Here’s my rankings of the teams, based along a fairly straightforward stat model, that I used for South Africa and Euro 2012. 32-17 are the teams that failed to get beyond the group stage, ranked in the order of points (P), goal difference (GD) and goals for (GF). 16 to 8, the beaten teams in the Second Round, are ranked in the order of manner of defeat (penalty shoot outs trumping AET, and AET trumping a normal time defeat), margin of defeat, total tournament goal difference (TTGD) and total tournament goals for (TTGF). The same is then applied for the teams ranked 8 to 5, the beaten quarter finalists. Teams ranked 4 to 1 are automatically assigned by the results of the final two games in the tournament.
The bracketed number to the right of the team names is the difference in ranking with my 2010 World Cup final standings, if applicable.
Eliminated In Group Stage
32. Cameroon (-1)
0 Points , -8 GD
A remarkably poor return from the former stars of African football, somehow going one worse than their record in South Africa. Wracked by internal discord and with no star players performing to the level required, they were doomed from the moment they failed to hold on to a 0-0 against Mexico. The collapse against Croatia and the surrender to Brazil were their other contributions. Absolutely worthless, and no sign of getting any better.
31. Honduras (-1)
I asked, on Honduras in 2010, who would the Central American/Caribbean whipping boy be in 2014? Turns out it was Honduras again, only this time they were poorer. With a violent streak added to their remarkably bad play all over the field, it was only in the first half of the game against Ecuador that they looked in any way spirited. Terrible against France and Switzerland, their lack of competitiveness is something CONCACAF seems likely to ignore.
30. Australia (-9)
A poor tournament for a team that has, regrettably, regressed since 2010. There they beat Serbia and got a point off Ghana. Here they could barely keep up with the likes of Chile and Spain, and their defensive frailty offset any of their attacking prowess against the Netherlands. Desperately reliant on the occasional genius of Tim Cahill, the Aussies just never looked like competing at the level required. The move to the AFC has given them more tournament football, but they appear to be stagnating a bit.
29. Japan (-20)
A very poor return for a side that were a few spot-kicks away from the quarter finals in 2010. With the likes of Honda and Kagawa AWOL in terms of quality, the midfield engine was lacking, and time and again the “Blue Samurai” were undone from there. Falling too easily to Cote d’Ivoire after going ahead and failing to take advantage of Greek indiscipline despite their dominance of possession, they were then ripped to shreds by a Columbian side that was really operating in second gear. A tournament to forget.
28. Iran (NA)
1P, -3GD, 1GF
A decent opening – not in entertainment terms, but in game play – saw Iran on their way against Nigeria, and then they really held their own against Argentina, a game they might well have gotten three points from on any other day (and if one Lionel Messi was not playing for the opposition). Needing something very special to try and get out of the group they were undone by a purposeful Bosnia and Herzegovina team, whose attack they could not contain when they themselves needed a win, but should still be satisfied with the defensive effort they put in to this tournament.
27. South Korea (-15)
1P, -3GD, 3GF
Rounding out a disappointing AFC tournament are South Korea, almost traditional second round mainstays at this point, who stumbled repeatedly in a group they should have had an easier time with given the talent in their squad. A poor opening contest saw them grab a deserved point against the Russians without impressing much themselves, but then they were completely undone by the Algerians brilliant attacking display, shipping goals with ease. All that was left was for a dour showing against an almost uninterested Belgian side. A very poor return for a team that should be doing much better than this.
26. England (-10)
1P, -2GD, 2GF
A remarkably poor side in reality, bulwarked by players like Gerrard and Rooney who should have been removed from the equation years ago. Completely outshone by a Pirlo inspired Italy before being unable to contain the threat of Suarez, England stumbled over the line against Costa Rica, only the likes of Sturridge and Sterling stopping them from looking totally beyond any praise. A bad defence, an inept midfield and a toothless attack. Football isn’t coming home anytime soon and its finally dawning on England that this is the reality.
25. Ghana (-20)
1P, -2GD, 4GF
The Africans will be disappointed with their effort, far short of what occurred in 2010. Stung early against the Americans it was all they could do equalise, only to lose it late with a succession of poor defensive moments. They upped their game for Germany, really getting competitive with one of the tournament favourites, finally showcasing what made the 2010 team so special. They had a decent chance of advancing given the circumstances on the last day, but even after drawing level with Portugal they couldn’t get things together enough to get a winner. Ronaldo’s winner was a good summation of their tournament. Much to improve upon, and a lot of squad overhaul required.
24. Russia (NA)
2P, -1GD, 2GF
Fabio Capello hasn’t changed much, and so the team that he led into a major tournament played grim defensive football for too long, and found themselves in trouble when faced with any opponent of even moderate talent and initiative. Lucky to even open with just a point, they again failed to make any kind of headway against Belgium, paying for their inept upfront challenge with a late winner for the dark horses. Needing a win against Algeria, they went ahead but couldn’t hold that lead, with a list of star names underperforming and the tactics making it look like they couldn’t care less. A lot to make up for when they host the grand stage in four years.
23. Spain (-22)
An utter disaster for the humiliated former Kings of international football. Given a hiding by an aggressive and attackingly astute Dutch side, they were then outplayed to a shocking degree by Alexis Sanchez and Chile, sealing their fate and a return to the dark pre-2008 days of tournament disappointment. Men like Costa, Casillas and Torres were not up to the task, and only a consolation victory against the Australians spared even a fraction of their blushes. Is a thorough rebuilding required? Is tiki-taka dead? Time will tell, but I imagine a firm “Yes” is the answer to both questions.
22. Italy (+4)
3P, -1GD, 2GF
Despite a nominal gain in my rankings, another really disappointing showing for the Italians, especially after getting as far as the final in 2012. Pirlo dominated the field as they outpassed and outplayed England, dealing well with the heat and the opposition’s youthful exuberance. Then it all came unstuck against the enthusiastic and steadfast Costa Ricans, Italy suddenly looking tired and unable to work any real chances. With Pirlo fading and Balotelli suddenly underperforming, they allowed themselves to be dragged into a niggling, foul-filled contest with Uruguay, where concentration levels lapsed after “that” incident. It cost them, dearly. So much work, and rebuilding, to do.
21. Cote d’Ivoire (-4)
3P, -1GD, 4GF
Another disappointing showing from the golden generation of this nation’s footballing history, as Gervinho, Drogba and company routinely forgot their lines and stumbled. A good comeback win against Japan made them look like the kind of team they’ve always threatened to be on this stage, but then the attacking genius of Columbia did them in before they were unable to contain one of the most offensively impotent sides of the tournament in the form of Greece. A lot of dead weight in this side, which has clearly become far too reliant on a handful of players. I feel they have had more than their fair share of chances to impress on this stage.
20. Bosnia and Herzegovina (NA)
3P, 0GD, 4GF
A great amount of expectation followed “BIH” but very little of it was realised in the end. They did manage to outplay Argentina for large stretches of their opening game, but only managed to get the ball in the net themselves when it was too late. There were less excuses in the defeat to Nigeria, when the likes of Dzeko failed to equalise again and again, and the whole team generally looked out of their depth. Only when there was nothing left to play for did they bring the same skill and drive that marked their qualifying campaign, in a fine win over the Iranians. The experience will likely stand to them as they take a tilt at Euro 2016.
19. Croatia (NA)
3P, 0GD, 6GF
Croatia suffered in their first game, doing enough to get something off Brazil but unjustly denied by some incompetent officiating. It was a decent outfit, and they got the opportunity to bounce back well by easily overcoming an undisciplined and uncaring Cameroon. The big test would always have been Mexico, and there Croatia fell down decisively, unable to keep up going into the latter stages of the second half and only fighting back when the game was beyond them. The second of this nation’s golden generations may just have had their day, with two consecutive failures to get out of group stages.
18. Portugal (-7)
4P, -3GD, 4GF
Painfully, painfully reliant on Ronaldo, Portugal were reduced in stature greatly by his injury problems. Combined with the sudden inefficiency of Moutinho and the dependence on average players like Nani, Portugal went into the tournament already at a distinct disadvantage. The hiding at the hands of Germany was the start, and the struggles against the United States, despite leading most of the game, was the continuance. Spared early elimination only thanks to Ronaldo’s lone moment of brilliance, they put in a bit more of an effort against the Ghanaians, but even there looked vulnerable at key moments. Portugal have missed their chance for glory since 2004, and it doesn’t look like coming anytime soon.
17. Ecuador (NA)
The best of the worst, but only just. Ecuador played some great attacking football at times – Enner Valencia is one of the tournaments really great highlights – but seemed bizarrely unable to play proper football at other moments. The late defeat to Switzerland seems to have been a terrible blow, and a very scrappy, mistake-ridden victory over Honduras did little to produce confidence in them. A surprising lack of bite characterised their final game against France, where the sending off of captain Antonio Valencia epitomised much of their play. There’s potential there, but not that much.
Beaten In Last 16
16. Nigeria (+11)
Lost 2-0, -2 TTGD, 3 TTGF
An improvement on last time, but much still to be improved upon. The opening borefest against Iran indicated that Nigeria would struggle again, but they bounced back well to take three points off an underwhelming Bosnia and Herzegovina team, even if they really should have dropped two by the end. There followed an exhilarating contest with Argentina where some of the old passion of this once great African side came out, Musa and Emenike showing fine form even if it was a losing effort.
They should have been capable of giving a better game to France than they did, only occasionally showing the kind of bite required in the final third. In the end, they failed to stymie the French presence in midfield, and one of Enyeama’s only mistakes of the tournament spelled the end, before Yobo’s own goal. A disappointing way to go out, but the Nigerians have taken a few steps forward. If only their FA could say the same.
15. Uruguay (-11)
Lost 2-0, -2 TTGF, 4 TTGF
A very underwhelming showing from the team that set the 2010 tournament on fire, marred as much by non-football issues as anything else. Ambushed and well beaten by an aggressive and potent Costa Rican side, Uruguay were off to a bad start to be shown up in such a manner. They recovered, thanks almost entirely to the appearance of Suarez, to beat a fairly mediocre side in the form of England and then played their best of the tournament in a nasty game against Italy, one filled with fouls and violent conduct. They got the only goal though, mores the pity.
A few days of embarrassingly stupid defences of their disgraceful star man followed, before a side with class and vision, Columbia, put Uruguay to the sword in a comprehensive and comfortable manner, the 4th place team of the last tournament struggling just to keep up at times. A major step backwards for Uruguay, who now retreat into a den of self delusion over the prosecution of Suarez.
14. Mexico (=)
Another World Cup, another second round exit for the Mexicans. They had limped into the tournament after a shockingly disorganised qualifying campaign, but did a bit better when it actually started, overcoming Cameroon despite some dodgy officiating against them before holding the hosts to a hard fought 0-0 draw. The test was against Croatia and Mexico passed with flying colours, dominating that game in all the areas that really counted. Guardado and Hernandez, the impact sub, proved they had the attacking skill to make Mexico a force to be reckoned with and Ochao was having a fine tournament between the sticks.
Wilting in the first half heat, Mexico made the first strike after the break against the Netherlands, but then inexplicably fell back and defended what they had rather than try to kill the game off. The result was all but inevitable, Mexico denied even the chance of extra time to rectify their conservative error. Will they finally make the last eight in Russia? Don’t bet on it.
13. USA (-3)
Lost 2-1 AET, -1 TTGD
The Americans came into the tournament on a wave of unprecedented support, but struggled to really live up to it on the field. An early strike let them defend for most of the 90 against Ghana, before striking late to steal the three points. Defensive frailties were obvious again in conceding against Portugal, but having fought back and taken the lead through two well worked goals – showing some attacking skill at any rate – they let it all slip at the death. What followed was half a dead rubber, but a vision of things to come, as Germany tore them apart but settled for just one goal.
Belgium did the same, and only some poor shooting and fine goalkeeping kept a dire US performance at level terms for as long as it did, their defence full of holes, their midfield absent and their attack impotent. Exhaustion finally gave up two before the States decided to start playing like a Last 16 team, but the missed chances spoke for themselves. The Golden Generation is done, and the current team is worse, especially at the back. They talk like the States can win this tournament soon. Give me a break.
12. Algeria (+16)
Lost 2-1 AET, 0 TTGD
A vast improvement on 2010 for Algeria, who decided to show up for this tournament with a greater attacking flair than we have come to be used to. That wasn’t quite on show for the opener against Belgium, and that task was a step too far, probably due to the Africans conservative tactics after going ahead. Far better was the explosion of offensive talent against Korea, with Slimani at the centre of several great moments of play, as four goals were racked up, Korea flattered by getting two themselves. Algeria had grown since the opening defeat, and that showed against Russia, as they recovered from going behind and rescued the draw, seeing out the game with confidence and security.
Perhaps they might have been better served holding a bit back against Germany, but I suppose the attacking focus of the first half would have been excused if they had actually put the ball in the net. From there they went back to containment, with Rais in goal needing to push away a multitude of efforts, but Algeria lacked the legs to get to a shoot-out (and what good would that have done, against Germany?), giving up two soft goals in the additional 30, striking back too late. A good run, but the team needs just a bit of refinement.
11. Switzerland (+8)
Lost 1-0 AET
The opening game flattered Switzerland, a last minute win against Ecuador they really did not deserve that much. That game illustrated some of their flaws, and it was the French who shone a harsher light on them, scoring again and again, in a game they could have won some records in. But the Swiss were good enough to recover, with talent like Shaqiri more than enough to handle the awful Honduran team they finished up against (luckily).
A barely deserved knockout place secured, the Swiss gave it a much better go against the overconfident and frequently outplayed Argentineans. While it was mostly defensive, it also mostly worked. If only they had been able to cling on a few minutes more. The Swiss had their chances though, and failed to take them. They’ll look to continue improving for France 2016.
10. Greece (+15)
Lost 5-3 In PSO
They are the great survivors, aren’t they? A minnow team that is so often despised for their defensive outlook, Greece got off to a very bad start, letting in several soft goals against Columbia, perhaps illustrating that the glory days at tournament level were well and truly gone. It seemed doubly to be the case as they had to grind out a draw with 10 men against Japan. But then the great escape, as Samaras and company out did the disappointing Cote d’Ivoire to snatch a late victory and a progression, rarely venturing from that counter attack/set-piece style when it came to going forward.
The situation was flip-reversed in the Last 16 though, as Greece found themselves a man up and needing to attack to rescue an early second half concession. They seemed unused to that, and blew a number of opportunities to draw level or even put Costa Rica away, unable to find a way past Navas until the 88th minute. They should have won it before the shoot out. They should have done better from the spot kicks. They did neither, and went home, albeit having once again shown they are capable of surprises. And God knows they could do it all again in two years time.
9. Chile (+6)
Lost 3-2 In PSO
Much expectation on this team and some of their stars, and they started out well enough, that attacking talent having far too much for Australia. The high point was next, as the World Champions were outpassed, outplayed and outscored in comprehensive fashion, the Chilean attack finding gaps in their defence that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But the failure to really press the Dutch to the degree required, combined with some late defensive lapses of their own, doomed Chile to a meeting with the hosts.
That was a dicey affair, even with Brazil in such mediocre form. The Luiz was goal was soft, but Chile resolutely pressed on, and Sanchez’ strike was richly deserved. Neither they nor the opposition were willing to risk too much for the remainder of the game (save for that last minute strike off the crossbar) and so to the shoot-out, where Chile faltered as Cesar prospered. A disappointing way to end it for a team that could have gone further.
Beaten in Quarter Finals
8. Belgium (NA)
Lost 1-0, 3 TTGD
Much expectation was following this Belgium team around, some even tipping them for the tournament. And while it was a decent enough return considering the squads age and experience at this level, there will be many who felt that the Belgians did not play as well as they could have, or with as much flair.
That was plain to see from the off, as they struggled to make any headway against the athletic and feisty Algerians. Only the introduction of a decent target man in the shape of Fellaini changed things, as did their superior fitness levels – every Belgian goal was scored after 70 minutes. The Russian game was a dour affair as neither side seemed willing to really go the whole hog, and it was only when Hazard actually got into the game late on that a goal was fashioned. A practically dead rubber game against the South Koreans saw the Belgians out of their group, but having convinced no one of their credentials.
They went on to dominate the US in the Second Round, but with no goals to show for it in the 90. This was due to some of their own mishit’s – Origi, Mertens, Hazard and De Bruyne were all guilty – and the performance of Tim Howard. Belgium were a step above the US all night, but it took extra time and the introduction of Lukaku to actually win the game for them and even then they were slack in allowing the States back into the contest.
Still, they had a reasonably chance against Argentina, but struggled to put anything worthwhile together. It was a game where only a moment of genius would really have changed things, and the Argentineans had that reserve to call on in the last few minutes. Belgium lacked the same verve all over the pitch, but could prove to be an immense force over the next four to six years of international tournaments.
7. France (+21)
Lost 1-0, 7 TTGF
A gigantic improvement for the French. The squalid embarrassment of the 2010 campaign, clinched through such unpalatable circumstances and then carried out with rancour and mismanagement, had to be made up for, and the French did.
It helped that the group was so straightforward. Starting off against Honduras, the French eased to victory, coming off the gas long before the end, only struggling when the Central Americans played rough. The Swiss self-destructed in the first half in the next contest, and the attacking talents of Benzema, Pogba, Giroud and Debuchy were more than enough to have that game put to bed long before full time. A pedestrian dead rubber against Ecuador, and the French had advanced.
Nigeria were, at times, a tough opponent, but lacked the really strong kind of players that the French were able to show off. While France stuttered themselves throughout, they proved themselves the fitter and the more focused as the game drew to a close, capitalising on errors and never resting on their laurels until the tie was killed off.
The reward was a difficult task against Germany, arguably France’s first real test of the tournament. Conceding the early goal was a killer, and while they had their chances to equalise – especially Benzema – they were in no way deserving of a reprieve. Still, a vast improvement on the last few tournaments for the French, who now march on to their hosting of the next European Championships, certain to be among the favourites for the first time in a while.
6. Columbia (NA)
What could have been, personified in the form of this athletic, joyful South American team. Right from the off Columbia were impressing, when they took on the defensive shell of Greece and tore them apart with ease, and very quickly too. James Rodriguez announced himself on the World Cup stage, and Columbia were off. Cote d’Ivoire provided a more serious test of a more committed defence, but a two goal blitz in a few minutes, scarily efficient, set Columbia on their way to progression, before they rounded off their group stage triumph by running riot over a rather hapless Japan, who could not even begin to keep up with the flowing attacking moves.
The fun continued into the Last 16. Uruguay were marred by controversy before the game, and marred by inability to keep up with Columbia after it. The two best goals of the tournament left Columbia high as a kite, and sudden darlings of the neutral.
And then it all sort of came crashing down. Brazil played ugly at times, and had more than their fair share of benefit from poor refereeing. But they took the lead and didn’t allow Columbia back into the game properly, marking Rodriguez and Cuadrado out of the contest, and fouling them out of it if that didn’t work. It wasn’t pretty, but it succeeded, notwithstanding the late comeback that fell short. Columbia should be proud of their effort, but they need to be prepared in future for those kinds of tactics.
5. Costa Rica (NA)
Lost 4-3 In PSO
The big surprise of the tournament. There’s usually one all right. I was one of many who casually write Costa Rica off as just another Central American whipping boy in waiting, but they exploded into the tournament with vigour and purpose. Joel Campbell was lethal in his attacking intent as Uruguay were put to the sword in the second 45 minutes of that game. And it just got better, as the Costa Ricans took advantage of a tired Italian outfit to grab three points where one would have been impressive. After a boring stroll against England, Costa Rica had actually topped their group.
Greece were a more difficult task, made worse by the loss of Duarte. But Costa Rica went a goal up and, thanks to the performance of Navas, stayed that way, but could not hold back the oncoming Greeks for the full 90. They could have lost and won the game in extra time, but exhaustion was telling, Navas needing to save the day a few more times. Costa Rica held their nerve, demonstrated their precision in the shoot out, and the dream continued.
The Dutch were an even harder problem, but the Costa Ricans did all that they could, Navas being superb and even the defence doing all that could have been expected against a team of such attacking quality. And in 120 minutes of football, Costa Rica could have won the game themselves, the misses and saves providing potential nightmare fuel for years to come I’d imagine. A second shoot-out, but this Dutch team was one that came prepared for that eventuality. The Costa Ricans were immense at times, and easily the best sign of CONCACAF’s gradual improvement in quality.
4. Brazil (+2)
Lost Third/Fourth Place Play Off
I think Brazil carried more weight on their shoulders than any host has in decades. The expectation of success was added to by the rancorous environment in which the tournament was organised and began.
Into that maelstrom stepped this team. The world expected samba football, 1970 revisited. What they got was anything but. Brazil were nervous, rough, simulating and very reliant on a handful of star players, the most important being Neymar. Going behind to Croatia was no surprise on the basis of play, and it was a lucky enough equaliser. Poor refereeing put them in front before Oscar’s excellent last goal. The Mexicans ground Brazil down in the next game though, refusing to be bullied and lashing back whenever they had the chance. Bereft of the opportunity for supply, the likes of Fred and Jo could not get the breakthrough. Lucky for Brazil that their last game was against an awful Cameroon side, and for the only time in the tournament, Brazil strolled to a well earned victory.
If people thought Brazil would wake up and apply themselves for the knock-outs, they were to be disappointed. Chile pushed them extremely hard, and only Neymar’s suburb crosses and touches had Brazil looking like they were on a higher level. Bad defensive lapses let Chile score, and Brazil did not appear to be willing to put in the extra effort after the game descended into a scrappy second half mess. They got the better of penalties, and that was that.
Many expected Columbia to finally be the match that Brazil could not advance in. But the hosts through their weight around, marked or fouled the likes of Cuadrado and Rodriguez out of the game, made their chances and took them. Luiz was proving invaluable going forward, maybe a bit more than he was at the back. Brazil survived Columbia’s late rally, but the loss of Neymar and Silva looked portentous.
And so it proved. In the semi-final, Brazil were made to look utterly amateurish next to the professional, calm, collected and completely ruthless Germans. It was not a match for the host nation, but a festival of despair. Fred, Fernandinho, Bernardo, Luiz, Marcelo, they were all as awful as they could have been, no match for the kind of game Germany came prepared to play. It was pitiful.
All that was left was the bare comfort of the Third/Fourth Place Play Off where Brazil barely seemed capable of threatening the Dutch goal and as porous as ever at the back. Brazil entered the tournament over-rated to the extreme, but actually played above themselves to get as far as they did. Having over-reached their ability, they got a hiding that will live long in the memory. Where to go from here is a very depressing question for them to address.
3. Netherlands (-1)
Won Third/Fourth Place Play-Off
After a dire Euro 2012, you wouldn’t be sure what to think of the Dutch team, who had so horrified the world in the South African final. Plenty of talent there, but could they rise above the reputation for thuggery?
Oh yes they could. Muscling Spain off the ball in a more professional manner, carving open the gaps through the runs of Robben, and with the cool finishing from the likes of Van Persie, the defending champions were put to the sword. The Dutch annihilated them in a thrilling second half, and it could have been far, far worse. Perhaps over-confidence then played a part in a more nerve jangling affair against the Australians, where the Dutch reliance on a number of home league defenders seemed to prove a weak point. But still, they won the game thanks to some great attacking play at the other end. Chile were a tough task, but the Dutch absorbed their offensive threat and countered at speed whenever they could, and three points was the reward for their effort.
The baking heat was more of an obstacle than the opposition for the Second Round game against Mexico, with the match not even starting to be a real contest until Mexico scored in the second half. From there the Dutch were afforded the opportunity to dominate, and made chance after chance, only the fine performance of Ochao stopping them from easing to victory. The goals were inevitable though, and thanks to the individual talents and astuteness of Robben, the Dutch were able to win the game without needing another 30 minutes.
Costa Rica were a different challenge, as they became a shell and allowed the Dutch to come on. A mixture of attacking ineptitude and great goalkeeping kept them out for the entire contest, as they came dangerously close to messing up at the back themselves a few times. Van Gaal archived mastery of the shoot-out with the late addition of Krul, and the Dutch could breathe a sigh of relief.
The game against Argentina was an epic tactical battle, with little chances but plenty of intriguing football. The Dutch had their periods of dominance, but could not find a way through the staunch South American defence, but also held their own line superbly. Another shoot-out then, and this time, minus Krul and a bit of will, the Dutch fell down.
For the Third/Fourth Place Play Off the Dutch seemed unconcerned but still far superior to the Brazilian opposition they faced, running out easy winners in the end. This nation has had to wait for World Cup success for a very long time, and now they will be waiting a little longer. They have some truly amazing players, but the best are ageing fast and the replacements might not be up for the job. Euro 2016 is a big, big moment for them.
2. Argentina (+6)
With the best player of his generation and a squad of attacking stars around them, I suppose you could e forgiven if this time, this tournament, would be the one where Argentina managed to get everything right, in a way where they had been unable to for the last six iterations.
From the group stages, it was in no way clear that they would. A lucky own goal set them up against a Bosnia and Herzegovinian that seemed to be suffering a bit of stage fright, but even then Argentina were pegged back for much of the rest of the 90. Messi’s first of the tournament have then some brief breathing room, but it was still close enough by the conclusion. An even worse display followed, as Di Maria, Higuain, Rodriguez and Aguero were all kept from making an impact by a determined Iranian defence, Messi’s individual genius needed to steal the game near the death. A back and forth contest marked by hectic attacking football summed up the last group game with Nigeria, and Argentina, allowed the space to play as they would like, came out on top of both that contest and the group.
A cavalcade of European opposition followed. First the Swiss, who had recovered from a disappointing group stage to run Argentina dangerously close. Shut down in attack again and looking occasionally nervy at the back, it was more brief genius, this time from a rampaging Messi and Di Maria near the death, which got Argentina to the next round.
The highly fancied Belgians were next. Argentina’s early enough strike through Higuain would decide the game, as the South Americans dealt easily enough with the piecemeal and ineffective Belgian attacks that followed. It was the first time that Argentina truly looked comfortable in the tournament, but even with that, they could not extend their lead.
Then the Dutch. It was a tactically impressive game from both sides, with the respective attacks limited by tight defending and midfield pressure. Mascherano was effectively employed ahead of the defence, which made up for Messi’s somewhat disappointing showing upfront. Argentina were finally showing what they were made off in terms of their team cohesion and ability to measure up to the major powers, but they could not find the opening as before. But they had the better of the shoot-out, and that was all that mattered in the end.
And so to the World Cup Final. Argentina gave a powerful performance for much of the game, especially at the back, where Demichelis and Garay were magnificent at times in shutting down the potent German attack. Messi, looking lethargic throughout, struggled to make the expected impact, playing very far back at times. Upfront, Higuain and Palacio missed gilt edged chances. Argentina went 120 minutes, but did not have the fitness of Germany, surrendering the vast majority of possession in extra time even while a few gaps were starting to open up. Goetze took advantage of that, and Argentina had no response.
It’s actually a good return for Argentina, despite the closing heartbreak. They need a more consistent team spirit and to end a certain mental reliance on Messi’s contribution, but they could be great. They can try again next year in the Copa America.
1. Germany (+2)
They have been one of the my favourite squads to watch since they lit up their own World Cup in 2006, and they have been knocking at the door of success numerous times since then. This time, this year, could they finally go that little bit further, and become the legends they have always threatened to become?
It started with a bang and kept going from there. An undisciplined and ragged looking Portugal offered a surprisingly minimal challenge, and the German goal machine of Muller, Klose and Schurrle got into motion quickly with an overwhelming display of attacking power. Ghana provided the first real test, and it needed the experience of Klose and the composure of the whole squad to recover from goinjg behind to grab a point and keep it. On the way out of the group the Germans dominated the Americans, with a one goal victory a very unfair reflection on the balance of play.
Germany did stutter a bit against the Algerians, although hardly to the extent depicted from some source. They allowed the Africans to control much of the first half an hour, but controlled the ball and made most of the chances from there. Their better fitness levels and reserves of calm saw them pull away with a few good strikes in extra time, the Algerians late fight back too little, too late.
Thus stung, the Germans seemed intent on being a bit more circumspect in their play against France. The early goal set them on their way, and then an accomplished defensive job from the likes of Hummels and Boatang kept them on course for the remainder of the ninety. It helped that it was the immense hands of Neuer behind them, pulling off one of the underappreciated saves of the tournament in the dying moments from Benzema.
Many salivated at the thought of a Germany/Brazil semi. They got a treat alright, but not in the way they expected. Muller, Klose, Kroos, Khedira and Schurrle all combined repeatedly to rip apart the unprepared and atrocious organised host nation again and again in the first half, the game done and dusted before the 30 minute mark had been reached. It was cool, it was precise and it was utterly ruthless, everything we have come to associate with this German team.
And so they faced into the World Cup Final. They controlled the ball throughout, they made the better amount of running the final third. But the Argentinian defence was resilient for most of the game, and the likes of Klose, Schurrle and Muller could only grab the odd half-chance. They defended brilliantly at the other end save for one or two potentially fatal hiccups, Boatang and Hummels very impressive, and Neuer a rock in-between the sticks. Schweinsteiger, in the wars, battled heroically from midfield and Low got his sibs dead right, enforced or otherwise, Goetze finally giving this squad the success they deserved.
I’ve been watching this side excel and impress for five tournaments now, and it is a delight to finally get to see them with some silverware. It is a well deserved triumph. Names like Lahm, Neuer, Klose and Ozil will now go down in history at a level higher than they previously would have. They are the Kings of football once again.
And so we say goodbye and thank you to Brazil. The 2014 World Cup has been a true festival of football, even with the repeated and numerous controversies surrounding its holding. It’s had its diving and its disgraces. But it’s also had goals galore, great attacking football, star names impressing and disappointing, more than its fair share of upsets. It’s had a load of teams with a hardcore passion for the game giving as much as they can. In terms of entertainment quality, I believe that it has been the best World Cup in several decades. France in two years time has a terrible task on its hands to try and live up to what has been on display for the last month. Perhaps, we may hope that the Irish might be there to assist in that task.