We’re halfway through the group stage of the World Cup, and nearing the midway point of the tournament. Here is the good, the bad, and the ugly from the first week in Brazil.
One of the most classically disrespected regions in world soccer has had a terrific tournament thus far, establishing itself as the third best region behind superpowers UEFA and CONMEBOL. In fact, CONCACAF teams have taken 67% of possible points in the tournament so far, leading every other confederation.
The United States beat Ghana and are in a terrific position to advance from the group of death, while rival Mexico has had a reawakening under Miguel Herrera. El Tri’s opening win over Cameroon was well deserved, but Mexico really announced their arrival at the tournament by going toe-to-toe with host Brazil in a pulsating 0-0 draw.
Costa Rica’s shock 3-1 win over two-time champion Uruguay was the most unexpected major achievement, and it made Honduras’ dire 3-0 loss to France much less noticeable. This could be CONCACAF’s coming out party.
2. The Refereeing
That’s right. After a very rough start, the refereeing has been fantastic. What, you haven’t noticed? That’s the point. There’s been next to no controversy since the second game of the competition.
3. The Stars
After greatly disappointing in South Africa four years ago, the game’s biggest players have come good in Brazil. The likes of Messi, Van Persie, Rooney, Robben, Muller, Benzema, and Neymar have all been on the score-sheet, and Spain’s sorry bunch and one Cristiano Ronaldo are the only members of the list of dramatic underperformers.
4. South America
One of the underrated storylines going into the tournament worldwide was the overwhelming support that all the South American countries have received. Both Colombia and Chile especially have looked like World Cup hosts every time they’ve stepped onto the field, with as many as 60,000 supporters in respective venues.
Brazil’s support has obviously been fantastic, and Uruguay and Ecuador have also played de facto home games. All South American teams have played incredibly entertaining games, and Colombia and Chile both look like outside bets to win the whole thing.
5. Mark Geiger
You know we’re having a good World Cup when even our referee is doing fantastically well.
6. Tim Cahill
That guy is phenomenal. His incredible fire and athleticism provided one of the great moments of the tournament, and made Australia games worth watching just to see what could Cahill do. He didn’t disappoint.
7. The Passion
From fans, and also from teams: You just don’t see managers or benches or entire teams celebrate each and every goal like they do at the World Cup finals.
The coverage has been tremendous. While some would like to see more from the studio crew, no one is complaining about the embarrassment of game-calling riches at the network’s disposal. Jon Champion has stood out as particularly sensational, but even the oft-maligned pairing of Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno have been at the top of their game.
All in all, ESPN’s World Cup coverage is a place I can genuinely say I like being for some ten hours every day. If only I had the same confidence in FOX…
Like a fine wine, ladies and gentlemen.
10. The Soccer
As long as we keep Greece and Cameroon away, we’ve seen great games befitting of a Brazilian World Cup. Goals galore, few draws, and incredible drama have ensured that there is a lack of public cynicism about this tournament. People are genuinely enjoying this tournament. It’s soccer heaven.
They just never disappoint at the World Cup, do they? Despite a myriad of problems in the run-up to the tournament sapping sky-high confidence, it was a clinic from Germany in their 4-0 thrashing of Portugal. Is this stylish team the new Spain?
12. Netherlands 5, Spain 1
That incredible score-line set the stage and vibe for the entire tournament, and was, in itself, perhaps most memorable group stage World Cup games ever.
It wasn’t just the shock value or incoming storylines that resonated the game with the world. It was the manner of the Netherlands’ victory and Spain’s capitulation. From Robin Van Persie’s jaw-dropping first goal, to Iker Casillas’ howlers, to Arjen Robben’s incredible counter-attacking show, this game took your breath away with everything it offered.
In the end, for all intents and purposes, it ended one of the greatest reigns world soccer has ever seen.
13. That Animated Nike Soccer Commercial
14. Goal Line Technology
With that Karim Benzema enigma, the system paid for itself. It’ll come up big with the tournament on the line.
15. The Ratings
They have been huge in the United States, both on ESPN and Univision. The US-Ghana match set the viewing record for a World Cup match on cable, and between the two networks there is an average of around seven million people watching each match.
It’s been a horrifying tournament for African teams that has made people call into question the African qualifying system among other systemic traits of African football.
Cameroon, who were ugly as well, haven’t scored a goal, and leave with their most memorable moments being a punch thrown by Alex Song, and their players head-butting each other. From the opening whistle, the Indomitable Lions have been a hapless, feckless, clueless disaster.
Nigeria too, the African champions, were dire in their opening 0-0 draw with Iran, and show little sign of improvement after a poor run-in to the tournament. Algeria weren’t terrible, but they too suffered an opening loss and have little hope of progressing.
The continent’s preeminent team, Ghana, were terrible against the United States – somehow throwing away a game in which they dominated the ball and run of play. Coach Kwesi Appiah made an appalling team selection, dropping the likes of Kevin Prince Boateng and Michael Essien, and putting Kwado Asamoah at left-back.
Rumors of a player mutiny against Appiah were forcefully denied, but it’s gotten ugly for a team that was a Asamoah Gyan penalty away from the semi-final in 2010, and with games against Germany and Portugal forthcoming, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Even the Ivory Coast have once again underwhelmed. Coming from behind to beat a terrible Japan team isn’t that convincing, and the Elephants look tactically disorganized and diminished whenever they take the field.
Keep in mind that teams like Bob Bradley’s Egypt, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and more aren’t in Brazil due to Africa’s cruel playoff qualification system. It has to change, along with the organization and coaching of African federations for the continents’ World Cup performance to improve.
Africa has been bad, but has Asia been worse? Leading lights Japan and South Korea have looked awful and will be headed home after the group stage, and while Australia have been (very) lovable underdogs, they have little business being in the tournament with their current squad – though they’ve acquitted themselves well. The same goes for Iran.
What happened to a continent that was supposed to be on the rise as few as four years ago when they put two teams in the knockout stages? A massive reboot is needed. This is a bad time for Asian football.
Sad more than bad is the way to describe Spain’s tournament, but there’s no denying that on the field in 2014, Spain were dreadful. Bereft of ideas, disjointed and defeated, the end has come mercifully. Chile were always going to advance from Group B. Spain or Holland were going out, and when Holland beat Spain 5-1, we got our answer who would be on an early flight home
Spain shied away from their style just enough to throw things off kilter, but not enough to usher in a new ear. Vicente Del Bosque’s biggest mistake in this tournament as a series of half-measures: He brought in Diego Costa, but didn’t play his Atletico teammates behind him. He dropped Xavi and Gerard Pique, but left many of their teammates from the last three big tournament teams in against Chile.
Not using Costa at all would have given Spain more of an identity and an idea that using Costa without the components to make their experiment work. That Fernando Torres came off the bench for Spain in both games shows how out of whack the personnel decisions were.
In reality though, the end was coming and the end came. This team and their era should be celebrated and exalted forevermore.
That flop against Croatia in the opening game lost him a lot of fans, and he’s played terribly thus far for a rather underwhelming Brazil. So, Diego Costa… why’d you switch countries again?
Absolutely dreadful in their first game against Germany, Portugal were being ripped apart even before Pepe’s all-too-familiar loss of control that resulted in a head-butt of Thomas Muller and easy red card.
Between a tournament-ending injury to Fabio Coentrao, another injury suffered by Hugo Almeida, and intermittent infighting, Portugal’s key players had become slightly unglued by the end of the game against the Germans. Add to that Cristiano Ronaldo’s knee trouble, and this tournament has been just about as badly as possible. Can Portugal recover? Unless Ronaldo takes over, I doubt it. They aren’t that good, and don’t have the spirit to compensate.
6. Wilson Palacios
For one of the least surprising sending offs in recent memory. He was earmarked for an early shower from the first minute of the game. An absolutely thuggish performance from him.
1. Yeah, Cameroon
Worst team at the tournament so far. At least Greece knows who they are to the extent that they look better with ten men. Cameroon’s level of bickering and incompetence make them a pain to watch. Volker Finke never appeared ready for this stage, and his team hasn’t made him proud.
2. But Greece Are Pretty Ugly Too…
The fact that the Greeks haven’t evolved or taken any steps forward since they won Euro 2004 is troubling. Where is their ambition? Greece won’t survive by playing for 0-0 draws at the highest level of the game. Once in a while you get a shock. Mostly, you get your head in your hands.
3. That Commercial With The Guy Trying To Avoid The Score Of The Game
It just hits a little too close to home, if you know what I mean.
4. The Croatian Tabloids
Winning the early race for worst tabloid group! Taking pictures of players in the pool through the bushes of the hotel puts them in front!
5. Steven Gerrard
He’s a terrific player, present tense. But he’s had a horrible few months, and making the decisive mistake in both Liverpool’s and England’s 2014 campaigns will cut deep. He’s not a player (ahem, John Terry) that you want to see that happen to.
Here’s to three more terrific weeks.