15 Biggest Stories of the 2014 FIFA World Cup

Daniel Fitzgerald@@skiponsportsContributor IIJuly 14, 2014

15 Biggest Stories of the 2014 FIFA World Cup

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    Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

    Arguably the best FIFA World Cup since the 1982 iteration, the 2014 tournament served up another magnificent array of drama, controversy, brilliance and heartbreak.

    We had breakout performances and underwhelming stars, shocking upsets and biting.

    Here we take a look at the 15 stories that shaped this World Cup and will be remembered for years to come.

Spain Crashes out at First Hurdle

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    Clive Rose/Getty Images

    The writing wasn't really on the wall. Spain had qualified undefeated, and Spanish clubs have dominated the UEFA Champions League in recent years, culminating in an all-Madrid final in 2014. This was not a team that seemed primed to crash and burn—at least not this year.

    Some pundits (myself included) were taken in by the strength of Spain's squad, marveling at how many of their star players they had retained for another tilt at tournament success. Iker Casillas, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, David Villa, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and David Silva were all still there. What a team!

    This phenomenon, however, is a double-edged sword. A world champion team is unlikely to still be playing at their peak four years later, which is why all champions need squad turnover to maintain success.

    It all seems so obvious in hindsight, but Spain were well overdue for an early departure due to physical and mental exhaustion. Their players have formed the core of not only the success of their national team, but also the European successes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Malaga, meaning that they have played more high-end football in the last six years than any of their competitors. One might have wondered how the likes of Ramos, Xavi, Alonso and Pique could recover the hunger to win when they've already won everything there is to win.

    It bears pointing out that only one member of their squad played particularly poorly in the 2014 World Cup: goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The captain was thoroughly abysmal in his two outings against the Netherlands and Chile, leaving me to wonder whether Sara Carbonero was behind the goals.

    While the eulogies for tiki-taka may prove to be premature (it's just as likely that Spain simply isn't young enough to use the technique effectively anymore), Spain's exit did represent the end of an era of incredible dominance. Back-to-back European Championships and a World Cup are once-in-a-generation achievements in this age of professional football.

    Spain's domination may be over, but we are unlikely to see a national team perform at their level again for decades.

Miguel Herrera Wins the Internet

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    The word "effusive" seems insufficient for the most GIF-able man in World Cup history.

    Miguel Herrera's histrionics had already earned him attention as manager of Club America, but as manager of Mexico, he was able to flash his exuberant celebrations on the global stage. And he didn't disappoint.

    Mexico exceeded expectations at this World Cup by drawing with Brazil and beating Croatia, having been so poor in qualifying that they needed the USA to score two late goals against Panama to set up a playoff with New Zealand.

    But Herrera became the most beloved manager at the tournament, not through tactical prowess, but his emphatic celebrations. Not one to spit out his chewing gum and pretend he wasn't delighted when his team scored, Herrera moved like a man possessed every time Mexico found the net.

    Some of the adoration faded a little when he blasted Arjen Robben for earning the penalty that eliminated his team, but we wouldn't have expected anything else from the man who clearly couldn't switch off the passion.

Luis Suarez Bites an Opponent...again

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    Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

    Wait. Surely not. Did he just...bite Chiellini? I think...I think Luis Suarez just bit someone again.

    Such was the thought process of every football fan watching Uruguay take on Italy in their final group game to determine who would advance to the knockout phase.

    History will record a 1-0 win for Uruguay taking them through to the next round, but to say that this feat was overshadowed would be an understatement; Suarez, their brilliant but controversy-prone talisman, had once again bitten an opponent.

    Suarez was subsequently rubbed out for nine games and four months by FIFA on the strength that it was the third (third!) time he was caught biting an opponent. Uruguay rallied around their pariah, with his teammates and support staff using inflammatory language more befitting of a North Korean government press release.

    Maradona also started beating the conspiracy drum, though it was unsurprising that he found common ground with the diminutive Uruguayan: talented, but self-destructive, without an ounce of sportsmanship to share between them.

Asian Nations Fall Flat

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    Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

    Looking at the stats, it really is shocking just how badly the AFC teams performed at the 2014 World Cup. Japan, Australia, Korea and Iran managed to notch just three points between them (all draws) in their 12 accumulated games, conceding 25 goals and scoring just nine.

    A rebuilding Australia could be forgiven after being handed the toughest draw of the World Cup, and Iran were never expected to put up much of a fight in Group F. The real disappointments were World Cup stalwarts Japan and Korea, who both failed to advance from rather weak groups—as demonstrated by the advancement of Algeria and Greece—and both finished bottom.

    Japan were the worst. Despite boasting stars such as AC Milan's Keisuke Honda and Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa, their sole accomplishment was a goalless draw against Greece. Still, a lack of serious competition in the AFC means we'll be sure to see them again in four years.

USA Emerges from the Group of Death

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    Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

    While USA fans chanted and hashtagged "I believe," most external pundits didn't fancy their chances to emerge from what was easily the most competitive group at this World Cup—particularly in light of Germany's subsequent success.

    Klinsmann's USMNT project seemed more like a work in progress with grounds for a solid tilt for the 2018 World Cup, rather than being a serious threat in 2014. Promising recruits such as Julian Green had been drafted, while the inclusion of younger MLS-based stars over experienced hands like Landon Donovan indicated that Klinsmann was more interested in building for the long term than seeking short-term gratification.

    While the USA's progression ultimately owed much to Germany's 4-0 destruction of Portugal in the opening fixture, they also secured the results that mattered and deserved to go through. Victory over Ghana in their opening match went some way toward overcoming the pain of being eliminated by Ghana at the last two Cups, and they were mere seconds away from beating Portugal in their second match before Varela's equalizer.

    They also showed solid resistance against a German team that would go on to become world champions, before a magnificently tense and open match against Belgium in the round of 16 saw them eliminated in extra time. But for an errant Wondolowski shot in injury time, the USA could have been in the quarters.

    Klinsmann has subsequently been challenged by some (including, famously, the spurned Landon Donovan) for his tactics against Belgium, and the jury is still out for some as to whether this campaign can be considered a success. But this was a tournament in which many outsiders didn't give the USA a chance of progressing from their group, so their triumph over Portugal and Ghana (winning over an eclectic sport-watching nation in the process) marks this out as one of the USA's finest campaigns.

Ghana and Cameroon Implode

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    Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

    It's become a depressingly reliable news story from each World Cup: an African team is falling apart and threatening to strike due to lack of payment from their respective national federation. This always ends one way: the team crashes out shortly afterwards.

    Cameroon's paid tribute to their troubled 1994 World Cup squad by refusing to board their chartered flight to Brazil until they were paid their bonuses. When they finally turned up, they lost all three of their games and conceded nine goals, prompting a government inquiry.

    But Ghana managed to one-up them by imploding when their World Cup was on the line; two of their best players—Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng—were sent home the day before their final match against Portugal amid allegations of verbal and physical assault within the camp following a similar pay dispute.

    Pele famously claimed in 1977 that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000, but that goal keeps getting further away as talented squads are torn apart by mismanagement and infighting.

Rodriguez's Colombia Becomes Everyone's Second Team

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    Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

    Colombia were considered one of the dark horses for the 2014 Cup before Radamel Falcao's knee injury ruled him out of the tournament. We can now only wonder how far they would have progressed if he had been fit.

    Colombia didn't look like a team missing their star player as they comfortably and entertainingly dispatched of their group opponents before eliminating a Uruguay team that had become widely despised for their support of the orally fixated Luis Suarez.

    Rodriguez was the tournament's breakout star, securing his status as the tournament's alternative poster boy with a stunning juggle and volley goal against Uruguay, which may just have been the best of the tournament.

    Indeed, in all of their games, Colombia played with such joie de vivre that they were impossible to dislike. Even if you didn't enjoy the goals, only a scrooge could not have enjoyed their celebrations.

Costa Rica Makes It to the Quarters

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    Costa Rica opened its World Cup with what—at the time—was regarded as one of the tournament's biggest upsets, beating Uruguay 3-1. Two weeks later, it wouldn't seem like such a turn up for the books. 

    After being handed what could have been considered the toughest group draw at this tournament (Uruguay, Italy, England), few gave Costa Rica any chance of advancing to the knockout stage, let alone winning their group undefeated. Indeed, the odds of Costa Rica winning the group were pegged at a staggering 50-1.

    And yet, these were no smash-and-grab victories; Costa Rica consistently outplayed their more fancied opponents while maintaining a remarkably stingy defense, conceding only two goals in five matches (two of which went to extra time). Only against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals did they adopt a siege mentality, and they successfully registered a clean sheet against a team that had put five goals past Spain.

    While they had qualified fairly comfortably in the CONCACAF region, Costa Rica had failed to win a single game away from home in the final phase of qualifying—suggesting that they were highly vulnerable outside of San Jose. They had failed to qualify for the 2010 tournament, and their last appearance in 2006 had yielded three losses and just three goals for and nine goals against.

    In short, everything was stacked against the Central American minnows. And yet, were it not for the heroics of Tim Krul, they could have been in the semis.

    Goalkeeper Keylor Navas appears to have earned a transfer to Bayern Munich, while other European clubs are now circling the rest of the team after their strong showing. The team received a justifiably rapturous reception on their return to Costa Rica, having become the fairy-tale story of the 2014 World Cup.

Goalkeepers Dominate the Headlines

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    Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

    Brazil 2014 was a goalkeepers' cup, as the men between the sticks received far more plaudits than their outfield counterparts.

    It was hard to pick the Golden Glove winner: Navas of Costa Rica recorded clean sheets against England and Italy, and was the hero of his nation's penalty shootout win over Greece, Manuel Neuer had four clean sheets and operated effectively as a deep sweeper, while Argentina's Sergio Romero also took four clean sheets and made two saves in a shootout to send Argentina to the final.

    When the Golden Glove nominees were announced, there was outrage at the omission of Tim Howard and Guillermo Ochoa, while Thibaut Courtois was considered one of the strongest performers in a disappointing Belgium team. Tim Krul also made his mark coming off the bench to help the Netherlands advance in a shootout against Costa Rica.

    No less than six goalkeepers turned in performances worthy of the Golden Glove, while beyond James Rodriguez, few outfield players truly distinguished themselves.

    This gave rise to a frequent goalkeeper-as-hero narrative, which became one of the hallmarks of the 2014 World Cup. Howard against Belgium and Ochoa against Brazil will be remembered in a way that no other individual performances will from this World Cup.

Krul Psyches out Costa Rica

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    Did he go too far?

    Goalkeeper mind games are nothing new, but this went far beyond Bruce Grobbelaar's spaghetti legs. Coming on as a sub ahead of the Netherlands' quarter-final shootout against Costa Rica, Tim Krul could be seen getting in his opponents' faces and emphatically yelling that he knew which way they were going to go.

    He even gave Giancarlo Gonzalez an extra serve after the Columbus Crew defender had found the net, yelling that he had still guessed the right way.

    It seemed to work: Krul saved two penalties and secured his team's semi-final berth. Van Gaal was lauded for his tactical genius (though more than a few people pointed out that such genius had failed to inspire his team to a win over a vastly inferior opponent in the preceding 120 minutes) in bringing on Krul exclusively for the shootout, and the Netherlands marched on to an insipid semi-final. But many wondered whether Krul's antics had pushed the threshold of sportsmanship to breaking point.

Neymar's Injury Rules Him out

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    Fabrizio Bensch/Associated Press

    The hype had been justified: Neymar was one of Brazil's best players in their World Cup campaign and easily their most potent attacking threat. He'd scored four goals in their first three games and calmly slotted a penalty in their shootout win over Chile in the round of 16.

    But his World Cup ended in the quarter-finals when a knee in the back from Colombia's Juan Zuniga sent him crashing to the ground.

    It was impossible not to be a little cynical about his histrionics as he thrashed on the on the turf of the Estadio Castelao, but scans would later reveal a fractured vertebrae that would rule him out of the rest of the tournament.

    The semi-final build-up was entirely focused on how Brazil would adapt in the absence of their best attacking player, while Neymar sobbed in a press conference about how he could have ended up in a wheelchair. Few questions were asked about how the Germans were preparing.

    Even without his attacking talent, Neymar's absence was certainly a distraction that would prove difficult for the team to overcome. Luiz notably held a jersey featuring Neymar's name during the national anthem before the semi-final, a game at which placards of Neymar's face were distributed to Brazil fans.

    So much work was put in to fretting about Neymar's absence, it seems that Brazil had forgotten to fully prepare for their match with Germany, who would trounce them 7-1.

Brazil's Astonishing Capitulation in Belo Horizonte

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    Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

    Even now, it's still hard to believe: Brazil, the tournament favorites, playing at home, where they were undefeated in competitive matches for 39 years.

    In an emotional semi-final in the tournament they had been building toward for several years, Brazil were not just beaten but flayed: 7-1. With four goals scored inside a period of six minutes in the first half.

    The 2014 World Cup was Brazil's chance to overcome the trauma of the Maracanazo, the 1950 tournament when they lost the final match to Uruguay, having been so confident of success that the victory song had already been composed and headlines written commending their success.

    Finally, with the World Cup returning to Brazil for the first time since that day, 2014 could be the ultimate tale of national redemption. Instead we were served a tale of the ultimate humiliation.

    While most viewed this game through the prism of a Brazilian collapse, surprisingly little credit was paid to the team that put seven impressive goals past them. The last goal, Andre Schurrle's second, was one of the goals of the tournament, and it perfectly illustrated the incisive passing and ruthless finishing that had brought his team to that point.

    It would also be simplistic to blame the result on the absence of the injured Neymar and suspended Thiago Silva. Brazil still had enough talent on the park to at least trouble the Germans, who themselves hadn't looked that impressive since thumping Portugal in their opening game.

    But Germany was stereotypically clinical and efficient in dispatching the Brazilians; Thomas Mueller was surprisingly restrained for a man opening the scoring in a World Cup semi-final. Indeed, none of their goals were celebrated with much more fanfare than a training game.

    The 7-1 scoreline will become instantly recognizable to all soccer fans, and many will recall where they were when the saw the match. It will surely become one of the most famous matches in World Cup history; the stats alone ensure this: most goals in a World Cup semi-final, Brazil's biggest-ever losing margin, their first loss at home in a competitive fixture since 1975.

    But this wasn't just World Cup history, it was national history. Brazil never did get to erase the memory of the Maracanazo; indeed, they never got to play a single game at the Maracana in this tournament after falling at the penultimate hurdle.

    Instead, the Mineirazo was born.

Klose Becomes All-Time World Cup Top Scorer

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    Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    It got lost amid the drama surrounding Germany's semi-final thumping of Brazil, but Miroslav Klose became the all-time World Cup leading goalscorer, eclipsing Ronaldo's record of 15 goals.

    Klose has never been considered an international star. His presence in Germany's squad every four years has had an air of inevitability as he played himself into the requisite form to warrant a squad berth, without ever being considered one of their great threats.

    And yet he has managed to build a remarkable World Cup career in consistently finding space and getting on the end of a cross. Klose has been a classic poacher in the Van Nistelrooy mould; never one to take on five defenders but deadly inside the box when it counts.

    Never particularly flashy (even his celebratory somersaults rarely landed well), his achievement is testament to longevity and making the most of one's talents.

Messi Wins Golden Ball, Despite Disappointing Tournament

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Lionel Messi would have been considered to have a had a great World Cup if he wasn't Lionel Messi. Four goals in three games saw him lift Argentina out of the group stages, and it was his assist to set up Angel Di Maria that saw them overcome Switzerland in the round of 16. He looked poised to carry Argentina all the way, thus finally replicating his club form on the world's biggest stage.

    However, after a solid first half against Belgium in the quarters, he was largely ineffective (if not downright anonymous) from that point, with the Albiceleste relying more on the brilliance of Javier Mascherano to see them through to the final.

    Messi blew a gilt-edged chance to give Argentina the lead early in the second half of the final and was barely seen thereafter.

    It was not what we have come to expect from the four-time Ballon d'Or winner. So how did he end up winning the Golden Ball over the likes of James Rodriguez, Arjen Robben and Thomas Mueller?

    Conspiracy theorists were quick to point out Messi's status as the poster boy for major tournament sponsors Adidas, though it's just as likely to have been awarded on the strength of his exploits in the first half of the tournament as the second half.

    Messi did have a good World Cup, but he certainly wasn't the star of the show.

Germany Finally Fulfills Promise as Heir to Spain's Throne

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    Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

    Germany would have been considered the ultimate bridesmaids if they'd let this one slip. Having reached the final of Euro 2008 and the semi-finals of World Cup 2006, 2010 and Euro 2012, this was a team that seemed destined to live in the shadow of Spain.

    In recent years, Germany had quietly assembled a golden generation of their own, but they were also building a reputation for peaking a few games too early. In 2010, they smashed England and Argentina 4-1 and 4-0 respectively before going down 1-0 to Spain. In 2012, having won four from four, they stumbled in the semi final against Italy as the world was licking its lips over another Germany vs. Spain matchup in the final.

    The story could have had another chapter if they had lost to Argentina in the final this time around, having been magnificent in their 7-1 win over Brazil in the semi.

    While the final could have gone either way, Germany were deserved winners. They kicked off this tournament with a 4-0 thumping of Portugal, but they had learned well enough to pace themselves this time around; they didn't hit top gear until their semi-final against Brazil and kept enough in the tank to beat Argentina in extra time in the final.

    It was also a win for the neutrals, as Germany had played the most attractive and enterprising football throughout the tournament. While it's still four years away, considering how many of their stars are still in their early to mid-20s, Germany will likely start as favorites for the 2018 tournament in Russia.

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