World Cup 2014: Year of Surprises

The World Cup usually is big, loud, but rather predictable and low-scoring. This year, however, everything changed. Costa Rica won, Mexico was the only non-European country to ever get a point against Brazil in the group stage, and Brazil scored an own goal. Stakes are high and drama is higher – red cards, discounted goals, and goal line technology used for the first time to count a goal that the referee would probably otherwise discount…this World Cup has it all. Here are my feelings and thoughts summed up after each of the games during the first round of games.

Marcelo after the first goal of the World Cup – an own goal.

BRA-CRO (3-1)
Brazil has been the projected winner of the World Cup from the get-go, but I was left unimpressed by their play. The own goal made them wake up and start attacking more often, but the game still felt a little meandering at times. Croatia played better than expected at times, making some solid plays, but most of the time, the team drifted around purposelessly. I remember liking their team back in WC ’06, so I’m hoping they will liven up in their following performances. Brazil, too, needs a little bit more warm up time to become the top-notch team it claims to be.

MEX-CAM (1-0)
This game was full of surprises.

Roldan’s last 10 games put this into perspective. 

For me, the game felt more like a friendly most of the time. Only toward the end did passion get the best of the players. Of course, this game was shaped by the referee, Roldan, who unshied from making calls. What will go down in history is his disallowal of two Mexican goals, one of which was, in my opinion, wrong. Regardless, Mexico perservered and ended up scoring a winning goal. Cameroon has some star players – Eto’o and Song – but the team was disjointed. Team members were not on the same page and constantly missed passes, or passed directly into Mexico’s (metaphorical) hands. The teams still need a little bit of work, but it was a good show, save the disappointment of the over-meddling referee.

ESP-NED (1-5)
Okay, maybe this isn’t the death of tiki-taka, but it’s clear that the Spanish strategy is a little too routine and teams now know how to counter it. And yes, this is, maybe, revenge for the 2010 final; you could see the determination in the faces of the Dutch players. The match was what people think of when they talk about “joga bonito”, from Van Persie’s equalizing header to Robben’s surprise attack(s). The Spanish team walked away with a single penalty kick goal and countless blunders, the worst being Torres’ failure to make a clean goal and Casillas scrambling and falling over himself while Robben weaved effortlessly around him. All I can say is poor Chile; Spain is going to take out all their frustrations in their next game.

CHI-AUS (3-1)
For the first time ever, Chile has a chance to advance, so it was expected that they would play to the best of their abilities. Australia is the underdog of the entire tournament, but they’re so lovable. The team has a great attitude on and off the pitch, since they have only one undoubtedly talented player (Cahill). Chile played as expected – stumbling, but still capable. Australia had moments of brilliance, but it came in short bursts. You can see the Socceroo’s inexperience, but they gave their honest effort. What Australia lacks in skill it makes up for in heart, which is why people were cheering them on. The last minute goal was unexpected, considering the fact that Chile seemed to be only half-awake the whole second half.

COL-GRE (3-0)
Solid performance by Columbia, although they need to tighten up in their next matches. I was sure Greece was going to win, but I see they never addressed their midfield issue, which ensured that goal-scoring opportunities were scarce. Greece is not a team that deals well with possession; they fumble the ball and Samaras tripped over himself multiple times in the box. They don’t really know how to handle a more defensive team, and clearly have no idea what they’re doing on the pitch. I’m surprised they got no goals in, despite Gekas stepping up his game. Another win for a Latin American country, and a well deserved one at that.

URU-CRC (1-3)
What a crazy game! Costa Rica’s relentless energy and persistence made up for their inexperience. Uruguay’s performance was significantly underwhelming, and they were downtrodden and frustrated at the end, which resulted in the first red of the tournament.

Periera’s red card after the second dumbest action in the tournament so far (Pele in first place, of course).

It was a feel good game, and I’m excited to see if Costa Rica will continue to surprise or if they ran out of steam already. Still, I’ll be cheering for them, and keeping a close eye on Campbell’s future outside FIFA.

ENG-ITA (1-2)
Everyone expected a slow match, but England surprised with constant movement. However, both sides arranged in 5-4-1 formation tired out the players quickly – two England players had severe cramps in their legs which required attention.

Sterling being helped by Marchisio and Chiellini

While 5-4-1 makes sense for Italy, since Balotelli is a creative striker, it made no sense for England, who had 19-year-old newbie Sterling as their key striker, pushing Rooney into midfield. English players would be too slow to assist Sterling each time he’d break away toward the goal, and England would lose possession. Italy’s a defensive powerhouse, and I really enjoyed watching them absorb English attacks. I’m excited for both teams, and will secretly root for Italy in the future matches.

CIV-JPN (2-1)
The most surprising thing this match is how CIV is not a cohesive team with Drogba. Without their star player, the players would fumble their passes, shoot far too wide, and the defense would scramble to do their job. The second Drogba’s on the pitch, the team somehow transforms entirely into a coherent threat. I enjoyed watching Japan play, but they need to be more confident in their offense; even after CIV equalizied, Japan stayed on defensive mostly, which was frustrating to watch. Yet both teams were of equal strength, I’d argue, and the game was well played regardless. Both have much to improve, but I’m happy for the elephants, but I wish they would have enough confidence in themselves to not stall for time at the very end with faking injuries.

SIU-ECU (2-1)
Another controversial discounted goal, this time for Switzerland. Both teams are pretty equal in their abilities, despite their management hyping them up. With the way they were playing, no, Ecuador won’t play 7 games and Switzerland won’t shock the world, but they are both persistent teams. It was an alright game, but both teams need to step it up because that was not a World Cup-level game.

FRA-HON (3-0)
Everyone was baiting their breath for a French meltdown, but the team kept surprisingly (and uncharacteristically) focused. Albeit not the best performance by France, they didn’t have one glaring problem – everyone did their part and their 3-goal victory was well deserved. I wanted Honduras to do well, but felt my support ebb away as I saw their playing style. In an effort to mask their shortcoming, Honduras would just openly tackle French players, dive and writhe on the pitch in a pathetic attempt to sneak in some penalty kicks. The red card was well deserved, and Honduras is the first team to actually disappoint. Overall, there’s been a good atmosphere in the World Cup but Honduras being so hostile just ruins the vibe. Regardless of their underdog status, there was no reason to abandon sportsmanship and professionalism.

ARG-BIH (2-1)
This is not a game that showcased Argentina’s skills. To be fair, they have never been quite World Cup material because their team doesn’t work as a whole. Messi gets impatient and moves around the pitch all the time to aid his struggling teammates. Bosnia, however, was a surprisingly formidable foe, and their playing was more cohesive and well done. I feel like Bosnia deserved a win, as Argentina relied solely on Messi to propel them to a win. The game was so boring, though, and I hope that people see how, by comparison, Argentina is way overrated.

GER-POR (4-0)
Oh Germany, my favorite World Cup team. Their play was a little sloppy at first, but when they got their heads in the game…man, did they shine. Muller is a great player, but it’s not just him that shines. The whole German team works so well together as a whole, and good defenders like Lahm are the glue that holds them together. Everyone’s on the same page, which is a stark contrast to Portugal’s disjointed, aggressive playing. Pepe’s red card was well deserved, and expected. I’m still confused why he hasn’t been banned for life for his violent behavior yet.

Pepe’s infamous red card for kicking Getafe’s Casquero in 2009

Overall, another wonderful game, and I’m hoping for more amazing play from Germany (and for the referees to stop getting in the way of the play!).

IRN-NGA (0-0)
This game was the first true lull in the World Cup. Both teams are trying, but they don’t have the preparation other teams do, so the level of their play feels sluggish and amateurish. Nigeria has legitimate talent, and I think with enough training and teamwork, they could achieve even greater things. Neither team is going to advance with this kind of play. Overall, it was a horrible, grueling match.

GHA-USA (1-2)
The miracle 1′ goal will forever be iconic. However, the rest of the game doesn’t really do much. What’s more concerning is that while the Ghana players were exhausted mid-match, the US players were cramping and suffering injuries from the strain. Are they on a potassium deficient diet? Why are they all in pain? The teams were well matched, since both had issues finishing the play with a goal. Ghana’s crosses were embarrassingly bad, and the US’ inability to keep possession was disheartening. Still, I cannot see either team placing above Portugal in the end, but that won’t stop me from making a fool of myself cheering for the US.

BEL-ALG (2-1)
It was an easily forgettable game, but it wasn’t painful. Watching two small teams play in the “Group of Life” to the thunderous support of their nations is exciting in and of itself. Both played well enough, though Belgium didn’t live up to the hype the first half. Not too much to say. The Algerian goalkeeper was very good, and the substitutes were timely and smart. I’m pleasantly surprised at Algeria’s skills, but I can’t imagine either team
advancing far into the tournament.

RUS-KOR (1-1)
I had a lot of bias going into the game, but I think everyone expected a lot out of Russia. Because of my personal stake in the game, I was more disappointed than usual. Russian players were languid and disoriented, they lost possession constantly and the goal was messy and unsatisfying.

Afinkeev after Korea’s goal, summing up my feelings about this match

Korea wasn’t too good either: they refused to seize opportunity to score, a few players dived, and they kept shooting at the goal from too far a distance. This was a disaster. I think Fabio Capello isn’t as good an international coach as he’s heralded to be, and whatever he’s doing with the Russian team isn’t working. At least with Hiddink in Euro 2012 there were streaks of brilliance and good performance. The game was a sordid affair and any ounce of optimism for this group has faded entirely.



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