FIFA World Cup

On equal footing

Print edition : July 25, 2014

Colombia’s James Rodriguez (right) scores his side’s second goal against Uruguay. Colombia won all its matches on its way to the quarter-finals. Photo: Themba Hadebe/AP

Brazil’s goalkeeper Julio Cesar (right) celebrates with forward Neymar after Brazil won its match against Chile in a penalty shootout. Photo: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

Costa Rica’s Michael Umana (left) scores the decisive penalty past Greece’s goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis during the shootout. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands shoots and scores his team’s first goal past Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico. Mexico, which led for much of the match, was unlucky to lose 1-2. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Switzerland's goalkeeper Diego Benaglio fails to save a shot by Argentina's midfielder Angel di Maria (left). This goal at the very end of extra time put Argentina in the quarter-final. Photo: JUAN MABROMATA/AFP

Germany’s Mesut Ozil scores his side’s second goal against Algeria in extra time. Germany won 2-1. Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

France’s Paul Pogba (19) heads to score a goal against Nigeria. France won 2-0. Photo: DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

Mexico’s Rafael Marquez brings down Arjen Robben of the Netherlands inside the penalty box late into injury time. The Dutch scored from the resulting penalty to win the dramatic match. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez (right) after an encounter with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during a Group D encounter. Suarez bit Chiellini on his shoulder and FIFA subsequently banned him from all footballing activity for four months. Photo: TONY GENTILE/REUTERS

Newspapers at a Madrid kiosk capture Spain’s humiliating 1-5 defeat at the hands of the Netherlands. Photo: DANI POZO/AFP

In the most exciting and unpredictable World Cup so far in recent times, the minnows hold their ground against the giants of football.

FOR a second the world skipped a heartbeat as the Chilean striker Mauricio Pinilla’s shot hit the top bar of Brazil’s goalpost seconds before the final whistle of the second half of extra time. On the 120th minute, the scoreline stood at 1-1; and had Pinilla’s shot found the back of the net, Brazil, the host nation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the team most favoured to win the trophy this year, would have been shown the door, and Chile would have progressed beyond the pre-quarter-final stage for the first time since 1962. But fate decreed otherwise, and in the ensuing penalty shootout, Brazil scraped through 3-2, as the big Julio Cesar, the world’s most underrated goalkeeper, transformed himself into a giant and blocked the progress of the marauding Chileans. Had Brazil been ousted from the World Cup, shattering the hearts of millions of supporters all over the planet, it would have been the culmination of a trend unique in this particular tournament, in which the mighty have been falling to the minnows.

The 2014 World Cup so far (until the quarter-final stage) has undoubtedly been the most unpredictable tournament in recent times. It has thrown up new heroes and cut down to size the old ones whose legend overshadowed the changed reality of their situations; humbled the proud and elevated the unheralded; and, most importantly, shown how spirit can triumph over reputations built on past deeds.

Champions exit

It was clear right from the group stage that this World Cup was anyone’s game. The big powers of football came tumbling down like building blocks in a child’s nursery, and before the round of 16 could be reached, two past champions, Italy and England; the defending champion Spain; and European football powerhouse Portugal bowed out of the tournament.

Spain’s was a particularly humiliating exit. In its first match, against the Netherlands—which it had beaten in the final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa—the defending champion seemed less than a shadow of its old self, as the avenging Dutch, led by Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, drubbed them 5-1. Its subsequent 2-0 defeat at the hands of Chile saw the heroes of 2010 depart without even a whimper. The Netherlands, on the other hand, came through imperiously into the round of 16, winning all its matches, and beat an inspired Mexico 2-1 to reach the quarter-finals.

Guillermo Ochoa, the angel-faced Mexican goalkeeper, whose acrobatics at the goal were instrumental in taking Mexico to the round of 16, could not stop Wesley Sneijder’s cracking shot from close range in the 88th minute that evened the score and saved the Dutch from ouster. Many felt Mexico still had a chance, given the kind of form displayed by Ochoa, were it not for the controversial decision to award the Netherlands a penalty in injury time for a purported foul against Robben. Although Mexico lost, it was Ochoa who was the man of the match.

The Netherlands’ performance so far may have surprised even its maverick coach, Luis van Gaal himself, whose tactical moves have been crucial in the Dutch victories. Before the World Cup, Van Gaal admitted that the chances of the Netherlands reaching the quarter-finals were about 20 per cent. However, the Dutch stormed into the last eight as the highest-scoring team, with 12 goals.

But one of the biggest revelations of the World Cup so far has been Costa Rica. Clubbed in a group with three past champions—Italy, England and Uruguay—no one really gave Costa Rica much of a chance to make it beyond the group stage. But it was Costa Rica that emerged at the top of Group D, ominously called the “Group of Death”, without losing a single match. In the round of 16, it edged past Greece to enter the quarter-finals, winning 5-3 on penalties after the scores were level 1-1 after 120 minutes. Costa Rica’s best performance prior to this was in 1990, when it lost in the pre-quarter-final stage.

Bite of Suarez

England, after having lost successive matches to Italy and Uruguay, was out of the tournament. In the contest between two-time champion Uruguay and four-time champion Italy, all Italy required was a draw to go through to the round of 16, but Uruguay’s defender Diego Godin had other plans. With barely 10 minutes left before the final whistle, he headed the ball in from a corner kick. Italy, which was reduced to 10 men after midfielder Claudio Marchisio was shown a red card, could not rally round to even the score.

However, Uruguay’s success was marred by the subsequent banning of its star striker Luis Suarez for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. FIFA banned him from all activities relating to football for four months.

Suarez’s presence in the team was pivotal to Uruguay’s success. Without him, Uruguay lost its first group match 3-1 to Costa Rica, but he was instrumental in guiding his country to the round of 16. Many, including Chiellini himself, felt Suarez’s punishment was a bit too harsh (after all it was just a nip, not a big bite). “Who did Suarez kill?” asked the Argentine legend Diego Maradona, who himself was no stranger to bans and had his own fair share of controversies in his illustrious career.

With Suarez out, and the legendary Diego Forlan failing to revive the magic in his ageing legs, Uruguay was outclassed by Colombia’s dazzling game, and lost 2-0. Colombia, which entered the quarter-finals winning all its matches, has been one of the most entertaining teams in the tournament. What has further endeared it to fans all over the world is its elaborate post-goal celebrations, which are as lively as its vibrant style of playing.

Like the Netherlands, the 1998 champion France was also not considered among the top favourites in the tournament, particularly with its attacking midfielder Franck Ribery out of the game owing to a back injury sustained during practice. But Les Bleus, regrouping under their new coach, Didier Deschamps, who was the captain of the World Cup-winning team of 1998, silenced their critics by reaching the quarter-finals in style, beating a robust Nigeria 2-0 in the round of 16.

The perennial favourites Argentina, riding on the magic of Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world today, entered the quarter-finals, as did Belgium, winning all its matches. Belgium, the dark horse of the tournament, has been mesmerising with its attacking style of play.

Though it was the favourites who ultimately made it to the quarter-final stage, they were, however, given a run for their money by the lesser-acclaimed teams, and very few victories came easy.

The mighty Germany, considered one of the best teams in the tournament, won against Algeria by a hair’s breadth to enter the round of eight. In one of the best games of the tournament so far, Germany clinched a 2-1 victory in extra time. In fact, five of the eight pre-quarter-final matches went into extra time, indicating that there were no clear favourites in this tournament. Who would have thought that Switzerland could pose a challenge to two-time champion Argentina? Or that the United States would almost stop Belgium? Both the matches went into extra time.

So far, this has undoubtedly been one of the best World Cups in a while. The heroics of the lesser footballing nations, as they stared back at the giants and refused to be cowed, have changed the very dimension of the game.

Unheralded teams such as Algeria, Nigeria, Mexico and Chile, which no one except their own respective countries cared about, made the whole world stop and pay attention to them. They gave back as good as they got and left the arena with their heads held high even in defeat.

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