Hello, fútbol fans! The group stage has come and gone, and only 16 games remain in this Brazil 2014 World Cup. Half of the initial 32 teams have packed their bags and headed home, including some big surprises. Three of the eight previous world champions are gone, as well as all of the teams from the Asian Confederation; only seven of thirteen European nations are still alive. On the other hand, the “home” countries have done well, placing eight of ten entries in the second half (five of six for South America, three of four for their northern counterparts). The higher scoring trend has continued, with 136 total goals so far. For comparison, South Africa 2010 produced 145 goals overall. The record for a tournament is 171, in France 1998, and with sixteen games still remaining that’s very much in play: if we remain on the current pace, we are on track for 181. Goooooooooooooool!
Here are a few outstanding stories from World Cup group play:
Group B: I’ve discussed Spain’s performance already, but damn! A 3-0 win over Australia in the final game did nothing to temper the bad taste left in their mouths by the weak efforts against Netherlands and Chile. Even Thor Odinson showed his disapproval by striking their flight home with freakin’ lightning! Everyone’s OK, but the team will face some tough questions as it looks to move past its most successful generation ever before they need to figure out if Depends colors include “La Furia” red.
Did you know this will be the third second round meeting between Brazil and Chile since 1998? Brazil won both previous games, as well as a semifinal showdown in the 1962 cup in Chile’s own backyard. Chile would love to repay the favor this time around; the problem is, not a lot of people want to see that happen, and that includes everyone at FIFA and whoever they call on to referee this match.
Group C: The world underestimated the Greeks at Thermopylae, and again at the 2004 Eurocup (with slightly less bloody results). Now they’re in the second round after scoring the winning goal against Ivory Coast on a penalty kick that was literally the last play of the game. Sure, they were easily outclassed by Colombia and could only manage a tie against Japan, but are you betting against them in their next match? They may not be the best team in this cup, but you can count on them to ready their breakfast and eat hearty, and then dine in hell!
Ok, that last part made no sense. As for Colombia, believe it or not this is their first World Cup since US ’94. They were one of the favorites to win that one, but then they lost to the US on Andres Escobar’s own goal, which would cost him his life. There are those who claim that an entire generation of talented Colombian footballers soured on the sport and what they perceived as the extracurricular dangers tied to it, leading to the decline of the national team. Now they’re back and looking as good as they did back then (well… almost as good), and if they were playing anyone other than Uruguay next I’d be rooting for them. Welcome back cafeteros!
Group D: Let’s ignore the 800 lb. vampire in the room for a minute: how about my beloved Celeste? They came to Brazil hoping for a chance to survive the group of death (three former champions, 7 titles between them), thinking that if they could beat Costa Rica then anything could happen. They promptly lost that game 3-1, and were thoroughly outclassed by the Ticos in the second half. Given up for dead, they rose from their coffins (sorry, couldn’t resist) and staked the English in the heart (ok, that was the last one), then beat Italy on a late header by center back Diego Godín, who really has been Johnny-on-the-spot with the huge goals this season. We’ll see what they can do against a very talented Colombian side, but no matter what the final score is they’ve proven once again that you turn your back on them at your own peril. Just ask Giorgio Chiellini.
And how about Costa Rica? The Ticos have not only advanced from this very tough group, they outplayed all three of their big scary opponents. Now they face Greece for the right to play either the Netherlands or Mexico in the quarters. I know which one of those two teams they’d looooooove to knock out of the cup…
Group E: The French are a little bipolar, n’est ce pas? They won a cup in 1998, reached the final in 2006, and are looking mighty good this time around. In between, they stank up the pitch in both 2002 and 2010 (and were “lucky” to even make it to that one thanks to Titi Henry’s hand.
I’m just glad that FIFA saw fit to place them in Uruguay’s group in both occasions. Anyway, they face Nigeria next, and will get a chance to show they’re for real. Ecuador and Honduras, on the other hand, became the only two New World teams to be eliminated this round, with the Swiss stealing a win (and second place in the group) from Ecuador with an injury time goal. Shape up guys, the entire American continent is smh-ing at you.
Group F: Argentina started off slowly (like, really slowly) but they finally showed signs of life against Nigeria, and Messi is looking like he wants to bury his past national team disappointments once and for all. He carried the team through the first two games (with help from an unfortunate Bosnian defender), and added his signature touches to the Nigeria win. Whatever money AFA head Julio Grondona spent on fixing the draw really paid off: after a cupcake initial group Argentina faces Switzerland in the second round and Belgium or the US if they get to the quarters. I always worry about the talented team that sleepwalks through the first round and still makes it through. My first memories of the World Cup date back to the 1982 tournament in Spain, when the Italians tied every first round game in nap-tastic fashion, then needed some serious help from the refs in the Cameroon-Peru game to advance. Two weeks later they were World Champs.
Group G: There are lots of stories here: zee Germans recovered from a stumble against Ghana and claimed the top spot; Cristiano Ronaldo was good for absolutely nothing except screwing the poor Ghanaians; The US won a game it should have lost, tied a game it should have won, and squeaked through to the second round thanks to CR7, and I can guarantee you no one wants to face them right now; they look like a team that hasn’t come close to playing their best soccer. We’ll see how they fare against El Bolso protégé Belgium. For Ghana, the heartbreak came early this time; for Portugal, the choking came right on schedule.
Group H: After losing a close game to Belgium, beating the crap out of South Korea, and eking out a tie against Russia, Algeria has advanced past the initial round for the first time in a World Cup. This is surely a welcome development to those of you who remember Spain ’82. Algeria, making its World Cup debut, shocked West Germany 2-1 in their first game, then lost to Austria 2-0 and beat Chile 3-2. Because the last round of group games were not played simultaneously back then, they were then left to sweat out the match between the Germans and Austrians, knowing that only a 1-0 or 2-0 German win would leave them out of the next round. Unfortunately, that game lasted all of 10 minutes, or until West Germany scored a goal; after that the supposed rivals spent the next hour and a half kicking the ball around like surly teenagers. In fact this is the game that led FIFA to implement the current system of matching group games; it was too late for the Algerians, who gained the support of the footballing world but still had to go home. Now, they’re back and they’ve broken through, and their opponent in the second round is… Germany. I don’t know about you, but I think a German loss would be a fitting conclusion to this story.
So there you have it folks, that’s what we’re looking at as the second round begins on Saturday with a foursome of South Americans fighting for two spots in the quarterfinals. I’ll be here to keep you up to date on what happens.
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