Contrary to the 2010 World Cup that tended to be full of rough play, boring scorelines and vuvuzelas, the 2014 edition of football’s greatest tournament has turned out to be a godsend. Not only have we seen a high average of goals per game so far (2.83 compared to 2010’s 2.27), it’s also been full of stories that could help make this World Cup one of the best in recent memory. On this list, we’ll be counting down the top 10 stories of the 2014 World Cup so far with the group stage having wrapped up and the round of 16 just getting ready to start.
In fact, there are so many interesting stories from this year’s tournament that some headlines – Latin America conquering the group stage, France and Colombia topping their groups without their marquee players, the topsy-turvy U.S./Portugal match, Miguel Herrera’s endearing reaction to his Mexico side scoring goals, etc. – didn’t make the cut for this list. That said, this year’s tournament has given us just as much to be excited about compared to how much it’s made us turn our heads in surprise as well. There have been underdogs causing a massive surprise early in the competition, as well as perennial contenders crashing out rather prematurely. There have been some of the world’s best players saving their best performances for this tournament, as well as some questionable refereeing decisions that have defined the course of this tournament so far.
With the round of 16 giving us some mouth-watering matchups – Netherlands vs. Mexico, Brazil vs. Chile and Belgium vs. United States among them – there’s plenty of room for more upsets to be caused by lesser-known sides as well as the favourites, and if the group stage has indicated anything to us, it will be one of the most entertaining tournaments we’ve seen in a while. Here are the top 10 stories from the first round.
10. Japanese Fans Clean The Stands
Despite carrying with them a promising group of foreign-based talent such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Yuto Nagatomo, the Japanese team still finished bottom of Group C with only a point to show for their efforts at this year’s tournament thanks to a scoreless draw with Greece. That said, their fans made headlines and gained praise during the group stage for staying after the Samurai Blue’s loss to Cote d’Ivoire to clean up their section of the stands, bringing blue garbage bags to the game that they used as balloons during the match. Of all the fanbases, Japan’s probably left the biggest impression as the nicest group of fans at the tournament thus far.
9. Goal-Line Technology
This 2014 World Cup has shown us some firsts – vanishing spray, anyone? – that has included the use of goal-line technology for the first time ever. Thanks in part to Frank Lampard’s goal that crossed the line but didn’t count in 2010, FIFA – who had been opposed to the use of the technology previously – integrated it into the 2014 tournament, and we’ve already seen its use for better or worse. In particular, a goal scored by Karim Benzema against Honduras caused a great deal of confusion, as it hit the post at first and “NO GOAL” flashed across the screen until then hitting Honduran keeper Noel Valladares and crossing the line, with “GOAL” flashing across it the second time.
8. Lionel Messi Provides Many of Argentina’s Goals
The Argentine team has no shortage of firepower offensively – Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi are players many teams in the World Cup would kill to have among their weapons up front – but the man giving the Albiceleste most of their goals so far in this tournament is the man many call the best player in the world: Lionel Messi. Occasionally criticized for not being able to make his blistering club form translate to the international stage, Messi has proven many of his doubters wrong so far, scoring four out of Argentina’s six goals so far. The other two came courtesy of a Bosnian own goal as well as from Argentine defender Marcos Rojo.
7. Costa Rica Shock the Footballing World
When Group D was decided with three previous World Cup winners – Italy, England and Uruguay – included in it, pretty much no one expected Costa Rica to be anything more than the group’s whipping boys. Instead, the complete opposite of pre-tournament expectations happened, as Los Ticos pulled off colossal upsets by beating Uruguay and Italy as well as drawing with England. The Azzurri and the Three Lions ended up falling prey to one of the tournament’s groups of death, and Costa Rica – buoyed by goals from players like Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz – topped their group, setting the stage for a Round of 16 matchup with Greece.
6. Ghana Send Two Players Home Early
Whenever a team is in disharmony off the pitch, it can absolutely affect their performance on it. Just ask Cameroon during this year’s tournament, and the French team from four years ago. This year also showed Ghana – one of the more successful African teams in recent World Cups – sending two of their best players home before their pivotal final game against Portugal. In addition to the team nearly staging a boycott for cash payments that hadn’t arrived yet, Sulley Muntari physically attacked a member of the Ghanaian FA, and Kevin-Prince Boateng verbally attacked the team’s manager Kwesi Appiah. Ghana would lose their final game 2-1 to Portugal.
5. Fred’s “Penalty Call”
The opening match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup between hosts Brazil and Croatia showed us a couple of strange twists for an opening game. It gave us the first time the opening goal of the tournament was an own goal (courtesy of Marcelo) and the Brazilian team was awarded an extremely debatable penalty kick after Dejan Lovren didn’t appear to have had much contact with striker Fred in the penalty area. Neymar converted the penalty to give Brazil a 2-1 lead. FIFA defended the referee’s decision. After a foul had been called on Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar, Croatia’s equalizer was disallowed.
4. Robin van Persie’s Header
It’s not always common for one of the best goals of the World Cup to come on the second day of the tournament, but that’s exactly what happened for Robin van Persie during the Netherlands’ opening game in a 2010 final rematch against Spain. In the 44th minute, van Persie scored a 15-yard header past Spanish keeper Iker Casillas to put the Oranje on the board first, and helped the Dutch pull off a shock 5-1 victory. Afterwards, the Internet exploded with van Persie’s goal becoming a new meme, as people have photographed themselves “van Persieing” in a similar fashion to planking.
3. High Number of Goals
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was criticized at times for lacking in goals per game, as there was an average of only 2.27 per each match by the time the tournament was over. This year, it’s proven to be the exact opposite: the group stage has given us an average of 2.83 per game, and games with one side scoring three goals or more have proven to be commonplace. The Dutch beating Spain 5-1, as well as Brazil beating Cameroon 4-1 and France beating Switzerland 5-2 are among the more goal-heavy games we saw in the group stage.
2. Suarez Bites Chiellini
Although he’s had a history of Hannibal-esque tendencies on the pitch that have resulted in a damaged reputation and substantial consequences for him in the past, some people thought Luis Suarez was a changed man and had the potential to take the World Cup by storm. Wrong. Instead, the Liverpool striker – arguably the MVP of the last Premier League season – bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on his shoulder a minute before Diego Godin headed home Uruguay’s game-winning goal that sent the Azzurri crashing out. Though Suarez wasn’t sent off during the game, he was slapped with a four-month ban from all competitive football, as well as nine international matches for Uruguay – ending his World Cup campaign in disgrace.
1. Spain Crash Out Early
Since Spain had brought a number of the 2010 World Cup-winning squad members – still world-class players after four years – back with them to this year’s tournament, many expected them to at least make the semifinals, if not repeat. Instead, Spain’s campaign in their first two Group B games saw La Furia Roja in shambles. After losing 5-1 against their 2010 final opponents the Netherlands, they lost 2-0 to Chile, effectively ending their World Cup campaign far earlier than most expected. The game against the Oranje was Spain’s biggest World Cup loss since 1950, and saw Spain join England, Italy and Portugal among the big teams to be sent home early.