Can I interest you in March Madness spiked with second chances? Because that’s what we’ve got on our hands. After a little more than a week of World Cup action, we’ve seen the defending champions go crashing out, the hosts wobble, new stars rise, and established stars cement their place in soccer boot ads for years to come. We’ve seen a German-born defender become an American hero, a Brazilian-born striker be partially blamed for Spain’s early exit, and Mexico’s manager turned into an anime character.
One week in, and three groups — A, B, and C — are more or less settled. By the end of Friday, 26 games will be in the books, and the picture will be even clearer. The action has been so intense, the leads so unsafe (seven come-from-behind victories as of Friday morning!), and the play so electric (66 goals in the first 23 games!) that I have almost welcomed the occasional Iran-Nigeria match. Those tilts are like Japanese rock gardens: I can go in, meditate on nothingness while the game is on, and come back to this astral plane.
There will be no time for contemplation this weekend, with the homer highlight being USA-Portugal on Sunday evening. Before we look forward, though, let’s look back at some winners and losers from the first week of the 2014 World Cup. (Yes, I know you feel like the Grail Knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it really has been only one week.)
Diego Simeone is not managing a team in the World Cup, but he might as well be. For those not familiar: Simeone is the Argentine boss of La Liga champions Atlético Madrid. He has Count Chocula hair and he almost fought Raphael Varane in the Champions League final. This is funny because Raphael Varane is a player for Real Madrid, and Simeone is a middle-aged manager, and the Champions League final is not a back-alley brawl. All that said, I don’t think you could find a bookie in the Western world who would have given you odds in favor of Varane in that fight.
Atlético may have lost that game and the Champions League to Real, but despite a huge economic disadvantage, they were able to smash up the traditional duopoly of Spanish football to win their first league title in 18 years.
How did Simeone do this? Here’s his secret recipe: Get 11 guys who will die for you, go to heaven, come back to life, and die for you again. Train them to know when to batten down the hatches and when to flood ’em (translation: when to press and when to sit deep in their own half), get yourself a couple of hit men up front, and be in better shape than everyone else.
As Spike Friedman pointed out in his post on the ups and downs experienced by attacking full-backs in the Cup, this is a decent blueprint for success in a tournament. You don’t have to have the rhythm and timing of Spain, or have technically gifted players like Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. You just need to have the athletes and the commitment to a style of play.
World Cups are tactical conventions. At the end, there is usually some kind of consensus on the most effective way to play. No matter how hard it might be to replicate, you can bet that teams all over the world will try. After the success of Spain in the 2008 and 2012 Euros and the 2010 World Cup, possession was the idea being bandied about. Now, it’s “playing on the counter.” Part of the fun of following this sport is seeing the club game influence the international and national game — Barcelona influences Spain, Borussia Dortmund influences Germany. You are eavesdropping on a philosophical conversation.
Simeone, mixing bits of Jose Mourinho’s pragmatism and discipline and Marcelo Bielsa’s aggression, provided a blueprint for how underdog teams could get out of their groups and get some steam in their engines. And some of these teams in the Cup are playing like runaway trains.
Chile and Colombia
Case in point! Outside of any rooting interests, Chile and Colombia have been my two favorite teams in the tournament. Chile has ransacked Group B, beating Australia and ending the Spain reign by putting them on the plane in a considerable amount of pain. Tip your waitress.
They’ve been playing a slightly more conservative style than they did under Bielsa in 2010 — which is sort of like saying jumping out of a plane with a parachute is a slightly more conservative style of sky-diving. Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal have been wonderful, and Gary Medel has been tough in the middle of the park, while avoiding those “back off, Warchild!” moments that can sometimes derail his game.
Colombia has won back-to-back games in a World Cup for the first time in its history and has clinched a spot in the knockout rounds for the first time since 1990. Monaco forward James Rodriguez has been one of the standout players so far. People rated Colombia before the tournament, and it got a nice draw with Group C, but with its iconic striker, Radamel Falcao, missing with a knee injury, some were worried it might not have the firepower to make noise in Brazil. Manager Jose Pekerman has some really talented passers, but the thing you notice is how vertical their attack is — Colombia is constantly burrowing up the field toward goal. And with Rodriguez in this kind of form (he’s scored in his last four matches for Colombia), who needs Falcao?
Luis Suárez and Robin van Persie
That being said, it sure helps to have a superhero up front.
I was in the car with a friend the other day who said, in so many words, “Man, Robin van Persie and Luis Suárez are really good.” He’s right. They are. And when games are this tight, guys like that can mean the difference between one point and three, and going through or going home. RvP has three goals in two games, and is basically Netherlands’ insurance policy. Suárez is the difference between Uruguay losing to Costa Rica and beating England. When you look at how profligate Brazil and Spain have been in front of goal, you realize the importance of having a world-class finisher who can bail you out of tight games. No offense, Fred.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s German Exchange Program
We haven’t gotten to see any Julian Green yet, but with one ricocheted header, John Anthony Brooks really got people hyped up on the idea of being the son of an American serviceman stationed abroad, right? Nothing like seeing a true hero rise from the unlikeliest of American towns … like Berlin.
Look, I know there may be some residual bitterness about Landon Donovan being left home, but I kind of like the pan-American feel of the USMNT. And I don’t mind it on the other sides — be it Germany or Spain. I’m sure, like most things in global soccer, there is an opportunistic and parasitic element to the recruitment of players from other countries, but John Anthony Brooks sure seemed proud when he scored on Monday.
Best World Cup tweeter?
Yeah, best World Cup tweeter.
If you watch the Premier League, you can’t help but feel an attachment to a lot of the guys on the England team. I know this is kind of like saying that if you watch Transformers movies, you can’t help but feel an attachment to John Turturro, but you catch my meaning. Whatever. I feel a lot of attachment to these guys. England is not a better team than Italy, Uruguay, and possibly even Costa Rica, and Diego Godin fouls aside, they do not deserve to go through to the knockouts. But Steven Gerrard has not deserved the last three months he’s had.
Back in April, Gerrard slipped, literally, in a crucial match against Chelsea, allowing Demba Ba to score on Liverpool, essentially giving the Premier League title to Manchester City. It was a cruel wake-up call to fans who had been dreaming of the Reds winning the First Division title for the first time in 24 years. Weeks before, Liverpool had beaten City and Gerrard, the team captain, had broken down at the final whistle.
He wanted this title so badly, and it was within touching distance. It was one of the most arresting, real emotional moments of the sports year. One slip against Chelsea and it was all gone.
So it was tough to see Gerrard, also the captain of England, at fault for Suárez’s game winner against England on Thursday. Gerrard played Suárez onside with a backward header, and his Liverpool teammate did what he does.
Spain is in the “Losers” section, but it shouldn’t be. We will probably never see a more dominant run by a national side. From 2008 to 2012, Spain ruled world soccer. It was the perfect marriage of players and style. Watching Xavi and Iniesta conduct tiki-taka symphonies was one of the great pleasures in sports. It wasn’t always traditionally entertaining, but you knew you were watching something special — artists at the peak of their powers. Their early exit will force a lot of introspection for the Spanish national side, and I imagine the next Spain team we see in France, at the 2016 European Championships, will look a lot different. But three major trophies in five years is a historically good haul.
Álvaro Pereira’s Injury
About an hour into the Uruguay-England match, Uruguay midfielder Álvaro Pereira was knocked unconscious after colliding with Raheem Sterling’s knee. After the game, he said it felt like “the lights went out.” It was a scary moment. Even scarier was that Pereira was allowed to continue playing.
We saw all the problems with soccer concussions play out right in front of us. Pereira bravely and stupidly gesticulated to his coaches and doctors that he wanted to continue, even though he had been lying motionless on the field just moments before. Concussions are becoming a major issue in the sport — you should check out Grantland’s Mike L. Goodman on the subject here. One of the beauties of the game is that the clock never stops. But during the chaos as Pereira tried to check himself back onto the field, every soccer fan watching wished that, for once, it would. Some things are more important than the World Cup.
THE WEEKEND PREVIEW
Let’s take a quick look at some of the action coming up this weekend.
Argentina vs. Iran
You are contractually obligated to watch Lionel Messi in any World Cup game. You will get only so many chances to do so in your life. I promise that you can see Edge of Tomorrow some other time.
Germany vs. Ghana
Germany should walk this, but keep an eye out for this story line: Kevin-Prince Boateng vs. everybody on Germany. Boateng, like his brother, Jerome, was born in Germany, but Kevin chose to play with Ghana. In the 2010 FA Cup final, Kevin (then playing for Portsmouth) ended Michael Ballack’s international career with a tackle, damaging the German midfield giant’s ankle. This led to a falling-out with his brother, and since then Kevin has been critical of players on Germany, namely Bastian Schweinsteiger. I happen to like Kevin, and thought his public protest after being racially abused in Italy was incredibly brave. Regardless of the final score, this should be a tasty clash.
USA vs. Portugal
I’m a Liverpool fan. A couple of months back, Liverpool had a match against Chelsea. If they had won, they would likely have won the Premier League. In the weeks leading up to that match, Chelsea’s first-choice keeper, Petr Cech, got injured. And in the days before the Liverpool clash, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said he would be resting some of his key players to get them ready for a Champions League semifinal against Atlético Madrid. Everything was coming up red, and I remember telling Ryan O’Hanlon at the time, “Doesn’t it seem like everything is breaking right for Liverpool? Why do I get the bad feeling that we’re about to get hit by a train?”
Yeah. See the Steven Gerrard section above.
Why do I tell you this? Because I am having the funniest feeling of déjà vu as we head into this very important match between the USMNT and Portugal. No Pepe? Check. No Fabio Coentrao? Check. Cristiano Ronaldo fighting off injury and possibly gambling with his future health? Check. USMNT on some do-you-believe-in-miracles ish? Yup!
My issue here is that the USMNT cannot keep the ball, and I don’t think — Ronaldo or no — Portugal will be nearly as wasteful as Ghana was in front of goal against the U.S. We don’t know who Klinsmann will start at striker, and whether either of his choices, Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski, can perform on this kind of stage. The defense is problematic — John Anthony Abraham Lincoln Brooks or no — and João Moutinho might make Kyle Beckerman’s dreads melt.
Is this me doing a reverse jinx? Talk to me on Monday.