We continue World Cup Month with a look at the best moments of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Group Stage.
Oh man. I’m exhausted. After 15 days, 48 games, 136 goals and one vampiric striker, us futbolistas finally have a day off. I don’t want it. World Cup withdrawal is already setting in, the post-match petit-mort after the footballgasm, the creeping feeling that we’re more than halfway through and that after the Copa there is but nothingness. I feel this way at the end of every Group Stage, when it becomes clear that the three-a-day dose is over and the serious stuff is about to begin. We’re through the heavy dependency and onto the speedballs of soccer. The knockout stages are upon us. Before we fly into proper tournament football, let’s have one more fleeting glance, a post-coital prize-giving for what we’ve seen so far.
The big names in this World Cup sure have delivered. The players that immediately spring to mind – Muller, Messi, Neymar with four goals, Robben and Benzema with 3 – are the stars that we all hoped were going to shine. Let’s go then for a man who came to Brazil without the same recognition, but with the hopes of his nation firmly on his shoulders.
James Rodriguez might not be the most obvious name to casual football fans but to Colombia he is the main man, tasked with taking over from injured talisman Falcao. He’s not let anyone down. Three goals in three games is good enough on its own, but it’s the way that Rodriguez has dictated play, shifting the tempo and the direction of attacks, making the big moves at the perfect moment, that has made Colombia one of the best sides to watch so far. One of the joys of the World Cup is watching players go from good to great, to announce themselves on the world stage; James Rodriguez has done that and more.
We’re spoiled for choice here. We’ve had a record number of comebacks, leads changing hands like an indecisive dog-walker, late goals, early goals; in fact just goals. South Africa 2010 was the World Cup where we tried to believe that goals were overrated. Pure pish. If Brazil 2014 is about the return of the striker (or the death of the defender), then let’s go for a game with goals, with comebacks, near-upsets and pure drama. It’s got to be Australia-Netherlands.
Arjen Robben streaked clear to put the Dutch in front, only to be immediately pegged back by Tim Cahill’s wonder-volley, more on which later. The Australians, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, placed in a group with the two previous finalists and hipster-favorites Chile, then did the unthinkable and took the lead through a Mile Jedinak penalty, awarded with the requisite level of controversy. The Dutch, fresh off the back of their Spanish conquest, again came back, Robin van Persie finishing, before Memphis Depay, fired in from 25-yards to win it for the Oranje.
The Aussies managed to concede nine goals and lose every game in Brazil, yet go home with pride and no little encouragement, having gone toe-to-toe with the best, gotten a bloody nose but landed a few of their own. The Dutch knew they’d been in a scrap and showed some of the mettle that makes them contenders in Brazil. It’s a cliché to say that this match had everything, but it was pretty damn close. OK, nobody got bitten.
Managers have been a little low-key at this World Cup. We’ve not even seen one sent off yet. Mostly it’s been the besuited, reflective types, considering their decisions, whispering sweet nothings in the ears of their players during water breaks and complaining to the media about the heat, as if there was anything they could do about it. One man though, is shining through the mediocrity, screaming and hugging and falling over. Miguel Herrera, stand up and be proud. Actually, don’t. If Miguel Herrera showed any more pride he might explode.
The Mexican manager – their fourth in six months, if you can believe that – has been straight-up box office, doing the proverbial kicking-every-ball routine par excellence, bawling at referees, joining in pile-ons with his players, celebrating with the crowd. Don’t let that fool you though, Herrera knows his stuff as well. Behind the pantomime, he’s constructed a team that knows exactly what it’s doing.
Mexico play a 5-3-2 with a libero, a delightfully ’90s approach to football, but they have the players that suit that system. As England, Portugal and Italy have proved, football isn’t about getting your best players on the field and hoping they win the game for you, it’s about getting a system and fitting players into it.
Herrera consciously leaves his most famous player, Chicharito Hernandez, on the bench, knowing that if necessary he can change it. Against Cameroon, the system worked perfectly, against Brazil he changed it up to counter the threats of Neymar et al, and (astounding goalkeeping assisted) it worked. The coup de grace came in the decisive final game, where Mexico passed and passed, Croatia ran and ran, and with half an hour to go, Herrera unleashed Chicharito on the knackered Croatian defense, leading to three goals in 10 minutes and a resounding passage to the Round of 16 for El Tri, cueing, of course, the manic scenes on the Mexican bench.
There can be only one place to start. Tim Cahill’s volley against the Netherlands, taken at waist height from a 50-meter cross-field pass defied belief, the always aesthetically pleasing kiss off the crossbar on the way in crowning what will surely be the goal of the tournament. If we see one better, we’ll have been blessed. It passed through thraik and entered the rarified air of outright thunderbastard.
There are some honorable mentions though, to dole out. Robin van Persie’s diving header vs. Spain, Jermaine Jones’ curler for the United States. Xherdan Shaqiri smashed in a traumtor so good that it made the Honduran goalie fall over after it was already in the net. You can take your pick of Leo Messi’s, but it seems like we’ll be having a contest just for him by the time we reach the Maracana on July 13.
You know what I said about football being a team game? There is an exception, of course. Sometimes, all you can do is look at your plans and look at the zero next to your name on the scoreboard and wonder what force of nature got in the way. For Big Phil Scolari and Neymar, and millions of Brazilians up and down the land, that was Memo Ochoa.
Neymar’s look, as his header was palmed away midway through the first half, said it all. To beat this guy, Brazil were going to have to do something extraordinary. They couldn’t. Miguel Herrera called it the best goalkeeping performance in the history of the World Cup. The contender for that crown, Gordon Banks, the English keeper who defied Pele’s Brazil in 1970, trended worldwide. Memo, out of contract and without a club, was linked with everything short of the papacy in the rumor columns of the papers the next morning. He had been playing for Ajaccio AC, relegated from Ligue 1 in France. He’ll be playing somewhere better next year.
Karim Benzema (FRA)
The goal of the tournament competition would be a lot more difficult if his Cahill-esque volley hadn’t been half a second after the final whistle.
Rafa Marquez (MEX), Mario Yepes (COL)
Still performing at the highest level despite a combined age of 735.
Giorgios Samaras (GRE)
No goals in two years, last-minute penalty to stay in the World Cup? No biggie.
Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno (ESPN)
My new favorite commentating duo.
Check out the rest of our World Cup Month features here.