I believe the Champions League is the pinnacle of competitive soccer.
Perhaps in the past, when money wasn’t as involved in soccer, the World Cup was more important. Of Didi, Pele, and Garrincha, the three key players of the legendary 1958 Brazil squad, only Didi played in Europe, in a stint with Real Madrid lasting only 19 games. If these players were playing today, they would probably come to Europe with record transfer fees, just as Neymar did when he moved to Barcelona. Since Latin American star players didn’t play in Europe, the only way to watch them was at the World Cup every four years, making the World Cup perhaps the most prestigious tournament at the time.
Now, however, the Champions League is the stage for the best teams and players in the world. As the influence of money grows, the Champions League gets more and more spectacular. Every year, soccer fans get the chance to watch teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, and Bayern Munich give it their all to win the most important trophy in club soccer. The general consensus is that the players involved — and the soccer played — are better in the Champions League than in the World Cups.
I wasn’t expecting anything special from the 2014 World Cup, anticipating it being even less fulfilling in all aspects than the Europa League. But as I watch the World Cup, it seems as if each team is out to prove me wrong. This World Cup somehow reminds me of something that the Champions League lacked. Perhaps it’s the plethora of emotions wrapped up in the World Cup’s abundance of goals. Before we dive deeper into that though, let’s take a look at the soccer played.
The World Cup had some surprises in store. Certain teams that no one thought had a chance shocked everyone with their results. Costa Rica is perhaps the first team that comes to mind. They made it to the quarterfinals for the first time in their history. As if their 3-1 comeback win against Uruguay was not enough, they managed to record a 1-0 win over Italy and a goalless tie with England. All three of Costa Rica’s group-stage opponents had won the World Cup at least once, and yet it was Costa Rica that played the best soccer and showed fans everywhere that soccer is not always about the big names.
Under the leadership of star goalkeeper Keylor Navas and winger Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica played just how they were supposed to. As they were the underdogs, the smart thing to do was to use five defenders, so they adopted a 5-4-1 formation and played it out successfully. With a bit more luck, their defense-focused tactics might have even paid off against Netherlands, but their fairytale ended when Louis van Gaal’s surprising goalkeeper change for the penalty shootout got the best of them. Still, Costa Rica won over the hearts of many soccer fans all around the globe.
A second surprise was Algeria. In a group from which most people assumed Belgium and Russia would advance, Algeria stunned. They almost recorded a win against Belgium, then went on to devastate South Korea by scoring four goals, and then got the tie they needed against Russia to advance. Algeria made good use of their stars who played in the Iberian leagues.
Valencia midfielder Sofiane Feghouli, Granada midfielder Yacine Brahimi and Sporting Lisbon striker Islam Slimani led Algeria to a historic round-of-16 match against Germany. In that game, their goalkeeper Rais M’Bohli took center stage as he pulled save after save to extend the match to extra time. Algeria’s strong offense and goalkeeper helped Algeria draw fans from every corner of the world.
Mexico, despite being a staple of recent World Cups, was a surprise this year because they had barely qualified. With a terrible qualification campaign in a relatively weak CONCACAF, I thought Mexico would have no chance in a group with both Brazil and Croatia. But former Mexican player Miguel Herrera managed to surprise me with his team’s great soccer. He employed a 3-5-2 on offense that converted to a 5-3-2 on defense. This three-defender formation paid off when his team made it past the group stage and almost eliminated Netherlands in the round of 16.
Giovanni dos Santos was the star of the offense, but left wing-back Miguel Layun and midfielder Hector Herrera were also key in Mexico’s run. Of course, one cannot discuss Mexico without mentioning goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. His improbable saves surprised everyone, and quickly earned him a worldwide fan base. His stops against Brazil in the group stage gave Mexico a tie key to their second-place finish.
The United States surprised me as well. Jurgen Klinsmann had managed to bring out the best in his players, and the USA had a successful run despite lacking Landon Donovan. What surprised me more, though, was the interest in the World Cup that Americans mustered up. Who would have thought that major cities would have large viewing parties? The people of the USA have made it clear that they are interested in soccer, and now it is up to the national team and Major League Soccer to capitalize on this interest.
The final team I’d like to discuss is perhaps not a surprise. The Colombian national team was expected to make the World Cup run that the 1994 Colombian squad never did, but when Falcao got injured, many doubted the team’s ability to advance without their star striker. Nevertheless, they managed to silence any doubts with their attack-minded soccer, which was as effective as it was fun to watch.
Under the leadership of young James Rodriguez, Colombia made it to the quarterfinals and put up a good fight against Brazil. The energy they brought to the tournament was unmatched. Watching them dance after every goal they scored was a joy. They had the air of a team that had come simply to have fun, nothing more and nothing less.
In general, this World Cup showcased a number of teams that played with three defenders on offense and five defenders on defense. Such formations were once abundant, but were largely replaced by four-defender formations. But teams like Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica and Netherlands all played three defenders and managed to at least advance past the group stage. This may be a sign that three-defender formations may be returning to the soccer world, which could produce more entertaining matches. I would definitely be happy to see that.
While certain teams managed to surprise soccer fans and put on good matches, certain teams simply did not meet expectations.
The first team that comes to mind is Spain. Winners of Euro 2008 and 2012 as well as the 2010 World Champions, Spain came in as a big favorite to win the tournament among many. But their world-champion image was shattered on the second day of competition when they suffered a shocking 5-1 defeat against Netherlands. Spain did not look like the team they once were. That teams now know how to counter the tiki-taka did not help their cause, but their downfall is a result of their style of play. Spain looked extremely disorganized on the pitch. There was a clear lack of communication among the players.
Furthermore, most of the players on the team had had a long and exhausting club campaign, as key members played in the Champions League until the very end. Casillas also had a terrible run in the World Cup. Perhaps his woes can be attributed to his age or the psychological wear and tear of long bench stints on Real Madrid. Whatever the cause, Casillas hasn’t been the goalkeeper he once was for some time.
In addition, manager Vicente del Bosque failed to use Atletico Madrid’s players to his advantage. More players from the league-winning team should have started in the World Cup matches, especially against Netherlands. If he had used players like Koke and Juanfran in the first game, perhaps there would have been better communication among his Atletico players (including Diego Costa). And while the Barcelona and Real Madrid players had already won the World Cup, the Atletico players had not; they would have been more hungry for success. Regardless of the cause, Spain’s elimination was definitely a huge upset in the World Cup.
Russia’s group-stage elimination was also an upset, not just in results, but also in the quality of their soccer. Fabio Capello, the highest-earning manager of the World Cup, failed to bring out the best in his team. He tried a defensive strategy where the Russian team would wait for the opposition to attack and then slowly build up and try to score. For most of their group matches, they seemed content with a draw. In the end, their boring approach led to their elimination. For a country with a soccer tradition extending back to the Soviet Era (especially the 1960s), Russia failed to impress soccer fans around the world.
A third upset struck England. Roy Hodgson’s team came into the tournament with a very young squad. This opened them to the possibility of losing early in the tournament, as their main goal was to have the young players gain experience. But a young team is no excuse for poor soccer. Given the considerable young talent, Roy Hodgson failed to make use of his player’s strengths. In contrast, Jurgen Klinsmann managed to successfully couple experience with youth to bring out the best in his players.
Perhaps England is too dependent on Wayne Rooney, making him out to be a better player than he actually is. If Roy Hodgson had started with Ross Barkley in place of Rooney, England could have generated a bit more dynamism. Nevertheless, Rooney’s goal and goal assist suggest that he may still have some role to play in this squad, but perhaps no longer as a star.
The worst part of the World Cup so far has been the referees. The silly penalty call on Fred’s flop in the opening game between Brazil and Croatia was a sign of the mistakes to come. The game between Colombia and Brazil was subject to particularly terrible officiating. The referee failed to give out yellow cards in response to the many harsh tackles on James Rodriguez of Colombia. This led to an extremely physical match resulting in Neymar’s gut-wrenching injury. If the referee had established his authority from the start, the players would not have been comfortable making such harsh and dangerous tackles.
Furthermore, Colombia’s Mario Yepes’ goal was wrongfully disallowed due to an offside call. I could go on listing the faults of the referees, but Colombia’s Falcao tweeted the situation perfectly: “Next time we play, don’t forget to call the refs because [they] didn’t show up today.” Indeed, his comment could describe the officiating of many of the matches in the tournament.
Stars of the World Cup
This World Cup has seen many goals scored, but the one of the biggest surprises has been the goalkeepers, of whom several have made headlines.
First among goalkeepers is Costa Rican Keylor Navas. He came into the tournament in form, having broken a clean sheet record at Spanish Levante and earned one of the highest saves-to-shots ratio in the major leagues. To those unaware of Keylor Navas’ goalkeeping abilities, however, he showcased himself with some great saves that kept Costa Rica going until the penalty shootout in the quarterfinals. His reflexes are incredible, and following his performance in the World Cup, it won’t be a surprise if he makes a jump from Levante to a more prominent European squad.
In second place comes Guillermo Ochoa. Ochoa came into the World Cup as a free agent, having concluded his run at French side Ajaccio. In his last season with the club, he had conceded 71 goals but had memorable performances in some matches, including one in a 1-1 draw against Paris Saint-Germain. In Mexico’s match with Brazil, the relatively unknown goalkeeper’s dive to save Neymar’s header was reminiscent of legendary goalkeeper Gordon Banks’s dive to save a Pele header in the 1970 World Cup.
Through his several tremendous stops in other matches, what drew my attention was that his perfect positioning. In almost every save he made, he didn’t have to move. Instead, the ball just bounced off his body or he saved the ball reflexively. Positioning is extremely important in goalkeeping, and Ochoa’s skill was clearly evident.
Algerian Rais M’Bohli, Nigerian Vincent Enyeama, and American Tim Howard were also among the high-performing goalkeepers. Rais M’Bohli put up an amazing fight against Germany and surely made his name known around the world. Perhaps he’ll manage to make a move from Bulgarian CSKA Sofia to a better team. Vincent Enyeama defended his goal well in the match against France. Tim Howard broke a record for most saves in a World Cup against Belgium. He also showed that he was a true leader as he urged his American side to not give up and attack in the match against Belgium. What more can you want from a goalie?
Although Manuel Neuer is already a well-known goalkeeper, this World Cup, he showed us how he could not only play goalkeeper, but also act like a sweeper. His heat map in the match against Algeria showed that he was quite active outside the box while still keeping his goal safe.
Apart from goalkeepers, the biggest stars of the World Cup so far have probably been James Rodriguez, Lionel Messi and Neymar.
The young Colombian James Rodriguez became the second-youngest player to reach six World Cup goals, after Pele. His six goals are the most scored by any player in the tournament so far, and he will probably win the golden boot. He also added two assists to his goal tallies to show that he can contribute to his team in more than one way.
When Colombia was eliminated, David Luiz was the first to console James Rodriguez, encouraging an entire stadium of Brazilians to give a standing ovation for the young star. Following his rise to prominence, Rodriguez has clubs lining up at Monaco’s door to transfer him.
World Cups for Lionel Messi haven’t always been so successful. For a player of his caliber, he was always expected to score plenty of goals and carry Argentina at least past the quarterfinal, but he failed to do so in 2006 and 2010. This year he is 27, the same age as Diego Maradona when he led Argentina to victory in Mexico in 1986. Messi has already brought Argentina to the semifinals, and his country is wondering if he will replicate Maradona’s feat.
Even if he fails to do so, he has proved himself, playing a central role in almost all of his team’s goals. This comes after a long season at Barcelona where he exhibited questionable performance.
Coming into the World Cup, host Brazil’s hope rested in Neymar. How did Neymar respond? By scoring four goals and providing the energy Brazil needed to pull off the wins. It’s sad to see him go down with a terrible injury. Now, Brazil will have even more reason to win the World Cup. Let’s see if they can win the trophy for Neymar.
David Luiz has also been impressive. His remarkable strike against Colombia proved to be decisive, and he has been solid in the back as well. Arjen Robben has been invaluable for Netherlands. His relentless attacking and seemingly limitless energy have helped Netherlands through to the semifinals.
I now ask you to think about what will stick with us once this World Cup is over: will the spectacular goals and missed opportunities or the moments off the pitch come to mind first? For me, it’s definitely the latter. Whenever I think about the 2014 World Cup, I think about the video of Ghanaian star midfielder Sully Muntari handing out money to the people of the favelas. I think about the Greek national team asking that their World Cup bonuses go to building a new training facility. I think about Sporting Lisbon and Algeria star, Islam Slimani announcing that the Algerian national team’s bonuses will be going to aid Palestinians as they struggle to live in barely human conditions in Gaza.
I think about the giant crowd that gathered to thank a Chilean squad that just missed their shot at the quarterfinals in a tight game with Brazil. I think about the Brazilians that gathered outside the hospital where Neymar was being held after breaking a vertebra. I think about the tears of French winger Mathieu Valbuena and Colombian star James Rodriguez as both their teams were eliminated in the quarterfinals. I think about David Luiz asking an entire stadium of Brazilians to give a standing ovation to James Rodriguez. I think about the hero’s welcome Luis Suarez got as he returned to Uruguay as a martyr of FIFA’s allegedly corrupt rule of soccer. I think about the Netherlands team making their way through the favelas and playing with the kids there.
It is not the goals scored or saved that I think about, but rather moments like these. These are the moments that make soccer or any other sport worth watching. At the end of the day, it is not the wins or the losses obtained, but the emotions we feel. Perhaps this is what the Champions League lacks. The World Cup reminded me once again that soccer is never just soccer, but something much more. That’s why it will always have a special place in the hearts of soccer fans all around the world.