazil’s system seemed much better suited to Costa’s style of play.
Spain relied on a Barcelona-grown brand of passing and cerebral play. They had turned a group of technically proficient players with little physicality into world beaters. Their play was based around passing triangles, valuing possession above their own lives, and a fear of the lofted ball. Costa’s Madrid, meanwhile, had just conquered Spain with a brand of football focused on quick breaks and gegenpressing. Costa was used to being the focal point for crosses and a target for long balls that he could run on to. Whereas Spain focused on carving open teams with finesse and precision, with players drifting across various positions to bamboozle opposing defenders, Costa was brought up in a school where the striker stayed true to his name and did little beyond scoring and providing layoffs for oncoming midfielders. As it happened, Brazil also happened to play a very similar brand of football, one that would have maximized the strengths of both Brazil and Costa. Costa, in his infinite wisdom, chose to play for his adopted country, and what a stroke of brilliance that has proved to be!
No, wait, that’s not quite right, is it?
The lack of coordination between Costa and Spain’s other players was painfully easy to spot, and the lack of coordination between Fred and his limbs was even more so. Fred was arguably Brazil’s worst player, including the train wreck Paulinho, of the tournament; how Big Phil Scolari must be wishing he had turned on the charm a bit more to persuade Costa to join the canary yellow brigade.
The Bastian Stands Unconquered
Argentina hacked him, slashed him, kicked him, and he then almost shot himself in the foot by overextending his knees―both of them, unbelievably. Yet it was Schweinsteiger who stood tall for the Germans in the end, proudly sporting the gash in his right cheek as he held aloft the World Cup trophy.
‘Schweini’ is many fans’ choice for the best player of the tournament, and it is hard to imagine why not. He has kept the engine room ticking in a deadly unit, and has controlled games at perfect pace in virtually the entire tournament, It seemed as if, at 29, he knew this was probably his last shot at World Cup glory, and he was determined to make it count at any cost.
German Decade of Labor Pays Off
The German manager spoke after the Final about how this victory was the result of a decade of hard work and organization. Many thought he was just simply being unnecessarily modest and trying to include more people in the halo of success. He wasn’t, and not entirely.
German football reached its nadir at the 2000 UEFA Euro Championships, when the defending champions returned home without winning a single game. Spurred by the humiliation, Germany undertook a campaign to improve its efforts to improve the youth game, to safeguard the future. Old, rugged players were discarded and younger, more technically proficient players were incorporated into the squad. Players with a lineage from outside Germany, such as 2014 heroes Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng, and Mesut Özil, were included in the German team based on merit. The surprise run to the 2002 World Cup Final, founded on the legendary Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack, was the last hurrah for many of those players.
Youth teams in the German league were encouraged, and the transition between youth levels and senior international game was made smoother. The “typically German” style of results-oriented, rough football was replaced by a more technical, more attractive philosophy. Jurgen Klinsmann and current coach Joachim Löw have persisted with a brand of football relatively novel to Germany, and were rewarded with consecutive semifinal appearances in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and the 2008 and 2012 Euro Championships. However, the crowning glory of this generation of talented individuals came in the 2014 World Cup, with Germany’s conspicuous absence of a ‘star player’ being in stark contrast to its run to the final in 2002.
German football’s reinnovation after a tragic phase is a lesson for fallen giants such as Brazil, England, and Spain. Brazil, in particular, could do much worse than a revamp of its oft-criticized league system and politically influenced football hierarchy. The Brazilian league is in terrible condition at present, and could badly use a cash inflow and a well-regulated football calendar instead of the confusing jumble of state and central league matches.
The Best of the Week
The Best Goal
Robin van Persie’s Superman header simply has no rival, especially considering the momentous occasion and the effect the goal had on the outcome of the game.
When Daley Blind prepared to send a diagonal ball from close to the left byline and just inside the Spanish half, the Spanish central defensive pair was busy thinking they were operating an offside trap, some fifteen yards in front of the Spanish penalty area, for the Dutch captain Robin van Persie. As Blind launched the cross, Van Persie was rushing inside the Spanish penalty area with an instinctive burst, well clear of Ramos and Pique. However, the cross was too high to take down with one touch, especially with Casillas advancing. Van Persie chose possibly the most difficult way of scoring from the position he was in, leaping in the air and meeting the cross bang-on with his head. As Casillas stopped in his tracks, too close to Van Persie to save the header but too far to cut out the cross, the ball looped over him and nestled safely in the top corner. As Van Persie wheeled off to perform a high-five with Louis van Gaal (which was hilariously awkward), the Spanish team stood shellshocked. The end had begun for the all-conquering Spanish side.
Tim Cahill’s over-the-shoulder volley against the Dutch comes in a very close second. And if you didn’t watch either of the games, no, that was not a misprint. Cahill scored the volley, Van Persie scored the header, make no mistake!
The Best Save
Once again, the winner, though obvious, deserves all the plaudits. Dani Alves’ cross was accurate, Neymar’s leap perfectly timed, the goal seemingly inevitable. Guillermo Ochoa, stationed a bit too much to the left than he would otherwise have chosen, leapt to his right, palming the header away. As goal line cameras revealed later, the save was actually made on the goal line! Ochoa’s point-blank save from Brazilian captain Thiago Silva comes a close second.
Joe Hart brilliantly fooling Andrea Pirlo by going the other way on the latter’s knuckleball free kick comes a close third. No, seriously!
It’s tempting to put either Clark Ke―sorry―Van Persie or Tim Cahill on this pedestal, but since both goals were scored largely through individual brilliance, we have to look elsewhere. The Australians biting the Dutch in the backside barely a minute after going behind was a pretty good move, though.
Of course, one of the best moves, even though it came from a corner kick routine, was the dummy from the Beard.
However, this award goes to an unlikely candidate. It feels weird to even be considering the English team for any award consisting of the words ‘the best’, but the move that led to Daniel Sturridge’s equalizing goal against Italy is worth putting on this list just because it was so unlike what we expect from England. Regardless of the laziness in his performance and the well-deserved criticism he has attracted due to that, the cross from Rooney―delivered by his weaker left foot, lest we forget―was absolutely gorgeous.
If entire matches can be considered, Iker Casillas’ performance against the Netherlands undoubtedly wins the gong. He got virtually nothing right in a match where the World and European champions were torn to shreds.
However, it’s one of the Spain captain’s junior teammates that wins this prize. With Spain 2-0 down against Chile, the refreshingly energetic Koke combined with the peerlessly hopeless Diego Costa to offer the latter the chance for a bicycle kick. While Costa’s shot, hit from the left side (from Chile’s point of view) of the Chilean penalty area, was going wide, Sergio Busquets, standing alone on the other side with no Chilean player within miles of him, should have buried the shot. Instead, he somehow contrived to miss the open goal, with nobody hassling him, from about 3 yards out. It’s a cliche to say that it would have been easier to score, but it would have been easier to score! There went the last hope for the formerly world beating Spanish.
Casillas’ fumble on Ramos’ pass to hand Van Persie a golden opportunity gets an honorable mention, as does Marcelo applying the deftest of touches to Ivica Olic’s cross to open the World Cup in absolutely perfect fashion for the Selecao.
Team of the Week
Having ranked two of his saves as the two best saves of the week, it would be ridiculous to put someone else in the Team of the Week.
Stefan de Vrij
An admittedly goal-centric selection in center back forced by the absence of truly spectacular rearguard action. Ivorian Aurier, though, justified rumors linking him to some of the top clubs across Europe, including Arsenal and Liverpool. De Vrij was excellent apart from a rash (and dubious) penalty. The defense was the toughest section to fill, and hopefully the bar will be raised in week 2.
Supporting the irreplaceable Beard is the inventive Colombian, who is quickly blossoming into one of the world’s best players, and Oscar, who was undoubtedly Brazil’s best player against both Croatia and Mexico.
Robin van Persie
Van Persie scored two, including one World Cup classic, Benzema should have scored a hattrick against Honduras, and Müller did, against Portugal.
Player of the Week
Benzema, Robben, and Van Persie were all excellent in the striking department, whereas Müller scored the first hattrick of the 2014 tournament. However, because of the effect his first goal had on the match, the award goes to the Dutch skipper, SuperVan Persie.
Manager of the Week
The veteran Louis van Gaal wins this week’s Manager of the Week award thanks to the expertly orchestrated demolition of defending champions Spain.
Costa Rica pulled off a major upset with their win over Uruguay, and Jorge Luis Pinto’s progressive tactics have won them quite a few neutral admirers. Definitely one to keep an eye on!
The Best Goal
It’s tempting to rank Messi’s delicious free kick, or Fred’s offside goal just because of the identity of the scorer (poor Fred is this close to becoming the new Wayne Rooney in the world’s eyes). Messi’s first goal was a masterclass of a slightly nerdy variety; most players would have overhit their shot from the position he was in, and the technique to do what he did is quite difficult. Ahmed Musa’s first goal against Argentina, a lovely curler hit into the left corner of Sergio Romero’s net, David Villa’s cheeky backheel in his final appearance in the Spain shirt, and Xherdan Shaqiri’s second of his three goals against Honduras were also great to watch.
However, the winner is Jackson Martinez’s second goal in Colombia’s 4-1 win against Japan. With Martinez’s former clubmate James Rodriguez leading the charge on the right side of the pitch, the Porto striker made an arcing run to the edge of the Japanese penalty area. Rodriguez found him with a typically slide-rule pass just inside the Japanese penalty area. Wrong-footing one defender, Martinez turned inside and scored with a precise, curling left foot finish.
Colombia are always good on counterattacks, and propelled by the brilliant James Rodriguez, they are fast becoming the best team to watch at this World Cup.
The Best Save
Unlike last week, there is no obvious winner in this category, but the ever-reliable Gigi Buffon gets the gong with his reflex save off Nicolás Lodeiro in Italy’s match against Uruguay. The save was the second of a double save, having already blocked a cross-shot from Luis Suárez.
The Best Move
Martinez’s goal was certainly a brilliant move, but the winner comes from an unusual source. Algeria’s 4-2 win over South Korea helped the African country make their passage into the knockout round near-certain, and the best move of the week comes from Algeria’s fourth of the game, scored by Yacine Brahimi. Sofiane Feghouli was heavily involved in the goal, dribbling almost from the halfway line to the right side of the Korean penalty area. Brahimi then played a one-two with Feghouli, and buried the consequent assist between the legs of the Korean keeper.
The Worst Howler
Karim Benzema has been effervescent in the World Cup so far, and thus surprised nobody when his lively play earned France a penalty against Switzerland. A bigger surprise was that he missed, and an even bigger surprise came when Mathieu Valbuena scuffed the rebound on to the post.
Benzema’s weak and low penalty had been blocked by the Swiss keeper Diego Benaglio, and the rebound went to the left side of the Swiss penalty area. Valbuena, rushing into the box without any marker in anticipation of just such an opportunity, tried to wrap his foot around the ball, but only succeeded in hitting the crossbar. Though the miss had no effect on the outcome of the match, which France won 5-2, it was still a golden chance.
Team of the Week
Angel di Maria must be sick of the sight of Enyeama, going by the sheer number of saves he made from the Argentine midfielder. Enyeama was not at fault for any of Argentina’s goals, though he could have done a bit better with the initial save off Di Maria’s shot for the first goal. Gigi Buffon was composed for Italy and made quite a few good saves, but on balance, and especially considering the disparity between the opposition they faced, Enyeama wins out. Iran’s Alireza Haghighi also ran Argentina close, but he was also aided by a completely defensive setup, something Nigeria markedly lacked.
Zabaleta and Rojo have been the consistent performers in the Argentine defense, while the central axis has looked very suspect. The wingbacks have also been the only players to stretch the field for Argentina, with the usually-central Messi, Aguero, and Higuain all shoehorned into the same team. Rojo and Godin also scored crucial goals in their team’s final group stage matches, both turning out to be matchwinners. The entire Iran defense, absolutely heroic for the full 90 minutes against Argentina (the goal coming in added time), gets a very honorable mention.
It’s not my fault that Neymar is classified as a midfielder instead of a forward, so he firmly stays in this section. James Rodriguez wasn’t exactly in the footballing wilderness before this tournament, but playing in the Portuguese and French leagues is miles behind the World Cup as long as exposure is concerned; he is now an established global star. Feghouli was instrumental in giving Africa its first ever two-team contingent in the World Cup knockout rounds, whereas Enner Valencia, who also falls in the confusing midfield-forward twilight zone, has scored all of Ecuador’s goals at this tournament. Moussa Dembele was immense for Belgium particularly in their game against South Korea, where they went one man down but still managed to win 1-0.
Biting and the subsequent ban aside, Suárez’s return from injury was spectacular. Aided by an unsighted assist from club captain Steven Gerrard (who may have mistakenly thought he was playing in Liverpool colors, given the dominance of Liverpool in the England squad), Suárez scored two in his first match after a major knee operation that had literally put him in a wheelchair about a month ago. If this is a half-fit Suárez, Liverpool (or possibly Barcelona, going by the transfer rumors) fans will be looking forward to his return from the four-month ban with bated breath.
Lionel Messi was the lone shining light for Argentina in both of their victories in Week 2, scoring a late, late goal to break Iran’s dogged spirit and then scoring two sumptuous goals against Nigeria. Incredibly, three of his four goals have given Argentina the lead in the match, which demonstrates his importance to the team.
Incidentally, if the Suárez-to-Barcelona rumors do come to fruition (which they won’t, says the Liverpool fan who is not in denial), we will even get to see this dream partnership at club level next season, along with the ‘midfielder’ Neymar.
Player of the Week
Lionel Messi came close, but the ingenious James Rodriguez takes home the prize this week. Declared by FIFA as the best player of the group stages, Rodriguez’s star continues to shine brightly.
Manager of the Week
Jorge Luis Pinto is the undoubted choice for the best manager of the second week of the World Cup. Having already caused a major upset by beating Urugauy, Pinto’s Costa Rica pulled an even bigger bunny out of the hat by beating Italy, and topping Group D. It is a close tussle between Louis van Gaal and Pinto for the title of the ‘Manager of the World Cup’ so far.
Niko Kovac, with his refreshingly straight and honest talk gets an honorable mention, while Jürgen Klinsmann has done an excellent job with a frankly mediocre USA squad. Mexico’s Miguel Herrera has also been spot-on with his tactics, and he also wins the award for the ‘Most Watchable Person in Brazil’ thanks to his now-famous exuberant reactions to his team’s performance on the field.
The Best Goal
Is there even any scope for debate with this one? James (James? Hames? Hamez? Whatever.) Rodríguez has lit up this tournament like wildfire, and his first goal against Uruguay in their Round of 16 game was a goal of astonishing technical quality, vision, and precision.
With his back to the goal, Rodríguez calmly took a touch on a knockdown, and in one fluid motion, swiveled around to direct the shot under the crossbar and beyond Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. While the shot was impressive, it was directed very close to Muslera, and could have been saved had the Uruguayan held a better position. However, what set the goal apart was the little glance Rodriguez took before the cross came in, to ensure that there was no defender around him, which showed that the shot was planned and not a fluke. Many players shine on highlights reels and custom-made videos designed to show off their skills, but the audacity, invention, and self-confidence to plan and pull off the move in the heat of a World Cup game is what sets James Rodriguez apart.
The young Colombian has scored in each of his team’s matches, matching the achievement of Alcides Ghiggia in 1950 and Jairzinho in 1970 so far. The latter’s compatriots now stand in his way in the quarters.
The Best Save
Everyone else has plumped for Keylor Navas’ penalty stop in Costa Rica’s shootout victory over Greece, and there’s good reason why. The penalty was well struck, unlike those saved by Júlio César in Brazil’s defeat of Chile. Navas’ heroics, as they have for virtually the entire tournament, have allowed Costa Rica to keep punching firmly above their weight. Netherlands will need their talismanic forwards at their best to beat the Levante stopper.
The Best Move
Switzerland came so close to shackling Messi with their double marking tactics, with the rest of the Argentine team unable to pick off the spaces left by Messi’s movement. The game-changing moment came from an error by Stephan Lichtsteiner, who was being weirdly possessive of the ball while still in his own half, but the run that led to the goal was pure Messi magic. Deftly skipping a challenge where almost everybody else would have gone down, Messi advanced into the danger zone, drawing defenders with him. Ángel di María had had a tiring afternoon with little to show for it, but with a stroke of Messi’s left foot, he had the chance to make the day memorable. Shooting low past the Swiss keeper without taking an extra touch to stabilize himself, di María wheeled away in celebration.
It’s almost impossible to discern between the misses of Blerim Džemaili for Switzerland in the dying moments of their defeat against Argentina and Chris Wondolowski’s almost identical miss in the USA’s defeat to Belgium, but I’ll plump for the former due to its timing. With time running out on Switzerland’s World Cup dream, Džemaili connected with a free kick, but the ball crashed onto the post from six yards out. To add insult to insult, the ball hit Džemaili again, before petering out agonizingly close to the Argentine goal.
Team of the Week
While Keylor Navas has been stunning and more consistent, Howard’s one-man show against Belgium will go down as one of the great goalkeeping performance in the World Cup. Unfortunately it was in a losing cause, and he could have done better for the first goal, but that doesn’t diminish the high standards he set.
The fact that all four defenders come from losing sides shouldn’t dent their efforts in what were heroic defensive performances. Medel was inspiring for Chile, running himself into the ground in spite of a heavily strapped-up thigh. Halliche was instrumental in coordinating the Algerian defense against overwhelming favorites Germany. Gonzalez and his Yankee band can be very proud of their performance in the 2014 World Cup, proving to be more than a match for Germany in the group stage and then almost forcing a penalty shootout against the talented Belgians. The Swiss defense was similarly watertight for all but three minutes of their match against Argentina, and Arsenal defender Djourou was a huge part of it.
Angel di Maria
Di Maria and James Rodriguez were the heroes of the Round of 16, scoring vital goals for their country. Di Maria has carried his end-of-season form at Real Madrid into the Albiceleste fold, and has now become Argentina’s second most important player, behind Messi. James Rodriguez, meanwhile, knows no limits, as he became the first player since the great Jairzinho to score in his first five games at a World Cup tournament. Hulk finally came good on his potential against the diminutive midfielders of Chile, rousing the Brazilian fans packed into the Mineirão.
The French side is blessed to have three midfielders with legitimate claims to being the most complete midfield players in the world right now. While Yohan Cabaye is that rarest of creative midfielders with the tenacity and defensive discipline to sit back in front of the back four (take note, Steven Gerrard and Beard), Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi have been running marathons for a while now. It’s the latter, rather underrated due to his juxtaposition with the sometimes-demonic Pogba, who has been France’s most consistent player in this tournament.
In a tournament in which substitutes have had a major role to play, these were arguably two of the most inspired. Lukaku, who had been off form leading up to the game against the USA, replaced the tireless Divock Origi at the start of extra time, and turned the match by first setting up De Bruyne for the opener and then scoring what turned out to be the winner.
Huntelaar was seemingly unusable in Holland’s system of quick counterattacks. However, with the chips down and the Dutch laying siege to the Mexican penalty area, coach Louis van Gaal turned to the ‘Hunter’. Huntelaar, like Lukaku, first set up Holland’s equalizer with a headed assist for Wesley Sneijder, and then scored the winner from a contested but correct penalty awarded after tricky winger Arjen Robben was fouled in the penalty area.
Player of the Week
James Rodriguez once again takes the plaudits after a thoroughly delectable and crucial pair of goals in Colombia’s Round of 16 defeat of Uruguay. Having never progressed to the knockout rounds of the World Cup before 2014, los Cafeteros are now in uncharted waters, and in James Rodriguez they have just the captain they would have asked for.
Tim Howard, who was absolutely irreplaceable for the USA against Belgium, gets a very honorable mention, as does fellow goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who is adding to his transfer value with every passing game.
Manager of the Week
Didier Deschamps is not the biggest name in the managerial pantheon in the World Cup, but his tactical understanding of the game has been crucial for France thus far. Once it became obvious that the Benzema-Giroud combination had failed to carry on their understanding developed during the group stage, Deschamps was quick to bring off the misfiring Arsenal striker Giroud for Antoine Griezmann. The introduction of the Real Sociadad winger allowed Benzema to move to his favored central zone, and he immdiately began to influence the proceedings.
The Best Goal
Gonzalo Higuain has been far below his best in this World Cup tournament, but he showed what he is capable of against the Belgians, with an instinctive striker’s goal.
Higuain was making a run into the Belgian penalty area, when a diverted pass bounced up in front of him. Most players would have taken a touch to set themselves up for the shot, but Higuain took a swipe at it from just outside the penalty area, connecting perfectly. The ball sailed into the Thibaut Courtois’ right hand corner.
Andre Schurrle’s second goal, Germany’s seventh (still feels weird to type), against Brazil was also a brilliant volley. However, the significance of Higuain’s goal, which turned out to be the winner, gives it precedence. Also, Julio Cesar haplessly gave up on Schurrle’s shot, which could and would have been saved if the match had been more competitive, while Thibaut Courtois was fully alert in the Belgian goal.
Miroslav Klose’s record-making 16th World Cup goal also deserves a mention, because of its momentous implications.
The Best Save
Without any doubt, Sergio Romero’s dive to his right to keep out Wesley Sneijder’s powerfully struck penalty wins out this week. The shootout was finely poised, even after Romero’s earlier save off Ron Vlaar, and Sneijder was one of the stars of the Dutch squad, and was expected to score. Argentina, who scored all of their penalties, advanced to the final thanks to Romero.
The Best Move
Miroslav Klose’s goal against Brazil wins out due to his intelligent, poacher’s dart into the box that opened up the space for the ball to be released to him. Going past Ronaldo, who was commentating on the match for Brazilian TV, Klose achieved the top spot in the all-time World Cup scorers list and set Germany on the way to arguably their most famous victory.
The Worst Howler
Rodrigo Palacio had a golden chance to seal the deal for Argentina late in the second half of extra time, as he ran onto a lofted through ball without a Dutch marker. Perhaps not realizing he had more space and time than he thought, he made haste to get a shot away, and ended up heading the ball straight at Cillessen from just outside the six-yards box. Luckily for him, the miss didn’t come back to haunt him, as Argentina prevailed in the subsequent shootout.
While we are on the subject of Palacio, is his hairstyle a candidate?
It is ridiculously close between the goalkeepers of the two finalists, Manuel Neuer and Sergio Romero. Neuer has been by far the standout goalie of the tournament so far. However, Romero’s more decisive interventions in the past week earn him a place on this week’s list.
Lahm has been influential in this German team, whether it be as a deep-lying midfielder or as a right wingback. He was crucial in Germany’s attacks in the semifinal against Germany, and his positional and tactical intelligence was also crucial against France. Hummels had the game of his life in the quarterfinals, scoring the winner and then imperiously protecting Manuel Neuer’s goal. Ron Vlaar has been an absolute rock for the Netherlands in the tournament, and was instrumental in keeping out Messi, Higuain, and Aguero in the semifinal. In spite of missing the first penalty in the semifinal shootout, he makes the team for his exceptional defensive contribution. Dirk Kuyt has now transitioned from a striker at club level to being a wingback on the international stage, and has performed remarkably well in whatever position he has been asked to fill. Van Gaal is reportedly considering taking the former Feyenoord and Liverpool player to Manchester United along with him, which shows how impressed the notoriously stern Van Gaal is with him.
Khedira and Kroos ran amok with the Brazilian backline in their semifinal encounter, completely dominating the midfield along with the metronomic Bastian Schweinsteiger. Khedira scored a goal, and Kroos grabbed a quickfire brace. Mascherano has been monstrous for Argentina in their knockout games, and has risen to prominence in a Messi-worshipping squad.
You can’t leave out a man who has just become the all-time top scorer in the history of the World Cup. Considering his relatively unglamorous club career, it is remarkable that Klose has managed to hit the net for Germany with such consistency, and has now eclipsed legends such as Pele, Ronaldo, and Gerd Müller in the World Cup scoring chart. Müller is seemingly on a mission to overtake Klose as quickly as he can, considering the Bayern Munich forward’s strike rate in World Cup games. Higuain finally came good against Belgium, and, emboldened by his goal, almost scored another brilliant one by nutmegging Belgian skipper Vincent Kompany before crashing the shot onto the crossbar.
Best of the Tournament
The Best Goal
In an action-filled World Cup tournament, there are numerous candidates for this one. Robin van Persie’s equalizer against holding champions Spain has gone down as one of the World Cup’s most iconic moments, but was not as good technically as some of the others. Tim Cahill’s volley against Van Persie’s Netherlands, though not as consequential as other goals in the list, is one of the best World Cup goals ever scored. Messi, though he fizzled out in the knockout stages, lit up the tournament early on with his goals against Iran and Nigeria (the freekick). Jermaine Jones scored only his third international goal with a piledriver against Portugal, while James Rodriguez scored a scorcher of a volley against Uruguay.
The winner, though, came from the right foot of the second most (behind Dani Alves) absent-minded defender in Brazilian football, David Luiz. Luiz’s thunderous knuckleball free kick, which turned out to be the deciding goal in Brazil’s 2-1 win over Colombia, was a thing of beauty, swerving uncontrollably past the excellent Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina. There is actually a valid case of the celebration of the goal being more entertaining than the goal itself, but the goal still wins out as the best goal of the tournament.
The Best Save
Guillermo Ochoa’s Gordon Banks impression still takes the cake comfortably. Sergio Romero and Keylor Navas performed some great heroics in their respective shootouts, but Ochoa’s vital heroics still win out.
The Worst Howler
Like the best goal, there are countless worthy candidates for this one. Casillas’ horror show against the Netherlands was an endless series of errors, Sergio Busquets somehow managed to miss an open goal from 3 yards out against Chile, Igor Akinfeev’s many errors have become notorious, Josip Durmic had a brain freeze as he approached Sergio Romero and tried to chip the goalkeeper even before he had started to go down, Thiago Silva’s yellow card-worthy foul on David Ospina was just plain stupid, and PSG’s off-field decision to pay an eye-watering 50 million GBP―no typo there, I promise―for David Lulz―sorry, Luiz―is a humdinger.
But considering its direct impact on the championship deciding game, Gonzalo Higuain’s miss from Toni Kroos’ unwittingly perfect pass to the Napoli striker will undoubtedly go down as one of the worst howlers in the World Cup. The usually-excellent Kroos had one terrible moment of weakness in the Final, and he could and should have paid a dear price for it. Presumably trying to nod the ball back to his goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Kroos didn’t realize that Gonzalo Higuain was returning from an offside position, and unknowingly teed up a golden chance for the Argentine number 9, who already was behind the German defensive line. Perhaps it was because of the pressure of the occasion, but Higuain dragged his mishit shot wide of Manuel Neuer’s right hand post, drawing a collective moan from his country and an angry tirade from Javier Mascherano. The best chance of the match had just been wasted, and Germany would go on to win the game in extra time.
Team of the Tournament
Keylor Navas was spectacular in the Costa Rican goal, and seems to be heading to Bayern as competition to the Golden Glove winner, but Neuer’s influence on this German side can’t be overstated. His fearless confidence on the ball has made him one of the very best sweeper-keepers ever, and it’s very hard to point out any obvious flaws in his game.
Lahm was a calming influence for Germany, whether playing in defensive midfield or at right back. Hummels’ two crucial goals complemented his impressive defending through the tournament. He was an absolute rock against the French, and kept Lionel Messi in the pocket in the Final, apart from one early run that was snuffed out by Bastian Schweinsteiger. Garay grew into the tournament as Argentina progressed, and, especially when paired with Martin Demichelis, looked like a top notch defender. The tactically flexible and adaptable Daley Blind was a consistent defensive as well as offensive performer for the Netherlands, regularly bombing down the left to provide crosses, but returning dutifully to his defensive duties.
Three of these were the genuine superstars for their countries, and were the primary outlet for the team’s attacks, while Müller once again scored a quintet of goals at the World Cup, including a hat trick against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. All three dazzled at various points, and lit up the tournament with moments of brilliance. Rodriguez’s turn and volley against Uruguay was one of the best World Cup goals ever scored, while Robben got full revenge for Casillas’ famous save in the 2010 Final with two very well-taken goals against Spain. He then went on to star in the Round of 16, where he won a controversial penalty, which sent the Netherlands through. Neymar was put out of the remainder of the tournament in the quarters in a violent match against Colombia, but he had done enough to justify his tag as Brazil’s golden boy up till that point.
Mascherano was the beating heart of the Argentine team, often assuming the role of a one-man midfield, snapping up opposition attacks and passing the ball on with characteristic calmness. His tigerish, domineering performance in the tournament was arguably even more important for Argentina than the Little Flea himself.
Messi was the shining light for the runners up Argentina, having a hand in all but one of their goals in the group stage, and then laying on an assist for Angel di Maria in the Round of 16 match against Switzerland. The recipient of the Golden Ball award, Messi will look upon this World Cup as a missed opportunity, when he so nearly ascended the pedestal to Maradona’s celestial place in Argentine hearts, but slipped and fell at the last step.
Stalwarts such as Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, Brazil’s captain Thiago Silva, Germany’s metronomic Bastian Schweinsteiger, Colombia’s assist-king Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, and Toni Kroos, miss out due to the astonishing collection of talent in the World Cup.
Player of the Tournament
While the choice of FIFA’s technical committee was Lionel Messi, yours truly would award the Golden Ball to Colombia’s James Rodriguez. While Lionel Messi sparkled in the group stages, and he did, to be fair, create the most number of chances in the tournament, he fizzled out in the knockout stages, and still remains without a single goal in the World Cup knockout rounds. Rodriguez, meanwhile, scored in 5 distinct games in the tournament, the most of any player, and was at the heart of everything good about the Colombian team. He is firmly on his way to becoming the next global superstar.
Manager of the Tournament
Joachim Löw won deserved plaudits for his tactical understanding and tinkering with the German team. Jorge Luis Pinto is also a very close runner for his mightily impressive run to the quarterfinals with the unfancied Costa Rica.
But the winner is the wily old fox Louis van Gaal, who molded the ragtag Netherlands into a formidable, efficient, and adaptable unit. For all the descriptions of the German team as ‘the machine’, it’s the Dutch who have come the closest to that epithet in this year’s showpiece. Their evisceration of defending champions Spain defined ‘ruthless’ (well, until Germany decided to throw the dictionary out of the window in the semifinal), while Van Gaal’s substitutions, such as Huntelaar against Mexico and Krul against Costa Rica, were successful in turning a match on its head. The Manchester United-bound manager leaves the Dutch camp with his reputation enhanced and his incorrigible ego rightly inflated.
Let us know what you thought about the action in the four mad weeks of the World Cup. Did the deserving country win? Do you agree with the choice of the tournament awards? What was your best XI?