Saturday, June 28, 2014

Group Stage Winners and Losers

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The World Cup is now officially halfway through as the group stage shaved the field of teams from 32 teams to 16, and it's time to really start to make sense of what just happened, and what to expect going forward. There have been some surprises to this point, there has been some great performances and games, and overall, the World Cup has had all of the excitement that should be expected of this hallowed tournament. Here are your winners to this point. These may be people, teams, or ideas. Really, anything that was either a pleasant surprise or :

France- After an absolutely disastrous 2010 campaign, the French team has solved all the turmoil and turned things around. Coach Didier Deschamps took over two years ago and attempted to change the culture by refusing to select any players who could potentially cause problems. Even without their best player, Franck Ribéry, the French side is playing extremely fell thanks to great defense and an unstoppable attack led by Karim Benzema's 4 goals. 

The Netherlands- From runners-up in 2010 to the early favorites in 2014, the Dutch have been around the top for quite a while. But, this time around it looks like they've put it all together and have become a powerhouse. It began with a shocking 5-1 demolition of the reigning champions, Spain (I'll get to them later) and nothing has changed. Arjen Robben has looked like the best player in the Cup thus far as he's been working hard and super aggressive in attack. Let's take some time to remember that Robin van Persie did this:

The land mass and people of Brazil- Had Brazil scuffled at all during the group stage and found a way, as impossible as it seems, to get eliminated prior to the knockout stage, I would have worried for the safety of the entire country of Brazil. They made it through. The world is still spinning, for now.
James Rodríguez- James certainly wasn't an unknown player coming into this tournament, but he's made a huge statement so far. He has always been thought of as a skillful young player, but with three goals and two assists to this point in leading his team to perfect group stage results, Colombia's #10 is making a case for himself as the next big star.

Memo Ochoa- First of all, we need to appreciate the fact that there's a famous man in this world who is sometimes known as Memo. With his spectacular performance against Brazil, the Mexican goalie made a name for himself with his amazing performance in the second match of the group stage, against Brazil, featuring multiple spectacular saves in a 0-0 draw. He's been a real spark for the Mexican team.

Costa Rica- In a group featuring Italy, Uruguay, and England, it was expected that Costa Rica would be the team to find itself at the bottom of the table by this date. But, they instead unexpectedly clinched the first position in the group after their second match following a resounding 3-1 victory over Uruguay and a close 1-0 win over Italy. For a team that lacks much star talent, as their most recognizable player is Joel Campbell, it's fun to see how they've overcome that perceived disadvantage and play very well to this point.

Georgios Samaras- This is the Greek hero that hit a penalty in stoppage time in the final day for Group C to propel his team into the knockout stages. Had his shot not scored, the Ivory Coast would have advanced by a draw. What an important strike.

American soccer- No matter what happens from this point on, and even if the Americans had been eliminated in the group stage, the sport has greatly increased its popularity in the American culture over the past few years and through this World Cup. The same was said in 2010, but the moment of passion on the part of American soccer fans didn't really hold for too long afterwards. But now it truly seems that things are changing. The combination of the USA having an above average team, along with the increased interest in the MLS thanks to the expansion team in New York and rabid fan bases in Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle to name a few cities. A factor that shouldn't be underrated is the new kit that the team debuted for this tournament. They represent the flag of the nation and give people a reason to be patriotic. I've seen numerous USA jerseys and merchandise throughout the streets of New York, especially on the final day of the group stage. It makes a huge statement, and as Americans, we'll find any excuse to be proud of our country.

Evander Holyfield- This was his reaction to Vampire Suarez Part 3: World Cup Edition:
It speaks for itself.

Germany vs. Ghana- This was the best game that I've watched in a while, and it will be hard to match for the rest of the Cup. Play was scoreless yet interesting for the first half of play, but things opened up beginning with Mario Götze's goal at 51 minutes and continued through to the end. As a Ghanaian, the eight minutes of pure joy that I felt following Asamoah Gyan's go-ahead goal up until Miroslav Klose's historic equalizer are up there amongst my greatest moments as a sports fan. Ghana hung with one of the best teams in the world, which only added to how excited I was by this game. For anyone without a rooting interest, they got to see a great battle between these two nations.

Giorgio Chiellini's arm- Chiellini took the idea of taking one for the team to another level on Tuesday by becoming the third victim of Luis Suarez's teeth during a game. His arm contained all the evidence that FIFA needed in order to suspend Suarez for the next four months. Good riddance Luis.

Australia a.k.a. Tim Cahill- Despite losing all three of their games, the Socceroos didn't look awful in defeat against the Netherlands, who look like the best team in the world right now. Sure, losing to Spain's B-team looks bad, but they were slightly less bad than we expected, which means something.

Tim Cahill a.k.a. Australia- He carried his team in his only two matches, as he was disqualified for the final game after picking up a yellow card in each of the first two. The man who has been Australia's most important player for quite a while ended his international career with a goal that will be one of the most memorable of the tournament:

Unfortunately there's no sound on that video, but you don't even need it in order to appreciate the brilliance of Cahill's volley.

Fernando Torres- The King of Pointless Goals has struck yet again. After Spain had already been eliminated, Torres sniffed out an opportunity to get himself a goal, since it didn't matter at that point. Maybe it started with his final goal at Euro 2012, but he's made a name for himself in this category recently.

Wayne Rooney- After finally scoring the first World Cup goal of his career, Rooney made his way from out of the doghouse in England. Unfortunately for his teammates, that doghouse now includes every single player on that team. Except for Rooney. What a lucky man. He gets to sit back and watch the media tear everyone to shreds.

Messi- With four goals in his team's first three matches, this great free kick against Nigeria:

That wasn't even his only goal of the game, nor his best goal to this point. That distinction belongs to his goal in stoppage time to give Argentina a 1-0 victory over Iran, who was about to escape the game with a shocking draw. But then, Lionel Messi decided he was having none of it:

He's probably the best player in the world, and he's done nothing to make anyone think otherwise. Though James Rodriguez has...but that's beside the point.

Bosnian names- Here are the names of the starting XI for Bosnia-Herzegovina in their final group stage match against Iran.
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Credits to Kolasinac and Edin Džeko for standing out. Keep in mind that this team is coached by Safet Sušić.
But don't get too happy, there are still many disappointments that have occurred to this point. Whether it be teams or players not playing to their potential, or other nonsense, some people should be considered losers at this point, and here they are in all of their (lack of) glory.

Concussion awareness- Álvaro Pereira took a nasty blow to the head in Uruguay's win over England when he was struck by the knee of Raheem Sterling (ignore the end of this video, it's stupid but this was the best angle of the hit that I could find):

In any other sport, especially in America, Pereira would have been removed form the game and no one would have even considered him available to return to action for at least a couple of days. But in this case, Pereira simply spoke to the coaches and trainers, and came back into the game. This is a major setback for sports because it proves that despite all of the work that has been done to make people aware of the effects of concussions, there are still teams and players who don't fully understand the magnitutde of it. Sure, it's the World Cup, but had Pereira sustained another hit to this head later on in the game, the man could have died on the pitch. This was another example of the "tough guy" mentality that needs to disappear amongst players and coaches in all levels of all sports. His health was put in danger during that game.

Steven Gerrard- Despite being an English legend, Gerrard is not untouchable. His play was rather poor, and included many costly mistakes that stifled England's chances of advancing in the tournament. That's a bad way to end his World Cup career.

Ghanaian witch doctors- Before the tournament, this article caught the interest of many, as a Ghanaian witch doctor, Nana Kwaku Bonsam, claimed to have cause Cristiano Ronaldo's knee injury. As a Ghanaian, trust me when I tell you all that Bonsam doesn't even believe what he's saying. It's all a stupid publicity stunt. But, even if he did, Ronaldo's goal at 80 minutes against Ghana is that one that killed the hopes that the Black Stars had of advancing.

Michael Bradley- Speaking of costly mistakes, Bradley has quickly gone from being America's most trusted and consistent player to being the nation's punching bag, despite the success of those around him. Poor shots, bad passes, and defensive miscues have allowed American fans to turn on Bradley. Luckily for him, the rest of the team has exceeded expectations to this point, or else he would have been in real trouble.

Luis Suarez- Not only is he banned for the remainder of the tournament, he's going to miss his national team's next 9 matches and the next 4 full months of soccer. That means that he won't be available for the first two months of Liverpool's Premier League season, which will be a serious blow to them and may ruin the chances they have of winning their league title, as they rely so heavily on him. An awful decision has led to major consequences.

Iker Casillas- Casillas's age is starting to catch up to him now. The Spanish keeper looked terrible in this World Cup, especially in the opening match against the Netherlands. His tendency to be over-aggressive and play off the goal line led to him conceding 7 goals in two games.

Cesar Azpilicueta, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Javi Martinez, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Diego Costa, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fábregas, Pedro, Koke, Santi Cazorla- After being strongly considered as the best team of all time, Spain appeared in this World Cup and disappointed everyone in their first two matches, losing by a combined score of 7-1. This shouldn't take away from their previous accomplishments as they're the two-time reigning European champions, and until someone raises the Cup on July 13, they are still the most recent World Cup winners. But now, there should be major changes to this squad in preparation for Euro 2016.

Luis Suarez's teeth- The best part of Suarez's decision to bite Chiellini in the shoulder was his immediate reaction:
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C'mon ref! His shoulder ran into my innocent teeth!

Ghana- Just when I thought that my team's showing in the World Cup was a positive one, regardless of the result, all hell broke loose. On Wednesday night, the team threatened to strike if they didn't receive the bonus money owed to them as a result of appearing in the World Cup. So, $3 million was flown in from Accra in cash to pay the players as they didn't trust the Ghanaian Football Association (for good reason) to pay them eventually. But that wasn't nearly the end, as Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng were kicked off the team on Thursday morning. Muntari was already going to miss the match against Portugal after picking up a yellow card in each of his first two matches. But, Boateng, Ghana's best offensive player was missing as his team fell to Portugal, resulting in an elimination. I still love my team, and my country, but this situation reflects very poorly on Ghana as a nation. And it completely overshadows what otherwise was a pretty good World Cup from Ghana on the field in their first two matches. They got unlucky against the USA, but they gave Germany a real run for their money. Unfortunately, bad coaching and chaos off the field leaves the Black Stars with a one way ticket to Accra. 

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