So that’s it. One month of football in Brazil has come to end and the winners of the 2014 World Cup are Germany. But although the action on the field is finished, I still have three tournament-related pieces to write, beginning with this one, an A-Z of the magical carnival that has been broadcast before our eyes since June 12th.
Before the tournament, Algeria had gone 482 minutes without a goal in the World Cup, but took a shock lead against Belgium in their first group game after 24 minutes. Despite going on to lose to Marc Wilmots’ side, the Africans were also surprise qualifiers for the Round of 16 following a 4-2 win over South Korea and a 1-1 draw with Russia. Drawn against Germany in the round of 16, no one gave Vahid Halilhodzic’s (who has now stepped down as national coach) side a chance in Porto Alegre, but they took the eventual champions to extra time before losing 2-1. If you were to pick two African sides to get past the group stages, it is unlikely Algeria would have been one of them. Possibly the surprise team of the tournament.
Although it would be easy to just say Brazil, the hosts did put on a fantastic party, but a major headline in the tournament came in the Italy vs Uruguay match, where Luis Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini, the third time in his career that he has sunk his teeth into an opponent. The referee didn’t see it at the time, and the South Americans went on to win 1-0 and progress from Group D. But after the game, FIFA assessed the situation and gave Suarez a nine game international ban as well as suspending him from all-football related activity for four months, meaning he can’t have an official unveiling following his transfer to Barcelona. His absence cost Uruguay as they crashed out to Colombia in the next round 2-0.
Another surprise team of the tournament, Costa Rica came into the World Cup, bereft of two of their best players, and in a World Cup group with three former world champions (including England). They left it agonisingly close to the semi-finals and to a heroes welcome back home. Having beaten Uruguay and Italy, and drawing with England in a dead rubber, they then saw off Greece in a penalty shootout in the last 16 but lost to the Netherlands by the same method in the quarter-final. They surprised everybody including themselves after doing something which no one thought was possible.
They didn’t play like they were, but Spain travelled to Brazil as defending champions, and returned home early then everybody expected. I predicted that Vincente Del Bosque’s side would get to the semi-finals of the tournament, as did many others, whilst some predicted that the Spanish would become the first nation to win two consecutive World Cups since Brazil did so in 1962. A 5-1 defeat to Netherlands in their first game did little to suggest that this would be the case, with the defence looking all over the place as Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie helped themselves to two each, whilst Stephan de Vrij also got on the scoresheet. Their next game against Chile came around and nothing changed as they lost 2-0 and knocked out after just two games. Everything was going wrong and even a 3-0 win over Australia couldn’t do much to increase Spanish spirits.
It was a World Cup to forget for England, as like Spain, they crashed out of the tournament in the group stage, but unlike Iniesta & co., we failed to register a win and finished bottom of Group D with just one point picked up in the dead rubber against Costa Rica. There does look to be some hope for the future, with Roy Hodgson testing out a young, attacking team in Brazil, but it seems this tournament came just too soon for this squad of Three Lions. Although we can look towards Euro 2016 with some sense of prosperity, at present all we can do is reflect on a truly abysmal World Cup for our nation.
They came from all corners of the globe. They came in all shapes and sizes. They were not going to miss football’s biggest fiesta. Some drove cars from San Francisco, others camped, some slept wherever they could. Those that travelled from South and Central America brought unrivalled noise, colour and passion to this tournament. Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Argentina fans stole the show. Some US fans gave up their jobs to stay and watch (more about that later), while a few Costa Rica supporters spent triple their original budget just to follow their country’s surprisingly extended adventure. There were even England fans, still wearing the shirt, clinging on to be part of this World Cup right to the end. And who can blame them? Even for losing fans, Brazil was a tournament to remember thanks to the carnival atmosphere.
An A-Z of 2014’s tournament wouldn’t be complete without the winners claiming a spot in the list. The Germans started off with a 4-0 win over Portugal and although they suffered a few blips, Joachim Low’s side didn’t look back as they made it all the way to The Maracana, where Mario Gotze’s 113th minute volley won them the trophy. Whereas countries such as Argentina and Brazil seemed to rely on the likes of Messi and Neymar respectively, Germany had the best team in South American. With the best goalkeeper in the world, a solid defence which can also get on the scoresheet, a trusty, play making midfield, and a vibrant, dangerous attack, is it really that hard to see why Philipp Lahm lifted the trophy in Rio?
Hitting the back of the net
Goals, goals, goals. The tournament was full of them. The group stages especially were jam packed with strikes hitting the back of the net. The knockout stages less so but still the attacking mindset of the 32 teams resulted in 171 goals in 64 games, a tally that equals the record scored in France in 1998. But not only were there goals, they were of the highest quality. Mario Gotze’s goal against Argentina has been put forward as possibly the best goal to ever win a World Cup final, whilst the likes of James Rodriguez (who finished as top scorer), Robin van Persie, Tim Cahill and David Luiz all scored absolute screamers earlier in the competition.
Radamel Falcao, Franck Ribery, Marco Reus and Rafael van der Vaart were ruled out before a ball had been kicked, though their nations still all reached the quarter-finals or better. The same cannot be said for Thiago Alcantara, Riccardo Montolivo or Theo Walcott, whose teams fell at the group stage, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain travelled to Brazil but did not play. During the competition, Neymar was the most high-profile casualty when he injured his back and ruled out of the tournament in the quarter-final in a challenge which could have left him paralysed, whilst Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria also suffered problems, and Cristiano Ronaldo was not at full fitness for any of Portugal’s three group games.
With Falcao ruled out through injury, Colombia needed somebody else to step up and be their talisman in Brazil. It was Falcao’s AS Monaco teammate, 23 year old James Rodriguez, who took up the responsibility with both hands, and was one of the sensations of the tournament. He scored six goals in just five games as his country made it to the quarter-finals, making sure he took home the golden boot, whilst he also set up two goals for teammates, meaning he was involved in eight of Colombia’s 12 tournament goals. As expected, Rodriguez was nominated for the Golden Ball, which although he didn’t win, the forward was named in the team of the tournament.
Miroslav Klose came into the tournament needing two goals to become the World Cup’s all-time leading scorer. He got them. The 36 year old scored with his first touch of the tournament from a yard out, after coming on as a substitute against Ghana and become the joint top-scorer in World Cup history, alongside Ronaldo. He then scored his landmark 16th in the 7-1 rout of Ronaldo’s former side Brazil in the semi-finals. Although many would argue that that the man whose record he took remains the better player, it’s still a fantastic stat for the Lazio player to have, and winning the tournament made it even sweeter.
Brazilian centre-back David Luiz opened the tournament by leaving Chelsea for Paris St-Germain, scored a cracking free-kick in the win over Colombia and ended up in tears after what Alan Hansen called “one of the worst performances I have ever seen”, as he skippered his side in the 7-1 semi-final defeat by Germany. After the drubbing Brazil received Luiz gave a tearful apology to his country, which did little to make up for the defeat but showed perhaps what a genuinely nice guy he is. On the whole, the crazy haired defender had a fantastic World Cup, but he will only be remembered for possibly the worst game of his career in the last four.
The debate continues to rage on about whether Lionel Messi is the best player in the world, but if you’re going by awards, the Argentina magician was the best player in Brazil after he picked up the Golden Ball, a decision even Sepp Blatter was surprised by. Although there probably were worthier winners, 2014 was the time where he finally stepped out of Diego Maradona’s shadow. He scored the winner in his team’s opening game against Bosnia-Herzegovina, leaving a trail of opponents on their backsides, and never looked back – scoring the only goal against Iran and adding two more against Nigeria. He finished the tournament with four man of the match awards, as well as a silver medal, after missing key chances in the final.
All the talk before the tournament was about Neymar, and all the talk now continues to be about the Brazilian star, whose injury ultimately cost Brazil the tournament. The Barcelona man bagged a brace against both Croatia and Cameroon in the first round as Brazil progressed as winners of Group A, whilst he also coolly tucked away his penalty in the round of 16 shoot-out against Chile. Yet his dream of guiding Brazil all the way to victory was ended when he broke a vertebra in his back following a challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in their quarter-final tie. His side then of course lost 7-1 in the semi-final and then 3-0 in the third place play-off. You have to feel sorry for him really.
There were many records broken in Brazil in the last month, and one of them was the oldest player to feature in a tournament game. Colombia’s 43 year old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, was brought on in Colombia’s final group game against Japan in the 85th minute, beating the record set by Cameroon’s Roger Milla who was 42 when he competed in the 1994 tournament in USA. After Colombia’s elimination to Brazil in the quarter-finals, Mondragon officially confirmed his retirement and thanked the fans and nation for the support after stating, “This is my last stadium as a professional player. I’m proud to be part of this wonderful group. Thank you all for the years of support.”
A record-equalling four matches were settled by penalties in Brazil with the hosts involved in the first one in their Round of 16 clash with Chile. Costa Rica enjoying the ecstasy of winning a shootout against Greece to make a first quarter-final only to lose to the Dutch the same way in the last eight, where goalkeeper Tim Krul came on specifically for the spot-kicks as the Europeans advanced with the Newcastle United shot-stopper saving two. Louis Van Gaal’s side also competed in two shoot-outs, their other coming in the semi-final against Argentina which they lost.
After England’s second loss of the group stages to Uruguay, we needed two big favours from the Italians who had to beat both Costa Rica and Uruguay in order for us to progress from Group D. Italian striker Mario Balotelli, who scored the winning goal against England, said he would aid out his beaten foe by delivering a victory against Costa Rica. All the striker wanted in a return was a kiss from the British monarch for his efforts. Unfortunately, the former Manchester City striker failed to keep up his end of the bargain as Italy lost the match and England were eliminated.
Torrential rain in Recife led to talk of the Group G decider between the USA and Germany being postponed. The rain started during the night before and by morning, the roads in the north-eastern Brazilian city had become rivers. The water was so deep in places that waves swept up and down the streets. The route to the stadium was not even passable. Although the match was not called off, pre-match warm-ups for both teams were disrupted because of concerns about the pitch, with players forced to sprint and stretch behind the goal-lines in order to preserve the surface. The game itself was decided by Thomas Muller’s 55th minute, but the rain fell throughout the 90.
I’ve already mentioned the high amount of goals seen in Brazil, but the tally could have been a lot higher, had we not seen a selection of fantastic goalkeeping all-round. Germany’s Manuel Neuer, who won the Golden Glove award, was not only about saves but caught the eye with the way he patrolled his half of the pitch, rushing out and acting like an extra defender. Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas and, the US’s Tim Howard were among those who went home with their share price on the rise after some super performances between the sticks. When the USA played Belgium, despite conceding twice in 120 minutes, Howard made more saves in a World Cup match than anyone since records began as he kept out Eden Hazard & co. 15 times in Salvador.
Goal-line technology made its World Cup debut with France the first team to be indebted to it when Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares knocked a rebound from the crossbar over the line before scrambling it clear, but the technology gave the goal. German system GoalControl was used in Brazil, whereas British-based Hawk-Eye is used in the Premier League. Thanks to the technology, there were no Frank Lampard-esque moments at the tournament, but what did seem slightly odd was the fact that FIFA occasionally used clips from the system even when the ball had obliviously hit the back of net.
Was this the World Cup that saw football break through its final frontier? A friendly time-zone, a successful team and a travelling support that was bigger than any other, all came together to create a unique blend that led to record TV audiences and crowds of tens of thousands watching on Stateside. Barack Obama watched from Air Force One and the White House, whilst millions of Americans stopped work early to watch their national football team play for a place in the World Cup quarter-finals against Belgium. Big screens were erected in public viewing areas across the country, including at Chicago’s American football stadium. Although the last 16 was their limit, the USA team still achieved great things by qualifying from a tough Group G and enhancing the sport’s popularity back home.
As well as goal-line technology debuting in Brazil, we also saw another new invention for the first time: vanishing spray for referees. It may resemble shaving foam and more than a few referees may have sprayed the players’ boots, but the spray has been a genuine success story of this World Cup. Contained in a holster attached to the official’s shorts, it is used to mark the spot of a free-kick near the penalty area and the 10 yards away that a defensive wall must stand, disappearing from the grass within a minute. I hope to see in the Premier League very soon.
Due to the horrendously hot conditions, FIFA announced before the tournament that some games may have to have temporary water breaks to let the players cool down if the temperature got too hot. We saw it happen only once, but it was still another piece of history. In the Last 16 game between Holland and Mexico, the temperature was recorded at 39 degrees Celsius inside the the Castelao stadium in Fortaleza, so the referee allowed a break midway through each half to allowing everyone to take on water. If the World Cup does take place in Qatar in 2022, we may be seeing many more of these.
If you haven’t read about enough records already, here’s another one. Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been linked with a transfer to Liverpool and is known as the Alpine Messi, scored the first ever all left-footed hat-trick in World Cup history, when he netted three with his left peg against Honduras in his country’s final group game. It was the second and final hat-trick of the tournament after Thomas Muller got one against Portugal, and was the 50th treble in World Cup history.
The Japanese referee was at the centre of the first officiating controversy of the World Cup when he awarded hosts Brazil a penalty in their Group A clash with Croatia. The match was level at 1-1 when Fred hit the turf theatrically with Nishimura pointing straight to the spot and leaving Croatia coach Nico Kovac fuming after the game which his side ultimately lost 3-1. FIFA defended the referee, but it led to suggestions that officials would favour the hosts throughout the tournament. Funnily enough, Nishimura didn’t take charge of another game at the tournament.
Colombian defender Juan Zuniga became public enemy number one in Brazil when he carelessly thrusted his knee into the back of the hosts’ talisman Neymar in the quarter-final, who suffered a cracked vertebra and was ruled out of the World Cup. Zuniga wasn’t booked for the challenge which Neymar said he thought had paralysed him, and FIFA later ruled out any action against Zuniga, which left many Brazilian fans fuming after he effectively ended their trophy hopes.