6 Takeaways from the World Cup's Group Stage
The knockout round is about to begin, but before we look forward, let's take some time to reflect on what we just witnessed in the 2014 World Cup's group stage.
1. World Cup Games Are Not Boring
International matches, particularly over the last two decades, have been mostly dour affairs - cagey cat-and-mouse games with teams hoping to lock up shop and not make a mistake. That simply hasn’t been true this year, with buckets of goals pouring in. Whether it’s host nation Brazil’s love of joga bonito rubbing off on their guests, a lack of solid defenders, or a sea change in tactics with managers preferring to attack, we can only hope it’s here to stay.
The group stage saw the ball hit the back of the net a record-breaking 136 times, six more than the 2002 Japan/Korea World Cup. Bad news for the soccer-hating portion of the media, good news for fans. As we get to the sharp end of the tournament, games could tighten up, but with so many great attacking teams making it to the knockout round, the goals should keep coming.
2. There's a Strict Continental Divide
Not since 1990 has a team from Asia failed to advance to the knockout round, and never in history have two African teams made it out of the group stage. Both happened this tournament. Australia put up a good fight in one of the hardest groups in World Cup memory, but took their long flight home without a point. Japan and Korea never really looked like advancing, even in relatively easy groups, and Iran was always destined to be an also-ran.
Meanwhile, Algeria and Nigeria have surprised and find themselves as unlikely torch-bearers for the subcontinent. Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, rosters loaded with stars from the European leagues, were expected to be the best teams from Africa. But both find themselves out of the tournament.
3. CONCACAF Demands Your Respect
The host continent advantage has played out even more than expected, with three of the four CONCACAF nations advancing. It’s no surprise that Mexico advanced, making it six consecutive tournaments in which El Tri have gotten out of their group. But the United States and Costa Rica were long shots to play into the next round. Jurgen Klinsmann made some bold decisions prior to Team USA’s flight to Brazil, but he’s proven to be a bit of a soothsayer, steering his adopted country out of a very tough group and into the knockout stage.
Los Ticos are by far the tournament’s biggest surprise, not just advancing from a group containing three previous World Cup winners (Italy, England, and Uruguay), but winning it. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment for a team who was given a chance by precisely no one, and with a matchup against a pedestrian Greek team, they have a great shot at representing CONCACAF in the quarterfinals.
CONMEBOL too, the South American confederation, has done remarkably well. Three of the four teams most likely to win it all - Brazil (29%), Argentina (14%), and Colombia (12.8%) - will be joined by upstarts Chile and Uruguay. The only team from South America who failed to advance is Ecuador, and even they had a chance in their last group game. With four teams in the same bracket, a South American team is guaranteed a spot in the semifinal.
4. Manaus is Really, Really Humid
It was an easy talking point prior to kickoff, but the fears proved well-founded, as the humidity of Manaus, the World Cup’s most controversial host city zapped the energy from the players and turned the last 20 minutes of the England-Italy game into a futbol-version of Keystone Cops. Exhausted players sent the ball flying everywhere except where they meant to kick it. They may as well have been playing on an ice rink without skates.
Consequently, teams that played a group stage game in Manaus carried heavy legs into their next match. The United States put up a good fight against Germany, but you could see that fitness levels were not up to their normal standards. Italy and England never recovered from their fight in the jungle, as both were eliminated, taking just a single combined point from their remaining games.
With a few days to recover, hopefully the Amazonian hangover will have no lingering effects. It was a controversial choice to put games there in the first place, and recovering from miles of sprinting in the jungle has proven to be an unfair obstacle for those teams who drew Manaus as a host.
5. Germany is Deep
Injuries were the story of Germany’s World Cup build-up, losing Lars Bender and Marco Reus, while key players Sami Khedira, Phillip Lahm, and Manuel Neuer were also carrying injuries. The only recognized striker in Jogie Low’s 23-man squad team was 37 years old.
So what did Germany do? They plugged in backups where necessary and didn’t miss a beat, steamrolling Ronaldo et al to the point where the Portuguese looked like they wanted to quit after 15 minutes. They had a slight stumble against a very good Ghana team before a methodical 1-0 win against the United States.
Thomas Muller - a tweener whose best position is hard to define - has slotted in at the #9, and has found the back of the net four times. Phillip Lahm, who’s been arguably the best left back of the last decade, has played every minute of the tournament in central midfield and has passed teams dizzy.
Germany are a machine that can seamlessly replace world class players with other world class players. Any doubts over their quality have proven to be foolish and their first place finish means facing Algeria, a very favorable matchup and an 87% of a trip to the quarters. Die Mannschaft also has a 44% chance of making it to the semifinals and slightly less than a 10% chance of winning the tournament.
6. Saying Goodbye to Legends Isn't Easy
It happens at every World Cup - aging superstars decide it’s time to hang up their cleats - but this edition in particular is seeing the ends of many legendary careers. Italian mainstays Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, true artists at their respective positions, will never again suit up for the Azzurri at the World Cup. Tiki-taka masters Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and most likely goalkeeper Iker Casillas, three players who took Spain to unimaginable heights, winning almost every trophy imaginable, will win no more at international level.
Didier Drogba, the former Chelsea star and Ivorian talisman who led the greatest generation of Elephants, put in a good shift at the ripe old age of 37, but was unable to conjure up enough magic to see Cote d’Ivoire through. All good things must come to an end, but it just doesn’t seem right that our last memory of these incredible players will be a first round exit in Brazil.