The Real World Cup

The World Cup is a tale of two tournaments.  In the first round, it’s a tournament about hope, happiness, and mirth. In the knockout phase, it’s a tournament about reality, despair, and despondency.  The first round is the party time, the second the business time.

One watches the first round full of optimism and hope about one’sfavorite team.  Anything can happen, the possibilities are endless.  If the team play well and loose, if the team avoids major injuries and catches a break here and there, then anything is possible. A team can get to the knockout phase without winning all of its games.  The party has just started and it is a good party.

As the games progress, as one does the math, certain things become evident.  The possibilities of advancing are calculated. By the time of the third game, when the group matches are played simultaneously, there’s a more serious air to the affair. Elimination is now a distinct possibility.  But if your team gets through, a joyous feeling radiates among the fan base, like the bright orange glow of a glorious sunset.

Once the teams are set for the following round, pundits and fans begin the analysis phase. It’s once again hope that maybe you can win a game or two, to have a good run as they say. For the major teams, the Brazil, Argentinas and Germany’s of the world, this is a more serious time, one in which the expectations of the nation become a burdensome weight.  For other teams, hope again springs eternal.

The tension of the second phase is evident from the kickoff.  What one encountered as bliss in the first phase (yey the World Cup has finally started) is now a heavy knot of worry felt in the gut of the common fan. A defeat at this stage strikes with the force of a knockout punch, the finality of the moment hits home hard.

In this World Cup, teams such as Mexico, Algeria, the US, Switzerland, Chile felt the pain firsthand.  First, Chile lost to Brazil after a scoreless 120 minutes in the dreaded penalty shootout.  Trailing  by one goal at 3-2, they needed a goal from their last kicker to stay alive.  When the kick struck the right post, caroomed all the way across, flying across the sprawled goalie, and safely stayed out of the net, the Chileans were eliminated. This was even worse because Chile had hit the crossbar late in the game, sometime around the 118th minute, a ball that if it had gone in, would have eliminated the host country Brazil. Such a dramatic victory could easily have been categorized as a second Maracanazo for the annals of history. Maybe it would not have been as as dramatic as Uruguay beating Brazil in the 1950 final, but a close second considering that Brazil would have been eliminated from the only other tournament they’ve hosted since 1950 at the beginning of the knock-out phase.

Mexico lost in just as heartbreaking of a manner.  Leading 1-0 on a goal from Giovanni Dos Santos until the 88th minute, Holland scored when Sneijder took a defensive clearance and shot a rocket into the corner that Memo Ochoa had no chance on.  Ochoa had played remarkably well and had kept Holland at bay with a number of incredible reflexive saves.  About 4 minutes later, in stoppage time, Arjen Robben dribbled into the penalty area, and then after a clumsy challenge from Rafa Marquez, took what appeared to be a dive. The referee did not flinch and signalled to the penalty spot.  Holland converted, and just like that, Mexico went from winning one of the most important games in its history (they’ve only advanced to the quarter-finals once) to losing yet another Round of 16 game.

Similarly, Algeria battled Germany to a scoreless tie for 90 minutes, only to see Germany get two goals in the extra period. While Algeria got one back, it was too little too late and Germany once again advanced into the quarterfinals.

Argentina required 118 minutes before vanquishing a tougher than anticipated Swiss side (the same side that got plastered 5-2 by France in the group stage).  It took a darting run, a moment of brilliance from Messi to define the outcome. After a Swiss turnover, Messi received a pass near midfield before eluding two defenders. Two additional Swiss came at him. At that moment, Leo passed the ball to his right to DiMaria, who slotted the ball coolly on the ground to the far post to beat the Swiss keeper.  But Argentina had to sweat it out in the final minutes. On a corner kick, Switzerland’s Dzemaili headed the ball straight into the post. To add insult to injury the rebound also hit his foot and went inches wide.

The USA Belgium game followed a similar script that the other American games had.  The US was dominated by the opposing team in terms of shots and corner kicks (although it boggles the mind understand how they won the possesion game 53%-47%). Belgium uncorked a record 27 shots on Tim Howard. He stopped a World Cup record number 15 of them. Belgium finally had the breakthroughs in the extra-time as DeBruyn and Lukaku scored one each. Lukaku’s fresh legs and energy provided the spark for both goals. The US got one goal back from Julian Green late in the game, begging the question why Klinsmann didn’t bring him in for the the entire extra period. The US had one more opportunity off of a set piece to put the game into penalties but Dempsey’s shot was stopped by Courtois.

To quote US keeper Tim  Howard: “It’s really awesome getting through the group, but it means nothing. The sting of failure is the same if you lose in this round as if you didn’t get out of the group.”

To paraphrase Dickens, the Spring of Hope gives way to the Winter of Discontent.

Continental Advantage

A month before the World Cup started, I anticipated that teams from the Americas would do quite well, considering that the Cup was being played in their back yard.  By the end of the group stage,  7 Latin American teams plus the USA qualified for the knock-out phase (the most in World Cup history): Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay. Only Ecuador and Honduras failed to advance. With more than 50% of the teams in the knockout phase, and with such giants as Spain, England, and Italy out in the first two weeks, part of the bracket looks like a mini Copa America with some distinguished guests.

In Group A, Mexico and Brazil won convincingly over their rivals, taking 1st and 2nd places respectively.  Mexico, a team that barely qualified for the World Cup, played Brazil to a 0-0 tie.  Had two legitimate goals against Cameroon not been called back due to atrocious refereeing, Mexico would have had the same goal differential (+5) but they would have still finished in second place due to the total goal rule.

Chile won second place in Group B and played a competitive game against a Dutch team that effectively ended Spain’s world reign with a 5-1 thrashing in the first game. Holland finished with the maximum 9 points and has scored a World Cup leading 10 goals.

Colombia won a relatively weak Group C handily, not a shock given they were the number 1 seed.  The Cafeteros played very well, despite missing their best player Falcao, and accumulated the maximum 9 points and scored 9 goals, second best only to the Dutch.

The biggest surprise was In Group D, where Costa Rica won the group over heavyweights Italy, Uruguay, and England.  Costa Rica surprised Uruguay 3-1 in the first game, beat Italy 1-0, and then drew 0-0 with toothless England.  Italy and England bowed out early after scoring only 2 and 1 goals respectively.  This was stupposed to be a Group of Death, but failed to materialize due to yet another pathetic performance by England. Italy was in it until the 80th minute of the 3rd game against Uruguay, when the Uruguayans scored on a set piece. This occurred right after yet another biting incident from Luis Suarez, this time against Itallian defender Giorgio Chellieni.  The evidence was evidently clear enough for FIFA to suspend Suarez for 9 games and 4 months. Uruguay, who started off slowly, but finished off strong, are now facing a daunting uphill battle in their game against Colombia.

In Group E, France was the runaway winner after destroying the number 1 seed Switzerland 5-2.  Ecuador had a chance to qualify in the last group game but couldn’t score against France. Honduras looked anemic in getting 0 points and was never in it So instead Switzerland, who got thrashed by France 5-2, sneaked out of the group, largely on the strength of a stoppage time goal against Ecuador.

In Group F, Argentina collected the maximum points. Leonel Messi finally duplicated his club form for the national side. He scored brilliant goals against Bosnia-Herzegovina and a stoppage time goal against Iran when it appeared that the Persians were about to get a much needed draw. Against Nigeria, he netted two superb goals, including one off a vintage curling free kick minutes after the Nigerian keeper had made an incredible save from almost the same spot.

Group G proved to be the true group of death. Germany collected 7 points to top the group and  the USA escaped with superior goal differential to Portugal. The US was involved in some of the most dramatic games of the tournament, beating Ghana with a last minute header in Game 1, and allowing Portugal to tie in the last 15 seconds of stoppage time. The win would have guaranteed the Americans passage into the second round before their final game against Germany. Instead it gave Portugal, who were thrashed 4-0 by Germany, life in the group.  In the end, the lopsided defeat turned out to be too much for Ronaldo and Portugal to overcome. They beat Ghana in the final game 2-1, but their goal differential was too far in the negative to overcome the US. Ghana, who outplayed the US and Germany in stretches, exited the tournament with one measly point despite playing some of the most attractive football of the Cup.

In Group H, Belgium and Algeria advanced in what was easily the weakest group in the competition.  Belgium won all 3 games for the first time in history, but didn’t look dominant in any one game. They scored all of their goals after the 70th minute, but unlike their European counterparts that made it out of the America’s tournament, don’t look like a bona fide contender. Belgium will match up with the USA in what will be a very winnable game for the Americans.

The success of teams from the Americas is hardly surprising. Historically there has always been a continental advantage.  In the 2006 World Cup played in Germany, 10 of the 16 teams that qualified for the second round were European, 6/8 in the quarterfinals, and all 4 semi-finalists were European. In the 1998 World Cup, the numbers were very similar (10/16, 6/8, ¾ respectively).  In the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, South Korea made it all the way to the semi-finals, their best showing in history. Japan made it into the second phase for the first time in their history.

The exception to this rule appears to be the 2010 World Cup played in South Africa.  The only African team out of six to even qualify for the knockout phase was Ghana.  This is a particular African problem, that despite some of the most talented players in the World, their teams rarely enjoy success in the World Cup.

As for this World Cup, the fact that so many Latin American teams have made it through means that 2 Round of 16 games will pit teams against each other (Brazil-Chile, Colombia-Uruguay) and if Mexico and Costa Rica win, the 2 CONCACAF team would face each other in a quarterfinal showdown.

I believe that the World Cup Final will be played between Argentina and Brazil.  The waythe bracket has been laid out (with the teams on separate sides of the bracket), the only way the can meet is in the championship game.   Both teams are playing at a high level and both will be heavy crowd favorites to advance. If this comes true, it would be fitting that the South American classic would decide the World Cup Champion•