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Niksa: Final thoughts on 2014 World Cup, Part 1

When the last of the fireworks at the World Cup closing ceremony had disappeared into the night, I turned off my TV and immediately opened my laptop to type this column. The World Cup had just ended, and I had witnessed a hard-fought, nerve-racking World Cup final that saw the unbreakable Germans narrowly eke out the colorful Argentines.

To some, it may have been a drab, uneventful final, but I thought the game had every element you could possibly want: brilliant defensive performances from both sides, good goalkeeping and a sublime goal that was scored deep into extra time. In my opinion, I think it was fitting that Germany won. Die Mannschaft had done all of the hard work by escaping the “Group of Death” and defeating host Brazil in stunning fashion, all the while playing such an aesthetically-pleasing brand of football.

With Germany crowned champions and the World Cup put on hold for the next four years, I think that the world can finally reminisce on the memories of the World Cup it has just witnessed. It was a World Cup that had its share of controversy, mixed in with some brilliant World Cup performances. There were teams that were shockingly eliminated in the group stages (see Spain), while there were teams that became the “Cinderellas” of the World Cup (see Costa Rica).

Overall, this tournament, with its newly-implemented goal-line technology and vast array of teams from all over the world, was much more visually appealing (and much less controversial) than the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa.

I believe this World Cup will be remembered in three storylines: the unexpected decline of the old, established soccer powers, the incredible goalkeeping throughout the Cup and the improved refereeing, and the newly implemented goal-line technology. While this World Cup may have been overshadowed by protests and construction accidents preceding the month-long tournament, I believe this World Cup more than lived up to the hype created by the Brazilian and world media.

***

The first storyline by which this World Cup will be remembered is the decline of the old, established soccer powers. In 2010, the 16 teams eliminated in the group stage were either inexperienced national teams or teams that simply lacked the talent to compete. Slovenia, North Korea, Honduras, Cameroon, New Zealand, Algeria, Australia and Denmark made up half the teams eliminated after three games, and most of these teams were never expected to advance to the knockout round.

The only two teams that turned in shockingly poor performances at that World Cup were France and Italy, the two teams that had competed in the World Cup final in 2006. Since Brazil, Chile, Portugal, Spain, Uruguay, England and the Netherlands all advanced at the 2010 World Cup, the best teams in the tournament could compete against one another, allowing fans to witness the best that soccer had to offer.

This year, however, was a different story, as relative soccer upstarts advanced to the last 16 at the expense of some long-time powers. More specifically, while Costa Rica, Switzerland, Colombia, Greece, Nigeria, Belgium and Algeria advanced after the three-game group format, some of soccer’s most historically successful teams were left wondering where it all went wrong. Spain, England, Italy and Portugal were all eliminated from the World Cup much earlier than expected. How could this have happened, you may ask? There are two main reasons: age and over-reliance on star offensive players.

For Spain, England and Italy, it is Father Time that has led to their unexpected demise. The average age of the Spanish roster was 28 years, which would give most fans the impression that this team was still in its prime. However, the average age of the Spanish midfield was 30 years old, one of the oldest average ages of a midfield at this World Cup. With midfielders Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta arguably past their prime, Spain’s Group A opponents were given the freedom to do something no team did at the last World Cup: overrun Spain’s midfield. The Netherlands arguably did this to greatest effect, using long, accurate balls from its midfielders to find open forwards in the 18-yard box. The result: a 5-1 drubbing of Spain, a result that was almost as shocking as the Brazil-Germany fixture.

For England and Italy, age has been a main reason for the demise of their national teams for the last two World Cups now. At the 2014 World Cup, the average age of the English roster was 27 years old. While England’s roster may have appeared to be a well-balanced mix of experienced veterans and youthful World Cup debutants, one must look deeper at its roster to find the problems. The one main issue for England at this World Cup was its defense, and it was not surprising to find that the average age of England’s starting defense was about 30 years old. Playing against Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez and Italian phenom Mario Balotelli, England’s older fullbacks and center backs had trouble keeping up with these mobile, cunning strikers, allowing both of these strikers to score game-winning goals for their respective countries.

Finally, Italy has been one of the most underperforming countries in these last two World Cups. For all of the talk that the Brazilian national team humiliated its own fans, I think Italy has more than disgraced its loyal fan base. Age was the bane of Italy’s existence in 2010, when it finished at the bottom of a group composed of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. In 2010, Italy’s starting defense, like England’s at this World Cup, had an average age of about 30 years old, making it susceptible to conceding goals from quick set pieces or counterattacks.

At the 2014 World Cup, it wasn’t Italy’s defense that became its undoing, but rather its old central midfielders. The combined age of central midfielders Thiago Motta, Daniele de Rossi and Andrea Pirlo was 96 years old. Costa Rica and Uruguay, the two teams that beat the Italians in their group, were able to score a single goal and then simply defend for the rest of the game.

Both of these teams knew that although Italy’s central midfield was creative and compact, their lack of speed would allow teams to take uncontested shots from outside the box, as well as control the possession. Although Italy has talent at the forward and wing midfielder positions, the lack of youth at the center of the pitch was the main reason for its early exit.

Combined, Spain, England and Italy have won six World Cups. In addition, the three nations have also reached the round of 16 six times, placed fourth three times and reached the quarterfinals nine times. Although Portugal has not been as successful in the World Cup as these three teams, it nevertheless was expected to contend and reach the knockout round. The main cause of its demise: the over-reliance on one talented offensive player, making it one-dimensional.

For Portugal, it was always going to be hard competing in the “Group of Death.” With the U.S., Germany, Ghana and Portugal in the same group, most World Cup analysts believed it would be Germany and Portugal advancing. Even though Portugal ran through its most talented player, Cristiano Ronaldo, it wasn’t wrong to think that the likes of Pepe, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho would provide the necessary support for their talisman.

Unfortunately for Portugal, these three key players really did not contribute anything for Portugal on either side of the ball. In fact, it was Pepe who was sent to the locker room for an early shower after receiving a 35th minute red card against Germany. The most telling statistic about Portugal at this World Cup was the number of shots that Cristiano Ronaldo took against Germany and Ghana, Portugal’s first and last group games.

In total, Ronaldo took 16 of his 23 total shots in both of those games, but could only score once. In all three group games, Meireles and Moutinho combined for four shots, or one-fourth of the total shots that Ronaldo took in two matches. Frankly, it is an embarrassing statistic, one that hopefully will convince Portugal coach Paulo Bento to add at least three talented backup strikers to assist Ronaldo if his team qualifies for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Likewise, for Uruguay, even though it advanced from its group, the 2014 World Cup will still be viewed as a disappointment. Most neutral fans were shocked that Uruguay was upset 3-1 by upstart Costa Rica, but I would argue otherwise, as the injury to Luis Suarez before the fixture against Costa Rica was never going to be easy to overcome. Sure, Edinson Cavani has quality, but he is a poacher, not an off-the-ball threat like Suarez. In fact, Cavani, Abel Hernandez (Suarez’s replacement) and Cristian Stuani combined for four shots against Costa Rica, with Cavani taking all four shots.

I think Uruguay was also affected by the psychological effect of Suarez’s four-month ban from international/domestic soccer in its match against Colombia. Not only was Suarez the team’s best player, but he was also its emotional leader and the driving force behind the team. Suarez always forced multiple men to defend him, but once he was suspended, Colombia could use its defenders to assist its midfielders instead of marking Uruguay’s forwards.

In turn, once Colombian defenders were allowed the freedom to roam on the offensive side of the field, Uruguay’s forwards had to track back to assist their under-siege defense, thus rendering the Uruguayan offense into a non-factor. In the last 15 minutes in its round of 16 match against Colombia, Uruguay took only one shot on target. This statistic shows not only how tired the Uruguayan forwards were, but also just how much Suarez means to the team when he is on the field.

***

As the old soccer powers that dominated the 20th century begin to rebuild, a new generation of stars are now starting to take over the spotlight. Quite simply, there were so many fantastic individual performances for all of us. Although there was some inspired play by just about every team at this World Cup (except Cameroon), I would like to focus on some of the most unheralded performers on the field: the goalkeepers. Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, American goalkeeper Tim Howard and Costa Rican goalie Keylor Navas were all incredible for their respective sides. Although German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer won FIFA’s Golden Glove award, which is awarded to the best goalkeeper of the tournament, I think each of these goalkeepers has etched his name into World Cup history.

Mexican netminder Guillermo Ochoa, was undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers in the group stage. After needing to make only one save against Cameroon, the goalkeeper nicknamed “Memo” turned in a legendary performance against Brazil, making six quality saves. In particular, a diving stop to repel a Neymar header, as well as a last-gasp intervention to keep out Thiago Silva’s effort, led one soccer commentator to ask if Mexican fans were building a statue of Ochoa in Mexico City.

The most telling sign of Ochoa’s quality was in the Mexico-Holland knockout round game, when Mexico was eliminated 2-1 on a controversial Klaas Jan-Huntelaar penalty kick. Ochoa made one incredible save to deflect a shot on goal onto the crossbar, but he gained most of his accolades for marshaling his defense and handling crosses. Even though Mexico lost, Ochoa was still named Man of the Match for his performance, just showing how influential he is whenever he steps onto the field.

The second goalkeeper on this list is one that the American sports media has been obsessed with ever since he returned to the U.S. from Brazil: goalkeeper Tim Howard. Howard may be 35 years old, but he sure put on a show at arguably his last World Cup. After saving three shots against Ghana in the United States’ opening fixture, Howard turned in a Man of the Match performance against Portugal. With the U.S. a goal down, Portuguese winger Nani hit a shot that Howard somehow tipped onto the post. He then used his catlike reflexes to repel Eder’s rebound effort that seemed destined for the back of the net. It was a save that changed the game for the U.S., because if Eder’s effort had gone in, the U.S. would have been down 2-0 to Portugal, with its World Cup dream in serious jeopardy.

After making five saves against Germany to conclude group play, Howard and the United States faced off against tournament dark horse Belgium. It did not take long for the U.S. netminder to be reminded of Belgium’s quality, as he was forced to parry a Divock Origi shot in the first minute of play. That would serve as a harbinger for the rest of the game, as the Belgians laid siege to the U.S. goal with wave after wave of attacks. Every Howard save seemed to be better than the first — a Dries Mertens header acrobatically tipped over the bar, a Kevin Mirallas effort turned away by Howard’s ankle, an Eden Hazard effort parried, followed by a Origi piledriver repelled.

When Belgian playmaker Kevin de Bruyne swept in the first goal of the game in the 93rd minute, it was as if a Belgian boxer had finally delivered a knockout punch to Howard’s midsection. After the goal, he lay slumped, winded but not out. What did Howard do after that goal? He got back up and saved another shot, this time a Lukaku effort.

When it was all said and done, Howard had saved 15 shots, a new World Cup record. Howard was voted Man of the Match, garnering the respect of Belgian, American and Brazilian fans alike at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador. Howard may not have saved his team, but it was damn close to a near perfect effort. It remains to be seen whether this really is Howard’s last World Cup, but if 2014 turns out to be his swan song with the USMNT, his final game will be the equivalent to a cowboy riding his stallion into the sunset.

The final goalkeeper I would like to recognize for his efforts in this World Cup is Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Navas plays for Levante, a small La Liga side on the eastern region of the Iberian Peninsula. He has made 46 appearances for the side, but other than those who have followed La Liga, he was not a well-known goalkeeper before this World Cup by any means.

When Costa Rica took the field in its opening game against Uruguay in Fortaleza, many saw the Costa Ricans as heavy underdogs. Few would have predicted Los Ticos to not only win the group, but to advance to the quarterfinals before losing in penalty kicks to the Netherlands. Although Costa Rica was led by a handful of key players like Giancarlo Gonzalez, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell and Oscar Duarte, their main attraction was Navas. After needing to save only two shots against Uruguay, Navas began to grow in confidence, making four saves against Italy as Costa Rica shocked the Azzurri to advance to the knockout round. Navas then put in a Man of the Match performance in Los Ticos’s final group game against England, smartly saving a Daniel Sturridge strike with his knees before tipping a clever Wayne Rooney chip shot over the bar.

If casual soccer fans thought those goalkeeping performances were amazing, then they would be out of superlatives by the time Navas had finished his World Cup campaign. Navas had his best game as a goalkeeper against Greece, practically standing on his head to keep his team’s Cinderella run alive. He made a top-drawer save to deny Greek striker Dimitrios Salpingidis from opening the scoring before making an utterly brilliant save to deny Theofanis Gekas and Greece a trip to the quarterfinals. Navas was deservedly named Man of the Match for his performance, and leading his team to a quarterfinal date with the Netherlands.

With Tim Howard and the U.S. eliminated from the World Cup, the only team left from CONCACAF was Costa Rica. Like Howard, Navas gave everything he had to make sure that he would represent his region in the semifinals. The goalkeeper denied a Robin van Persie screamer destined for the net before saving a Memphis Depay strike with his legs. Before someone could say “Wesley Sneijder,” the netminder denied the Dutch midfielder’s swerving free kick with one hand. Navas even came up big for his side in extra time, saving a Ron Vlaar header.

In the end, it is a real shame that Navas could not save any of the four penalty kicks that gave the Netherlands the shootout victory. The man who had won Man of the Match three times in a row just needed to save one to inspire his teammates to win it for him. Although the Cinderella run for Costa Rica ended against the Netherlands in Salvador, Navas, just like his fellow goalkeepers Ochoa and Howard, etched his name into World Cup lore forever.

To read Part II, click here.

  • Guest

    Wow, a true masterpiece. Saying that I can’t wait for Part II is a massive understatement.

  • A Stanford fan

    Very impressive details and knowledge of the soccer teams. A well written article and it’s a treat to read. Can’t wait to read Part II.