From Luis Suarez’s chompers to Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair, the biggest headlines from the first phase of the tournament focused on the World Cup’s early exits. While Uruguay’s mouthy Suarez was hit with a nine-game suspension that ended his tournament early (biting, it turns out, is a FIFA no-no) and Ronaldo’s Portugal squad failed to advance out of Group G, most were surprised by the powerhouses that packed their bags early. Gone are Spain, the defending champs; Italy, ranked No. 9 in the world before the tournament; and England, ranked No. 10. Of the 16 teams remaining, eight hail from this side of the Atlantic. Not only were all four Asian teams sent home early, but that group failed to produce a single win in the tournament for the first time in 24 years.
One of their top players injured his foot before the tournament. They were stuck in one of the toughest groups. They were given long-shot odds of 1,000-to-1 and worse. And all Costa Rica did was respond by becoming one of the first nations to qualify for the knockout round. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas allowed just one goal in three matches. The Ticos have a favorable draw, too, facing No. 12 Greece on Sunday in Recife. Perhaps just as surprising, Algeria has reached the knockout round for the first time ever, though it’ll have its hands full with Germany on Monday.
Overlooked by much of the international soccer community, the teams from North America and Central America surprised many by advancing three of their four squads into the knockout round, the most CONCACAF squads to ever reach the round of 16. It’s the kind of showing that could help CONCACAF officials argue that they deserve four guaranteed slots into future World Cups.
From the Amazon to Rio de Janeiro, the streets of Brazil are brightly decorated in green and yellow. When Brazil’s team hits the pitch, entire cities turn into an all-day symphony of honking horns, singing fans and firecrackers. They could have plenty more to celebrate. After posting five points in group play, Brazil has an enviable path to the championship match in Rio. It’ll face Chile on Saturday and then potentially a Suarez-less Uruguay team and then maybe France or Germany in the semifinals. That could all set the stage for a final that would surely shake the entire continent: Argentina vs. Brazil.
Not only does the Netherland’s Arjen Robben have three goals in this tournament, but he was clocked running downfield at an incredible 19.3-mph pace against Spain. Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar have four goals apiece through three games, as does Germany’s Thomas Muller, who also has an assist. And helping Mexico advance, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa has been incredible, allowing just one goal in three games and raising eyebrows across the world when he held mighty Brazil scoreless. Ochoa entered the tournament as a free agent but suddenly has the likes of Atletico Madrid and Arsenal vying for his services. Of course, one of Mexico’s biggest fan favorites is relegated to the sidelines. The squad’s animated coach, Miguel Herrera, is a “Saturday Night Live” sketch come to life.
The tournament has featured plenty of exciting play. The first 48 games averaged 2.8 goals per match, a half-goal more than four years ago. But a couple of teams have really stood out. The Netherlands scored 10 goals in three games, more than double the tournament average. The Dutch have plenty of depth and perhaps the most favorable path to the title match: Mexico on Sunday and then possible games against Costa Rica and then Argentina. Of course, Argentina won't go quietly, and no one can rule out France either. The 1998 Cup champs face Nigeria on Monday, and if they can then get past a strong German squad in the quarters, they might be the tournament’s best bet to upend Brazil.