The World Cup. Every 4 years, the world’s best players assemble in an epic tournament full of twists and turns, upsets and blowouts, controversy and calamity, heartbreak and success stories. What’s not to like? Nearly a week in, here are my thoughts on the Copa do Mundo so far.
- Where to start? Why not with the hosts? Brazil, unmistakeable in their canary yellow, marched into the tournament as favorites to win it all for the 6th time in their illustrious history. The new golden generation, you could say, had to win. A defeat – or rather, anything but a win – would be a blow to a proud country with high expectations. The world fancied no one who would have to challenge the Brazilians in their backyard – the stadiums gilded in that distinct hue of gold.
- But nerves caught them flatfooted on the first day. Marcelo scored the first goal of the tournament – but in the wrong net. I wasn’t remotely concerned. This was Brazil, right? They weren’t losing this game. Eventually, luck shone on them, more or less. Neymar’s strike wasn’t anything special, but it counted. Then, Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura called a quite controversial penalty – but more on that later. After Neymar converted the penalty, and Oscar added a third, Brazil had won the opener as expected. But it was far from the convincing display we – the world – had expected from the hosts. It raised the question – are they beatable?
- When you have Guillermo Ochoa as your goalkeeper, that’s already a big help, as Mexico and the whole world learned afterwards. The Mexicans – who weren’t even supposed to be here – were grinding it out, matching the Brazilian giants step-for-step. But “free agent” goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa stole all the headlines. He made several key reflex saves against A Selecao, including the Gordon Banks-esque stop off of a Neymar header in the first half. It was, dare I say, one of the best, if not the best save if I have ever witnessed. A 0-0 draw left me to wonder – has Brazil been overrated this World Cup? Over-hyped? Is the pressure too much to bear? Or maybe they’re just settling in. I’m convinced their final group stage fixture against eliminated Cameroon will help their confidence level.
- December’s World Cup draw brought us three candidates for the “Group of Death”, and in Group B, we had a mouthwatering clash of the 2010 finalists: Van Gaal’s Netherlands’ and Del Bosque’s Spain. But some predicted the ultra-attacking Chileans would catch the two powerhouses with their guard down. Oh, yes, and then there was Australia. We all had a chuckle – they were surely going to get annihilated.
- As I write these words, Spain’s glory days are behind them. At least for this 23 man roster. Tiki-taka as we know it is no more. The generation that won three straight major competitions – Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, the generation that was for a long period of time acknowledged as the best team in football these last years, has finally given way. There was annihilation in this Group, alright, but it was Spain on the receiving end. Robin Van Persie’s fantastic header (which, incidentally, has sparked the newest internet sensation “Persieing”) opened the floodgates on Day 2 of the World Cup. A 5-1 reverse was sweet, sweet revenge for the Oranje. And just hours ago, a fearless Chilean side, buoyed by their fans (and Brazil’s), closed the chapter on one of Spanish football’s best sides ever.
- That Chilean victory also meant that Tim Cahill’s Socceroos were going home. After receiving routs by Brazil and France in friendlies, the Australians sought a change in manager just prior to the big show. Yet, unlike Korea, the Australians were fearless. They gave both Chile and the Netherlands a run for their money – and who’s to say they won’t prevent Spain’s golden age one final “hurrah”?
- Speaking about underdogs, Costa Rica is leading one of the other groups of death, albeit after a single game. Their 3-1 triumph over Uruguay is surely one of the more spectacular moments in their footballing history. Only time will tell if they can pull off a surprise qualification to the Knockout Stages – it won’t be an easy feat, with Italia being their next sparring partners.
- If you’ll permit a little schadenfreude… the mentality among many Koreans is, “If we’re going out, Japan is sure as hell coming down with us.” I’ll admit, there was jubilation in my house when a Cote d’Ivoire side, buoyed by Didier Drogba’s appearance on the pitch, scored two rapid fire goals to sink our neighbors. In just a few short hours, they will square off against a rather weak Greek side. However, defeat for the Blue Samurai could mean elimination. (Hehe.)
- With Spain down for the count and Brazil looking shaky early on, Germany is another team to keep your eye on, as they only have eyes for the prize – the World Cup, that is. They were running Portugal ragged in their 4-0 triumph, but had they not uncharacteristically fluffed some of their opportunities, it could have easily been 5, 6, even 7-0. Joachim Low’s side boasts the likes of Mario Gotze, Philipp Lahm, Mezut Ozil, and yes, the 2010 Golden Boot winner – Thomas Muller. No shortage of talent there. Muller recorded a hat trick against the Portuguese on an absolutely miserable day for them.
- As I pore over the remaining fixtures for this round, some of them catch my attention. Notably, the Battle of the Boatengs (Germany vs Ghana), and we’ll get to see if Ronaldo and Suarez are really healthy as they take on the USA and England respectively in must-win fixtures for their squads.
- A theory is going about the interwebs about the ridiculous number of goals this year is due to the Brazuca flying faster. Some may say “It’s just a f*cking ball”, but keep in mind the that if it was just a ball, we’d buy a load from the local dollar store and use those. Lots of science and research has gone into this ball, especially after the Jabulani catastrophe, and it’s definitely the reason for the onslaught of goals we’re getting this year. According to Arirang News, Jung Sung-Ryong and the Korean keepers were using a smaller ball in training to prepare for the speed of the Brazuca.
- Another topic of controversy this World Cup has been the referees. And especially one 42 year-old from Tokyo, Japan, by the name of Yuichi Nishimura. He was in charge for the opening match of this World Cup, and in the second half, awarded struggling Brazil a rather controversial penalty. Well, to be more frank, it was a clear dive by Fred. At least, it was clear to me, sitting on my couch with popcorn, watching on an HD TV with slow motion replay. To the referee – with thousands, no, tens of thousands screaming at him, he was pressured into the call. his raises the question – do we need Video Reviews in Football? Does the Beautiful Game need a little makeover? Hockey has it. Football – I mean – Gridiron has it. Baseball has it. Cricket has it. Questions, questions…
- Croatians, however, were understandably less than pleased. Their passionate supporters took to Wikipedia to, um, exact their “revenge”? His Wikipedia profile went a little something like this after the game:
Yuichi Nishimura is a Brazilian football referee […]. His very unorthodox upbringing gave him eyes with which he can’t see if someone plays with their head, hand or leg.
- Wikipedia has semi-protected the page. Nishimura has been demoted to fourth official for Ben William’s crew for the time being
Funnily enough, this whole Wikipedia vandalism thing caught on:
Not done just yet…
The World Cup has had no shortages of controversies. From poor refereeing decisions, to angry protestors, to the invasive paparazzi, to security concerns, especially when hundreds of ticketless Chilean fans stormed the Media Centre at the Maracana, even knocking over a wall or two!
But the World Cup also has the power to unite a nation. Whenever Brazil sings their national anthem, refusing to stop until the first verse is finished, the music irrelevant and inaudible over their own voices, you can feel it. With the players in tears, you can see it. True national pride.
The World Cup can also propel a player into the spotlight. I think Guillermo Ochoa’s agent better check his voicemail. I certainly never heard of him before, nor had I ever heard about John Brooks. But his winner against Ghana is now something etched in the history books forever. Spotlight isn’t always a great thing though. Igor Akinfeev’s howler is right up there for “Fail of the Tournament”, similar to Rob Green in 2010. (It must be a case of Capello-itis.)
What I’m getting at is that we have so many moments that are going to come to mind years later when we think of “Brazil 2014”. And you know what the best part is? We’re not even a week in.