Wednesday, July 2, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Still much drama to come

American true grit / U.S. goalie Tim Howard's 16 saves against
Belgium was the most in a World Cup match since 1966.

If there's one thing I've learned during the first three week's of the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, it's this: International football (still referred to by most in my country as soccer) is a truly global game, but with a new world order in the making.

Old Europe -- as represented by England, Italy and Spain -- are out. New Europe -- defined by Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland -- are in. Somehow, France just keeps on winning by the slimmest of margins while Germany just plain wins.

Meanwhile, Central and South America, represented by Argentina, upstart Costa Rica and host nation Brazil, have played very well, and Colombia is all business-like in this year's World Cup. Lionel Messi has been, well ... Messi the Great, always a treat to watch when he has the ball on his left foot. He rescues his team -- and, by extension, his country -- when they need him the most. And, both the Canarinho and the Ticos, that's Brazil and Costa Rica, respectively, were blessed to have advanced to the quarterfinals last weekend, thanks to winning on penalty kicks -- the ultimate tie-break experience.

Among those who advanced out of group play, Mexico, Nigeria and Algeria each acquitted themselves nicely and each showed they belonged in the new world order.

Two of the remaining teams, Costa Rica and Colombia, have reached the quarterfinals -- the last eight -- for the first time. There are four repeat teams from four years ago: Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina.

Further north up the Americas, the United States gained a lot of attention and national interest even when it wasn't always winning. On Tuesday, Team USA got its chance to play OT when it fought to a nil-nil tie after 90+ minutes of regulation time against Belgium. Like four years ago when it lost to Ghana, lightening struck twice against the Americans and Belgium scored early during the extra time period en route to a thrilling 2-1 victory in Salvador, Brazil.

Here in the U.S., we're used to clear-cut outcomes in our sporting events. So, imagine our surprise when a recent draw against Portugal felt like a victory and we celebrated after a 1-0 loss to Germany because it still advanced the Stars and Stripes out of their vaunted "Group of Death" and into the "Knockout Round" against Belgium. What we've learned is this: International football can be won by the slimmest of margins and lost by the slimmest of margins, too. And, they play on during stoppage time until the referee blows his whistle.

Sometimes, it's alright to be valiant in defeat.

In describing the Americans' grit following their elimination by Belgium, Jeré Longman wrote in The New York Times: "All the great rush and fevered desperation were spent now, the tension released. Their bodies and chances exhausted, the Americans bent over, collapsed to the ground on their backs, stared ahead at what might have been.

"In another epic game in a mesmerizing World Cup, the United States took Belgium to the edge of its marvelous capability. The Americans absorbed wave after wave of attacks, countered with the fearlessness of youth and survived for long stretches on the gymnastic goalkeeping of Tim Howard, whose dexterous arms and legs seemed to be playing soccer, hockey and basketball all at once."

U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of his team: "I think they all went to their limits." Goalie Tim Howard, still one of the world's best at age 35, made 16 saves Tuesday, the most by a goalie in a World Cup match since 1966. Howard single-handedly kept the game within reach for the Americans.

The U.S. took us for quite a thrilling ride through its four matches: a victory over Ghana, a draw against Portugal, and close losses to Germany and Belgium. "It's really awesome getting through the group, but it means nothing," Howard said before the Belgium match. "The sting of failure is the same if you lose in this round as if you didn't get out of the group."

Collectively, five of the eight Round of 16 games went to extra time, the most since the round was introduced in the 1986 World Cup. Each of the eight games was won by the team that won its group.

Throughout the U.S., there has been been plenty of national attention given the World Cup, coast to coast, from New York to San Francisco, as well as in heartland cities like Kansas City and Chicago. Our eyes have been glued to the action. It's been a national, shared experience for sports fans of all ages. Personally, the World Cup has given me an opportunity to talk international football with Facebook friends from Mexico, Costa Rica and Algeria, and to learn what it's like to be a fan of in each of those countries -- even to care about those teams, too.

ESPN, the U.S.-based global cable and satellite television channel that is primarily owned by The Walt Disney Company, has provided North American fans with tremendous TV coverage, both visually and in its studio and match commentary. In print, The New York Times has devoted countless column inches and pages each day to cover the action on and off the pitch and it's given its readers a keen, socio-economic perspective to the story of this futebol nation, a sport which has helped define Brazil's place in the world.

It's been a pleasure to see, read and learn the fascinating history of the beautiful game, and to listen to the now-familiar voice of Englishman play-by-play commentator Ian Darke calling all of the important matches on ESPN. Darke, a veteran of the network's 2010 World Cup broadcasts, has a wonderful command of the English language and, sometimes -- OK, always -- he enjoys a lovely flair for the dramatic. Last week, in its soccer blog, The San Francisco Chronicle spun its own version of a classic Aesop fable, "If Ian Darke recounted the tale of the tortoise and the hare", that's worth a good read. Meanwhile, there's still much to be said and written about this year's World Cup, which culminates with the championship match on Sunday, July 13. And, there's the beautiful visuals of the Copacabana Beach in Rio, too.

Like an enjoyable West End theatrical, the 2014 FIFA World Cup has had its share of divas and dives as well as its thrills, spills and pratfalls. Yet, with seven matches remaining to decide this year's World Cup champion nation -- and eight countries still very much in contention -- we all look forward to much drama and excitement ahead in the World Cup's next act.

Photo: Courtesy of Google images. 

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