Spain, Italy, England, Uruguay. Mexico, Cameroon, Croatia, Australia. Honduras, Ecuador, Japan, Cote D’Ivoire. Bosnia, Iran, Ghana, Portugal. Russia, South Korea, Chile, Greece. Gone. Flights booked, bags packed, tears shed, shirts exchanged. Every one of those teams came with the hope of playing in the Grand Final on July 14, and every one of them was sent home at least two weeks early.
Those first four teams up there are former World Champions: Spain and Italy having been the last teams standing at the previous World Cups in 2010 and 2006 respectively, broken at having crashed out so soon. Some countries really were just happy to be there, to soak up the sun and play against the best in the world, to show that they could compete with those best, even if they couldn’t beat them. They gave it a run and will be welcomed home as champions, even though they didn’t win a single match. Others will spend their long flights home thinking about what went wrong and what might have been.
Portugal exited in the group stages thanks mainly to Pepe’s temporary insanity and Cristiano Ronaldo’s lack of fitness. How different are things for Portugal if they only lose to Germany by a single goal, Pepe isn’t suspended, Cristiano Ronaldo is at 100%. Does Uruguay manage to get past an exciting and attacking Colombia without suspended Luis Suarez and the accompanying swarm of distraction? A dubious stoppage time penalty in Cote D’Ivoire’s match against Greece sent the former packing and the latter to the round of 16. Greece couldn’t net a second goal against Costa Rica despite spending an hour with a man advantage and plenty of opportunities. How confident are the Elephants that they wouldn’t have been so wasteful given that chance?
Mexico rode the stellar goalkeeping of Guillermo Ochoa* and a taut defensive system to the knockouts, only for it all to come undone in 15 minutes against the Netherlands. Up 1-0 in the 80th minute, it surely seemed like El Tri would continue to frustrate the Dutch as their 3-5-2 turned into a 7-1-2. But the ball came free near the penalty spot on a perfect back-header from substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Wesley Sneijder seized it. A bolt of lightning between two defenders and past Ochoa, who could do nothing about it. Had Rafa Marquez been in the right place, as he had been all tournament, the ball never reaches Sneijder; had Huntelaar’s header been slightly misplaced or Sneijder a little late to react, the defense could have reorganized; had Ochoa been one stride nearer the trajectory, he might have produced another stunning moment of brilliance. Instead, minutes later, Marquez fouled Arjen Robben in the box, Huntelaar put a second behind Ochoa and Mexico exited at the Round of 16 for the sixth straight World Cup.
The Dutch move on to the quarterfinals and their Group B runners-up go home. Chile always had a hill to climb to get to the final 8, taking on the hosts in front of a wild crowd. But they made a game effort of it, playing their style and not allowing Brazil to take them out of their game. The two goals came early for both teams (even though both were really scored by Chilean players), and for 90 minutes, they played to a stalemate. Neither team seemed to really want it to go to penalty kicks, but as exhaustion kicked in, it became inevitable.
Penalty kicks are a crapshoot. They go in 80% of the time, and most of the time they don’t it’s either the result of a correct guess from the keeper or a mishit ball from the shooter. In a sport that is primarily about movement, about finding space for one’s self and creating it for one’s team mates, about closing down that space while maintaining the ability to change direction, ending on penalty kicks removes this aspect completely. Yes, the game is about scoring goals, and penalty kicks do that. But the one-on-one nature of them is far removed from what makes soccer so interesting (to me, at least). But they are dramatic. And so a game that featured great passing and cut-throat defending can end not on a perfectly weighted throughball or a thundering counter-attack, but this:
But they can’t play forever. The penalty shootout is the worst way to end a game, except for all others. The field is too large, the game-time too long, the players too human, to keep running around after two hours. This is not hockey where short shifts allow players to catch their breath, or football where there are frequent and unlimited substitutions. The shootout is evil, but it’s a necessary one. And sometimes, you see a player’s, a team’s, a country’s heart break, and you can pinpoint the exact moment.
Costa Rica and Greece also played the full 120 and went to penalties. As I mentioned above, Greece managed this despite playing with 11 to Costa Rica’s 10 for about an hour. I would like to write here that this says more about Costa Rica’s gutty performance and represents their triumph over adversity, but I can’t. This says more about Greece than it does Costa Rica. The Greeks managed to score two goals in three group stage matches and only advanced because the second was a penalty awarded in the dwindling moments of their game against Cote d’Ivoire — in 270 minutes of soccer, they scored one goal from open play. They smother games by crowding their own third and sitting back, playing long balls down the sidelines and hoping to catch the other team off-balance. This doesn’t have to be dreadful to watch, but it is when the Greeks do it: all half-second-late tackles, shoving and runs to nowhere amounting to nothing.
They managed to make Costa Rica’s “hoof and hope,” longball after longball to Joel Campbell look damned near attractive and creative. Costa Rica did emerge from the match an even more impressive story, the shirts of their remaining players translucent from expending every ounce of energy they possessed. The Ticos and their fans will long remember holding out against Greece as a great victory for their country, tenacity triumphing against long odds. I will remember it because they saved us from watching another match involving Greece. With legs and lungs as beaten as Costa Rica’s are likely to be on Saturday, they will truly be up against it when they kick off against the Netherlands.
So who goes home today and who lives to sweat and fight for another week?
NOON: Alongside the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil and Colombia, France look to be in tremendous form. 3-0 over an overmatched Honduras and 5-2 over an overrated Switzerland put them into the knockouts before a leisurely stroll around the Maracana against Ecuador in which neither team really put for much effort. They were behind only Germany (who benefited from Pepe’s madness), the Netherlands (Spain’s collapse) and Colombia (who played in probably the weakest group) in group stage scoring, and feature one of the better goalkeepers left in the tournament — perhaps the best keeper who doesn’t look at least a little bit like Common — conceding only two goals to a very attack-minded Switzerland side (which, I know what are the odds that the Swiss are attacking).
They face a Nigeria squad that drew Iran 0-0 in a game that is exactly what people who hate soccer think soccer is like. Though they made a game of it against Argentina, they gave it away on both sides of halftime (not that there’s any shame in having Lionel Messi beat you). Nigeria barely escaped from a rather poor group and haven’t looked like they stand much of a chance against a team that brings as much to bear on both ends of the pitch as France does. They may be able to break and create a few chances to bring some excitement and tension, but Les Bleus’ firepower will likely be too much for them, and Africa’s last hope will exit the tournament.
4:00: FENNEC FOXES Y’ALL. I don’t know that Algeria will be able to withstand the German … wait, nope, not going there. I’m not sure that Algeria can hold off the advance of the … NOPE. Algeria may not succeed in taking the game to the Germans, and will certainly pay a price for trying to get goals, but they are not afraid of taking their chances and capitalizing on insurg … DAMMIT. Algeria will use their youth — both its speed and its fearlessness — and play their game, rather than sit back and allow Germany to att … JESUS. I’m fairly excited to see how this match plays out, as Algeria don’t seem inclined to play for penalties, the Germans won’t be interested in being out there for a second longer than necessary, and both teams provide some exciting players who combine well with one another in midfield and up front. Both defenses have weak spots, and Germany surely have more talent at the back and in goal, but if Ghana could get two past them, there’s no reason to believe that Algeria can’t. YES I DID IT. This match has the potential to be a great one for a neutral (careful) but could also turn into a German blowout (heyyyyyy) if the Algerians lose their heads and pick the wrong spots to try to get explosive (BUDDY) against the mightier power (STOP).
Anyway, that’s where we’re at right now and we’ll only know how it shakes out after it happens.
*I don’t remember who pointed it out on the twitter machine, but he looks exactly like Josh Radnor (Ted from How I Met Your Mother) and now I can’t unsee it.