If there was a villain of the first round of the knockout stage, it wasn't Portugal. It was FIFA. First, their ticketing scheme left hundreds of empty seats during the epic Uruguay-Korea match. Then, their lack of a significant break caused the USA-Ghana match to end up a sloppy match between two exhausted teams. And we all know what happened with the referees in Mexico-Argentina and Germany-England....
Still, no matter how it happened, there are some excellent matchups in the quarterfinals. The big storyline is the three Europe-South America clashes: Brazil-Netherlands, Argentina-Germany, and Spain-Paraguay. Europe's relative mediocrity has been a story of the tournament, but I don't think it's as bad as some make it out to be. Two wins of three and Europe looks perfectly fine. On the other hand, with those three plus Uruguay, South America could actually have all four semifinalists!
Uruguay v. Ghana - Uruguay have been far too solid all-around for me to pick the inconsistent Ghanaians to win this one. 2-1 Uruguay.
Brazilv. Netherlands - I picked Holland to win the tournament. I meant it, too. But this...I have a hard time seeing a victory here. It's Brazil! The Dutch haven't yet proven they can beat Brazil. Maybe if Robben has the match of his life. Maybe if Van Persie learns how to shoot. Maybe Brazil hasn't been tested and won't know how to deal with a strong challenge. Maybe on penalties. 1-1.
Germany v. Argentina - This is exciting. Both teams have been magnificent at attacking, and leave holes in defense. It would be a shock not to see goals. 3-2 Germany.
Spain v. Paraguay - I expect a repeat of the tense, tactical Spain v. Portugal matchup, with a similar result. 2-0 Spain.
Last Ranking: 3rd Result: 1-0 v. Portugal Next Match: Paraguay
Spain move to the top of the rankings less through their performance - which was good, but not so much better than any other contender - than through their next opponent. Each of the other four contenders are playing each other, but Spain gets Paraguay. Like Portugal, they'll be a defensive side looking to catch Spain on the counterattack, and like Portugal, I expect Spain's class to show through.
Last Ranking: 1st Result: 3-0 v. Chile Next Match: Netherlands
Dunga's tactics against Chile were almost perfect. Instead of using his defensive midfielders to clog up the passing lanes in the center of the pitch to create openings for counterattacks, he deployed them to negate Chile's wingers, particularly rising star Alexis Sanchez. This meant that Chile had to push more players forward to try to make chances, allowing Brazil chance to counter from deeper on. Which they did, exquisitely.
Brazil certainly look the class or the tournament, but the match against the Netherlands will be a massive test.
Last Ranking: 4th Result: 3-1 v. Mexico Next Match: Germany
At this point, Maradona can't be a total failure. He can still fail. We may get some great entertainment about it. But the quarterfinals without even a draw? He's not an embarrassment, and that's okay.
While Messi, Tevez, and Higuain get the press, I'd like to point out Gabriel Heinze. Not only did he get the winning goal against Nigeria, but anytime Argentina's defense gets into trouble, he seems to be the one to bail them out. Blocking crosses and shots, goal-line clearances, timely tackles. He'll be needed against Germany's powerful attack.
Last Ranking: 9th Result: 4-1 v. England Next Match: Argentina
I predicted England to beat Germany based on Schweinsteiger's injury. He wasn't injured. In fact, he played brilliantly, with deft passing allowing the German flair players plenty of space and time.
Germany's attack looks good. So does Argentina's. Their defense? Not quite so airtight. Argentina's doesn't look perfect, but a little better. This should be an epic match, though I'd give the South Americans a slight edge. There's a lot of history here, though maybe not quite as much as England-Argentina. Germany and Argentina faced off in two World Cup finals in a row, with Argentina taking 1986 and Germany getting revenge in 1990. Four years ago, Argentina had the best squad in the tournament over the first four matches (sound familiar?) before totally blowing it against Germany by getting the lead, taking off their strikers, then getting tied and losing in penalties.
On the bright side for the Argentines, I suspect it's fairly unlikely that Maradona will let them play without strikers.
Last Ranking: 2nd Result: 2-1 v. Slovakia Next Match: Brazil
There's not much more epic than Brazil v. Holland in the World Cup. Their 1994 match is amongst the greatest in World Cup history, with Brazil winning 3-2 on a free kick in extra time:
Four years later, they met in another great match in the semi-finals, with Brazil winning on penalties.
Really, it doesn't get any better than this at the World Cup. This time around, both sides have been effective in progressing without totally dominating, although Brazil certainly has looked stronger. The return of Arjen Robben, however, gives the Dutch one of the few players in the world capable of unlocking the Brazilian defense though pure skill.
Last Ranking: 6th Result: 2-1 v. South Korea Next Match: Ghana
I've spent more than a few lines talking up Diego Forlan, who deserves it and did create a goal from a nifty piece of skill for his striking partner, Luis Suarez. But it was Suarez who stole the show against Korea, running himself into the ground before connecting on a beautiful curled shot from the edge of the box to win the game. I could have sworn the dip in the shot meant that it had taken a deflection, but it was actually hit that perfectly.
Forlan and Suarez should have plenty of chances against Ghana, and they're strong favorites to book a place in the semifinals because of it.
Last Ranking: 11th Result: 2-1 v. USA Next Match: Uruguay
I've been watching the American broadcast, and naturally the broadcasters focus on the American players and team. Usually this is done fairly, but in this last match, I thought they discredited Ghana by assigning all the agency to the USA. That is, the Americans let goals in by their mistakes, and then dominated the 2nd half with their changes. I don't think this is necessarily true. Yes, most goals come from mistakes, but Ghana was the better side overall because they were better. They were faster, more physical, more confident, and with one major exception, smarter than the Americans. It wasn't a massive advantage, and the 2-1 scoreline is perfectly fair
The major exception was the first 20 minutes of the second half, when for some reason, the Ghanaians seemed to give the USA more space in front of their defense, which the crisp passing of Feilhaber quickly exposed for chance after chance. If this was intentional, it was poor coaching, as Ghana's speed advantage allowed them to quickly close down American midfielders and regain possession during the rest of the match.
Ghana plays much like Brazil. They're not as talented or powerful yet, but they may be close sooner than we might have thought.
Last Ranking: 8th Result: 0-0 v. Japan (win on penalties) Next Match: Spain
Paraguay has gotten this far on strong defense, but they'll need more than that against the improving Spaniards. The injury to their star striker Salvador Cabanas, who was shot in the head in a nightclub, may finally spell doom for their World Cup run. Still, Switzerland's victory over Spain showed how a team with virtually no attacking power could defeat the European champions, and Paraguay is better than Switzerland.
Portugal won some respect from me with their tense match with Spain. I expected a much more cynical match, but Portugal played fair, and took on Spanish passing with fast counterattacking. It almost worked, up until the Spanish goal.
Portugal has done a good job in the last decade of moving from also-ran to contender. They seem to have a core of good players who can keep them in the conversation for the new few major tournaments. Hopefully for fans, they'll also add more dynamism and less cynicism.
The reason for the United States' slow starts isn't such a mystery. Bob Bradley simply kept starting players who couldn't control the game. I still don't understand what Ricardo Clark is supposed to do well, and it seemed like he tried to recreate the Charlie Davies magic with Robbie Findley.
Still, the World Cup was a strong success for the USA, and Bradley should certainly get another chance. They performed up to expectations - above, given that you'd expect a loss against England. The Ghana defeat is rough, but they were toe-to-toe with a strong team in the Round of 16. That's progress. A bit more progress, and the Americans could be legitimate contenders in 2018 or 2022.
For the first 20 minutes of the game, Mexico was going toe-to-toe with Argentina and doing well, despite Argentina's supposed talent surplus. One moment of chaos, and one horrible call, and the Mexicans went into meltdown mode. A rough defeat, but there are several young players who give El Tri hope for the future.
Sunday's games made me ashamed to be a soccer fan. How can I say "this is a sport worth watching!" when the referees miss two monumentally important, easy-to-correct calls. Yes, England wasn't better than Germany at that point, but Germany hadn't exactly dazzled. The next two German goals, however, came on counter-attacks due to England trying to equalize. And that's not even getting into the Mexico call yet.
That said, England never excited during the tournament, and only their fans will really miss them. Against Germany, they were totally uninspired in the first 25 minutes, with absolutely no wide play. Down 2-0, they finally started pushing the fullbacks up. Rooney was never into the tournament, and when your star is ineffective, you're going to go out.
The Koreans did their part in an epic match in the driving rain at Port Elizabeth. They never looked stronger than Uruguay, but they looked dangerous enough, and equalized in the second half. 2002 still looks a little fluky, but South Korea demonstrated that they can play with the big powers outside of Asia.
Brazil's first goal was a corner, and those things happen. The second indicated why Chile wasn't quite ready for the big stage. The ball was cleared from the Brazilian defense to about midfield. Knowing that, 1-0 ahead, Brazil was likely to look for fast counterattacks, the Chilean midfield should have been sprinting back in case their defense didn't win the header.
The defense didn't win the header, and Kaka, Luis Fabiano, and the rest of the Brazilian attack sprinted downfield with a 3-on-3 that ended with the ball in the back of the net. Poor realization from the Chilean players.
The core is good, the attack is good, but they're not quite ready as a team to be a contender. In four years? Perhaps.
Last Ranking: 15th Result: 0-0 v. Paraguay (eliminated on penalties)
Japan was written off by many people before the tournament (including myself) and certainly proved their detractors wrong. They said there was no creativity and flair, but Keisuke Honda was one of the best flair players in the tournament. If they keep improving, they could keep doing damage in World Cups.
Slovakia proved they belonged in the Round of 16 by giving the Dutch a game, very nearly getting an equalizer in the second half. That and their elimination of the defending champions should ensure that they're not ignored or confused for Slovenia anytime soon.