A quick glance at the last-16 ties and the subsequent quarter-finals paints a deceptively predictable set of results from the first round of knockout matches at the 2014 World Cup.
All eight group winners progressed at the expense of the group runners-up, but as any of us who have been indulging in this fine World Cup will know, those sides that secured a coveted spot in the last-eight of the competition were made to work exceptionally hard for that privilege.
The amount of glorious failure in the last-16 clashes was astounding, stirring and gut-wrenching, and although none of the supposedly lesser sides were able to grasp a quarter-final spot, their exploits made for some encapsulating drama.
After all, aside from Colombia—who dispatched of Uruguay with a flourish—every single team that progressed to the quarter-finals could just as easily have found themselves on the plane home.
The three favorites for the title—Brazil, Argentina and Germany—were all put under real pressure for long spells by Chile, Switzerland and Algeria respectively. And despite the apparent gulf in class between some of second round opponents, five ties went into extra time—two of which were decided by a penalty shootout—while another match was won by a goal deep into added time.
Glorious failure is exactly that of course: failure. And to lavish praise on sides that have come up short of the quarter-finals does seem a little contradictory. But it’s difficult to recall a World Cup in which the lesser teams gave so many of the more illustrious names such a consistently tough time. And while there may have been an obvious disparity between the calibre of individuals in some of the matches, astute and inventive management has proven to be an effective leveller throughout the course of the Brazil showpiece.
With that in mind, you’d have to say that the refreshing strategies implemented by a host of managers in this competition has been a catalyst for a thoroughly entertaining spectacle. Also, with so much focus on the individuals shining brightly on the game’s biggest stage, it’s a facet of soccer that can and has be flippantly overlooked.
In recent major tournaments gone by, the approach of lesser nations has deviated little from remaining compact, riding your luck and hoping to nick a goal. But there has been a considered deviation away from those kinds of ideologies during this World Cup and while the last-16 results may suggest otherwise, it’s worked well for those bosses brave enough to experiment with diverse and much more positive mantras.
The most pertinent example of the lot is arguably the strides made by the Algerian team. Four years ago the Fennec Foxes were terrible to watch in South Africa. They were reluctant to play with even the slightest hint of attacking intent and instead, looked to spoil games with abrasive, negative tactics. Granted, it did earn them a 0-0 draw against England, but they went out at the group stage without giving their fans a solitary goal to celebrate.
Four years down the line, this team can still be organised and diligent when required, but they’re a lot easier on the eye, too; they became the first African team ever to net four goals in a World Cup game when they swatted aside South Korea 4-2 in the group stages.