Last Year in Football (Part III): This Summer’s World Cup



Hello, again. This is Shawn’s cousin, Nate, continuing to guest post while Shawn is away. Some of you may remember me from the last time I wrote some guest posts. This time around I’m doing a mini-series on recent events in soccer. Or as 2 billion people call it, football.

Welcome to “Last Year in Football”. Below is part III. You can catch up here: Part I and Part II.

If you have any feedback or comments about these football articles, you can email me here.

* * *

Expectations for an exciting World Cup this summer were running high in the months prior. Cups in South America have traditionally been more infused with the free-flowing spirit of the football of that continent, if not also the gamesmanship thereof.

Going into the tournament, I was thinking along the following lines:

Looking Likely

The title holders and, dare I say, heavy favorites, were Spain. Having won the last three major tournaments that they entered (European Champions of 2008 and 2012, and World Cup Champions of 2010), it seemed foolhardy to pick against the title holders. With the controversial late addition of the deadly Diego Costa (Brazilian-born but Spanish nationalized) to the Spanish roster, the Spanish side only looked stronger. The warning signs were there, however. Prior to 2008, the Spaniards had never lacked for talent, only for sharp goalscoring and confidence. What they finally added in 2008 was a pair of red-hot strikers in David Villa and Fernando Torres, and a big dose of swagger. When their strikers started to age and/or cool off, and teams started to learn how to deal with their possession-heavy style of play, Spain stopped running up the scores but held onto their confidence and won a lot of games by close margins. Could Diego Costa be the injection of liveliness that Spain’s game had been missing in the goal-scoring third of the field?

Brazil had had a great warm-up tournament in 2013, the Confederations Cup: not particularly prestigious but still fun. Brazil stormed through the opposition in style, and it was a coming-out party of sorts for a young star named Neymar. However, Brazil’s performances in friendly matches in 2014 had been suspect, with Neymar looking increasingly alone in a dull offense. Betting against a host nation is always an easy way to look foolish, though.

Argentina is home to the little maestro Lionel Messi. No one ever wants to come out and say that Lionel Messi won’t win, because there’s the possibility that he’ll score 4 and make you eat a big slice of humble pie. The inner child of every football fan is always alive to the possibility of Messi dribbling six players and scoring, and with the World Cup taking place on South American soil, every team native to the continent gets the home team treatment when they aren’t playing Brazil. Although Messi hasn’t performed as insanely well for Argentina as he does for Barcelona, he’s still world-class for them. The question was whether Argentina could provide enough quality elsewhere to complement his mighty left foot.

Perennials

England, Italy, and France weren’t making any toes tingle before the tournament, but they’ve shown they can always be a threat. France were particularly impressive, if only by contrast with their previous World Cup squad which had failed so dismally in South Africa. 2010 runners-up Holland were also again putting a lot of quality on the pitch, and to our delight had been placed in a group with the previous winner Spain, meaning that a replay of the previous final was going to take place in the opening days of the tournament.

Germany, of course, always has technical ability in spades and usually goes deep into tournaments.

The South American factor

The aforementioned South American boost put a nice shine on already quality teams like Uruguay and Chile, and even added some gloss to other nearby teams like Colombia and Mexico.

The pot was bubbling over, and everyone was ready to eat! So what happened?

Brazil exploded out of the gate looking . . . mediocre. With a questionable penalty call necessary for their first win, at least we got a statement of intent from Neymar, with a brilliant goal from nothing.

The tournament felt like it really got started on the next day, with the replay of the 2010 Championship game between Spain and Holland. Spain scored first, again on a dubious penalty, and were bossing possession as usual. Then, just before half-time . . . magic from the Flying Dutchman Van Persie. It was a real shocker and it felt afterward like the blow that kicked open the door to one of the most memorable group stages in World Cup history. In the second half Holland scored four more goals as chins all over the world sagged to the floor in collective disbelief.

“Ok,” we thought, “Spain lost their first game at the last World Cup. They can pick up the pieces.” Apparently Chile didn’t get the memo and unceremoniously dumped the holders out of the Cup in their next game. The weirdest part was that it felt kind of like a relief. Diego Costa had played like a man with a ball and chain strapped to one ankle; he was obviously not fully recovered from the injuries that had kept him from playing in the Champions League final. With David Villa relegated to a substitute role for reasons I’m not sure anyone could articulate, and Spain’s other strikers proving ineffective, I didn’t want to see another tournament of 89 minutes of sideways passing with the odd half-chance mixed in. Out with the old, in with the new.

What else did we get to see in the Group Stage besides goals galore? A young Colombian firebrand named James Rodriguez making his presence known. The United States playing legimately good soccer in spurts, and finally overcoming their bogeyman Ghana. Mexico getting systematically robbed and still making it through. Cristiano Ronaldo looking mostly average (hehe). Germany looking terrifying and then bleh and then dominant. Luis Suarez continuing his sterling run of form. Messi finally scoring in bunches in a World Cup, and Argentina actually looking a complete team (their defense has been suspect in recent, uh, decades). Crowd darlings Costa Rica overachieving their way out of their group. The young studs of France winning with style, including what would have been one of the goals of the tournament scored while the referee was blowing his whistle to end the match.

And the goals. Did I mention the goals? So many goals. It was a joy to see attacking football prevail over the defensive style that had perhaps characterized the last couple major tournaments.

Once the smoke had cleared, we saw the following shocking list of teams going home after just three games: England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Russia. Wow!

Once we got into the knockout rounds, we had more 1-0 scorelines and penalty shootouts than I would have liked, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that, yeah? Again we had great sporting moments: Tim Howard’s incredible performance against Belgium, this ridiculous Messi pass that I could watch all day, a volley from Rodriguez that I could watch all year, heartbreak for Mexico against Holland after a wonderful Cup-long display of heart and talent.

And not-so-great moments as well: the biting from Luis Suarez. The terrible foul on Neymar that cracked his vertebrae and ruled him out of the remaining games, and the infamous subsequent 7-1 mauling of Brazil by Germany (who could probably have scored more). For that matter, the ugly spirit that Brazil themselves showed against Chile and Colombia.

Finally we get down to two teams: Germany and Argentina. After the group stage it looked like Argentina were sound but not yet great, but surprisingly, their defense was the backbone of the team. Mascherano had shown that a concussion is actually a performance enhancing drug against Holland. Angel Di Maria, while not even at his personal best, probably outperformed Messi in the knockout games by sheer volume of output. Germany, of course, looked like the favorite after demolishing the hosts. I was a little afraid that they would repeat the performance, having seen Argentina out of the previous two World Cups.

What I didn’t expect was for Argentina’s attacking talent to carve out three clear chances and miss them all! One for Higuain, one for Messi, and one for . . . the other guy. Germany dominated the second half but couldn’t find a way through. Then finally, deep in extra time, just as we’re all resigning ourselves to penalty kicks, comes a wonderful goal worthy of winning the World Cup.

The pundits on TV talked about Germany through the tournament in colorless terms, like “clinical”, “precise”, “ruthless”, which I thought was uncharitable and a bit biased, albeit technically accurate. If England had played like Germany they would have been “open” and “free-flowing”; Brazil would have been “creative”; Spain would have gotten “it’s a joy to see their renewed energy”, etc. Germany were all of those things and fully deserved their eventual win.

I thought this World Cup was probably the best of my lifetime, certainly the best of the ones I’ve watched. It probably won’t go down as being “great”, because Germany were the only team that looked like a great team, and a great final needs two great teams to bring the best out of each other. But as a spectacle it was absolutely riveting, and it had so many great dramatic elements: villains, new heroes, overachieving underdogs, epic collapses from dynastic teams, and don’t forget about the buckets and buckets of goals.

Here’s my wishlist of 5 things I’d like have to have seen at the World Cup:

  1. Brazil knocked out by Chile. Then we’d get to see Chile vs Colombia, and the winner of that game vs Germany. I thought Brazil were too negative and Neymar was the only bright spot.
  2. A fully fit Diego Costa. I think Spain will be a force to be reckoned with again very soon with a fit Costa and a coach willing to cut Torres. That said, I thought it was insulting to Spain’s other strikers that Costa kept getting starts when he wasn’t up to par.
  3. Radamel Falcao fit and playing for Colombia. Colombia played out of their minds with just Rodriguez, how good could they have been with Falcao on the field?
  4. Suarez keeping his teeth in his mouth where they belong. He robbed us of his presence against Colombia and I like watching the guy play.
  5. The US holding on for the win against Portugal. If the US can top their group by drawing against Germany, that game looks a lot different, and we might get to play Algeria (whom we beat at the last World Cup) instead of Belgium. Why did the US play so well for so long and then turn off for thirty seconds at the end?
  6. (I cheated) One more attacking player in great form for Argentina, preferably an attacking midfielder to feed Messi.

* * *

What were your favorite moments or wishlist items from the 2014 World Cup? Let me know and I’ll drop them into the last column of the series, coming soon!