So many of the world's biggest stars have lived up to their billing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But the tournament's defining characteristics thus far have been depth and drama, and it has made a great sporting spectacle even greater.
Thus far, 94 goals have been scored in 32 World Cup matches. Five players have scored three goals, and another nine have scored two. Some of the world's biggest names have come up big in the goals department -- the Netherlands' Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, Germany's Thomas Müller, France's Karim Benzema, Argentina's Lionel Messi, Brazil's Neymar, Uruguay's Luis Suarez, America's Clint Dempsey, Australia's Tim Cahill -- while others have made names for themselves with brilliant play. Ecuador's Enner Valencia has three goals, while Colombia's young James Rodriguez and Ghana's André Ayew have two.
This has been a brilliant tournament thus far, in other words.
Just as every John Isner set should start at 6-6 and every LSU football game should start in the fourth quarter, every U.S. World Cup match should just start in the 80th minute.
Two U.S. matches have produced seven goals: three in the first 80 minutes of each contest and four in the final 10 (and stoppage time). Granted, drama is nothing new for an American team that scored two goals after the 80th minute and allowed one in four matches at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. But Jürgen Klinsmann's squad has figured out how to raise the anxiety bar in Brazil. Ghana's André Ayew scored to tie the U.S. in the 82nd minute of the opening match, then John Brooks broke the tie four minutes later. And on Sunday, Clint Dempsey bellied in (okay, "othered" in) a go-ahead goal in the 81st minute before Cristiano Ronaldo found Silvestre Varela for the a dagger of a tie in the closing seconds.
In one match, the U.S. scored the fifth-quickest goal in World Cup history; in the other, the U.S. allowed the latest regulation goal in World Cup group stage history. This is getting silly. And fantastic. And despite (or because of) the drama, this squad is in decent position to advance to the knockout round. A win or draw against mighty Germany gets the job done, and a loss and a Portugal win over Ghana will likely get America through (because of goal differential), and even with a loss and a Ghana win over Portugal, the Americans' odds aren't awful.
Group play is a funny thing. Varela's goal may eventually eliminate the U.S. from the competition, in which case it might be the most painful goal ever allowed by the USMNT. Or, four days from now, we might just find that it delayed the inevitable. We have to wait a few days to find out whether it hurts. It's an American heartbreaker that might not actually end up breaking any American hearts, instead just delaying gratification (and severely damaging the odds of not only advancing from the Group of Death, but winning it).
Michael Bradley completed 60 of 69 passes against Portugal, a perfectly solid 87 percent completion rate. He was 6-for-9 on long passes, and he was as steady as could be -- 16-for-16 -- passing within America's defensive third. He by all means performed better against Portugal than he had against Ghana, and America had the favorites on the ropes in the final seconds, in part, because of his work.
But Bradley's redemption story fell apart when he turned the ball over in said closing seconds, leading to one more (successful) Portugal chance. If the U.S. do not advance, it is his reputation that will end up having taken the biggest hit, fair or (mostly) unfair.
There are 27 teams still eligible to win the 2014 World Cup. Iran is still alive, and Spain is not. Honduras is still alive, and England is not. The No. 1 and No. 10 teams in the FIFA rankings are gone with one-third of group play matches unplayed. This tournament has been a stunner so far, both in terms of the number of incredibly fun matches and in some of the results.
Not including stoppage time, Belgium has led for 16 minutes in this World Cup and trailed for 45. The Red Devils also have two wins. In their opening match, they tied Algeria with a 69th-minute header and took the lead in the 79th minute. In Sunday's match against Russia, they broke a deadlock in the 87th minute with a goal from 19-year old substitute Divock Origi.
Belgium dominated Algeria in terms of ball control and attacking, but the Russia match was a nearly perfect deadlock; possession was nearly 50-50, as were most of the passing stats. Plus, Russia actually generated more scoring attempts. Belgium were called offsides seven times (Russia: zero) and gave the Russians 21 free kicks. But Origi's goal gave them enough points to clinch advancement.
Because of the wins, Belgium has plenty of time to begin looking like the dark-horse tournament favorite so many said they were. And if they find their form, early-tournament struggles won't matter at all. But they haven't necessarily looked the part so far, and assuming they go ahead and win Group H, they won't exactly intimidate whoever advances as Group G's runner-up (likely either the U.S. or Ghana).
Gervinho has scored 16 goals for his country and 66 in his professional career as a winger/forward. He is known for going for the spectacular over the mundane from time to time, and it leads to some frustrating moments.
This was not one of those frustrating moments.
Soccer matches can take on, and disregard, countless narratives over the course of 90 minutes. In Holland's first match against Spain, most of the first half centered around the aging Spanish team's run of success, its 1-0 lead, and Holland's long (for Holland) odds of success in this tournament. But then Robin van Persie scored on a brilliant header late in the first half, and the game was tied heading into halftime. And then, of course, the second half happened. By the 80th minute, Spain trailed, 5-1, and the story had completely switched to End of Dynasty terms.
For the final 20-25 minutes of the Netherlands' proceeding win over Australia, the match had settled in on a "young challenger bravely battles historical power before fading down the stretch" definition. Australia produced moments of true quality but eventually fell, 3-2.
Over the course of about 11 minutes, though, a Dutch doomsday scenario began to build. In the 47th minute, van Persie was given his second yellow card of the tournament, which means he will miss the third Dutch match against Chile. And in the 54th minute, Aussie Mile Jedinak scored on a penalty to give the Aussies a 2-1 lead. The Netherlands had emerged as a potential tournament favorite following their destruction of Spain, but suddenly it looked as if they might get upset and need a result against Chile, without van Persie, to advance.
And then van Persie scored in the 58th minute. And Memphis Depay scored on a swerving, long shot 10 minutes later to put the Dutch ahead for good. This nightmare scenario never fully developed, but it was on the table.
Meanwhile, it took about eight minutes for Cameroon's World Cup to come crashing to the ground. Not much was expected of the Indomitable Lions this time around, and they came to Brazil amid a team protest regarding pay. And after a 1-0 loss to Mexico that could have been quite a bit worse, the Lions officially collapsed. In the 40th minute, Alex Song elbowed Mario Mandžuki? and was sent off. Down a goal and a man, Cameroon allowed a crippling second goal in the 48th minute. And then a third goal, and then a fourth. Mandžuki? scored the last two, and Cameroon, which has yet to score and only forced Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa to make one save, were officially eliminated.
There are six Liverpool players on England's national team: defender Glen Johnson, midfielders Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson, winger Raheem Sterling, and forwards Daniel Sturridge and Rickie Lambert. A seventh, midfield Adam Lallana, could end up at Liverpool sooner than later.
Unfortunately for England, another Liverpool player scored two of the three goals in the Uruguay-England match: Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan scored a go-ahead goal in the 39th minute, then scored the game winner in the 85th, and when Costa Rica upset Italy the next day, the Brits were eliminated.
If the knockout stage began today, Africa and North/Central America would combine to qualify six of the 16 advancing teams, and Europe would qualify five. This would be rather impressive considering CAF and CONCACAF qualified nine squads, while UEFA was allotted 13.
Just as the narrative can change countless times during a match, plenty can still change over the course of one more round of round-robin matches. Mexico could fall to Croatia and get eliminated. Ivory Coast could slip up against Greece. Algeria could very easily fall to Russia. The United States and Ghana could change places. We probably shouldn't pass final judgment just yet. But it's an interesting subplot in development. In 1998, the World Cup expanded from 24 to 32 teams, in part to give more berths to areas in which soccer was developing. The 1994 tournament featured the same 13 European teams, but Africa was given just three spots, and CONCACAF was given 2.25 (two guaranteed and one a part of a three-team playoff). Asia was given just two as well and now gets 4.5.
The developing soccer world got more seats of the table but hasn't done much with them. In the four 32-team World Cups, Europe (19) and South America (nine) have accounted for 28 of 32 quarterfinal bids. Africa has had two (Ghana in 2010, Senegal in 2002), CONCACAF has had one (U.S. in 2002), and Asia has had one (South Korea in 2002). After the unique diversity of the 2002 World Cup, Europe and South America have accounted for 15 of 16 quarterfinal spots, and all eight semifinal spots, in the last two tournaments.
The depth of quality in this World Cup has been fantastic. And CONCACAF and CAF squads have been a large reason for that. For all we know, we'll end up seeing the same thing this time around. South America, which had its most successful World Cup in quite a while four years ago, sending four teams to the quarterfinals, has looked fantastic thus far. Three of the continent's six qualifiers (Chile, Colombia, and Argentina) have clinched a spot in the knockout round, a fourth (Brazil) is in excellent shape, and the other two (Uruguay and Ecuador) are currently tied for second place in their group. And while Spain and England have both been eliminated, the steamy, swampy climate hasn't prevented the Netherlands, France, and Germany from still looking like contenders.
When the dust settles, soccer's two dominant continents may once again end up locking down the quarterfinal bids. But between Costa Rica's victory over Italy, Mexico's wonderful draw with Brazil, and the United States' "heart-breaking" draw with world No. 4 Portugal, CONCACAF has more than justified its allotment of bids. And while Cameroon has obviously struggled, Ghana's draw with Germany, Algeria's 4-2 win over South Korea, and both the Ivory Coast's and Nigeria's positioning within their respective groups have reflected well on CAF as well.
Hell, even Asia has done alright -- Iran nearly tied Argentina with its 9-1-0 formation, Australia (part of the AFC federation) led the Netherlands in the second half, and both Japan and South Korea could still advance with wins over disinterested group leaders (Colombia and Belgium, respectively).
The depth of quality in this World Cup has been fantastic. It has resulted in countless great matches and minimal ground-and-pound, nil-nil draws. And the quality of CONCACAF and CAF squads in particular has been a large reason for that quality of play.