Germany was the big winner, of course, but that’s not exactly what we’re talking about here. At least, we’re not limiting ourselves to the results on the field.
Taking a broader view of the 2014 World Cup, which players, coaches, and teams came out as big winners? Who came into the tournament with one perception and, by virtue of what happened over the last four weeks, has crafted a new reputation for themselves? Who used Brazil 2014 raise their profile in the soccer world?
And let’s not limit this to what happened on the field. When we look back on the 2014 World Cup, what other aspects will leap from our memories, serving as the surprise contributions that helped define the tournament’s second trip to Brazil.
Undoubtedly, there are too many to list; then again, that’s what comments sections are for. Still, here are the handful that jump out to us one day after festivities have ended in at this summer’s World Cup.
Tim Howard – The long-time Everton keeper had established a certain level of respect within England, but aside from the most loyal of U.S. Men’s National Team diehards, few would have listed him as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. While that status may still be slightly beyond the 35-year-old’s reach, after his Round of 16 performance against Belgium, his name’s going to come up more often. Germany’s Manuel Neuer is now recognized as the best goalkeeper in the world, but you don’t have to move too far down that list before asking whether Howard deserves recognition.
Miroslav Klose – He’s never going to be discussed among the best strikers in history, but after claiming the World Cup’s all-time scoring record, the 36-year-old has a claim to being the tournament’s best striker. Longevity is certainly on his side, as is his production, but perception is not, something we may want to reconsider. As Klose’s 2014 shows, it’s easy to take the reliable for granted. As German found out, there’s something to be said for somebody who “merely” does his job very, very well. Where Klose started the tournament as an as-needed number nine, he ended it as a starter.
Javier Mascherano – Do you realize there’s a team in the world that has both Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano? After seeing what the Argentina destroyer did in Brazil, it’s tempting to ask why those two can’t play in the same midfield with Barcelona. Yeah, the club’s preferred style and formation mean … blah, blah, blah … Why would you ever want to take Mascherano out of midfield? Crucial to protecting Argentina’s defense, the former Liverpool linchpin proved his still one of the best defensive midfielders in the game, even if he doesn’t get to play the position as often as he wants.
Guillermo Ochoa – The former America goalkeeper’s promising international career was derailed when Javier Aguirre went away from him before the 2010 World Cup. It took four years and a pre-tournament injury to Jose de Jesus Corona to get that career back on track, but over four games in Brazil, the free agent goalkeeper reminded us of the promise he flashed in his early 20s. Now we wait and see what Memo’s World Cup breakthrough means for his club career.
Arjen Robben – Robben is recognized within the game as one of the world’s more dangerous attackers, but amid frequent injuries, playing in Germany, and a reputation for treating any contact like an artillery shell, his talents get overshadowed. In Brazil, however, the system Louis van Gaal implemented allowed Robben’s speed and skill to shine in transition, reminding the world that beyond the game’s absolute elite, there may be no player more dangerous than the Dutch star.
James Rodríguez – Radamel Falcao’s injury was a huge loss for the tournament, but Colombia may have been better for it. With James as the team’s focal point, the Cafeteros made a quarterfinal run, along the way establishing their 22-year-old as one of the world’s most exciting players. Back at Monaco, the five games James played in Brazil may become a distant memory, but if the 2014 World Cup provided any hint of his future, a new superstar was born.
[ MORE from our 2014 World Cup review ]
Jurgen Klinsmann – Group of Death or not, almost nobody expected the United States to get out of Group G. But advance they did, vindicating the controversial decisions Klinsmann has made in the run-up to Brazil. Though the team was again eliminated in extra time at the Round of 16, Klinsmann’s redemption continued, with the Germany program he helped build claiming the country’s first title in 24 years. In both his old and new homes, Klinsmann has begun converting doubters into fans, convincing some that his aloof confidence is based on a vision that may actually work.
Louis van Gaal – The Netherlands’ inability to qualify for World Cup 2002 was one of the blights on van Gaal’s résumé. Over the last four weeks, he’s earned redemption, taking a Dutch team picked to crash out in group stage to the tournament’s semifinals. Now on his way to Manchester United, van Gaal will have another reclamation project to master, but in his two years with the Dutch, he’s taken a team humbled by Euro 2012 embarrassment and restored its place among the best nations in the world.
Algeria – The Fennec Foxes had never qualified for the knockout round, with the ghosts of Austria and Germany’s 1982 collusion lingering 32 years later. In South Africa, the team didn’t even score a goal, leaving few hopeful Vahid Halilhodzic’s team would make a big impact in Brazil. Yet employing a quicker, more ambitious approach, Algeria bested Russia for second in their group, eventually taking Germany to extra time in the Round of 16. Shunning their own limitations, the Foxes set a new standard for themselves, making waves at the World Cup in the process.
Costa Rica – Perhaps the biggest Cinderellas since Turkey and South Korea made the semifinals in 2002, the Ticos showed a five-man defense need not be boring. Jorge Luis Pinto’s men were among the hardest workers in the tournament, an ethic that allowed them to navigate one of the competition’s deepest groups. While drawing Greece provided some fortune in the Round of 16, the Costa Ricans took the Netherlands to penalty kicks in the quarters, becoming CONCACAF’s best performer at the 2014 World Cup.
France – For Les Bleus, 2014 went beyond getting results on the field. Looking to redeem the team that was a source of embarrassment in 2010, France played some of the most attractive soccer of the tournament, and while they eventually met their end in the quarterfinals, their run helped erase the lingering unease over what happened in South Africa. Now, France can push on knowing the likes of Paul Pogba and Antoine Greizmann are capable of ushering in a new era, one that will make 2010 less of a memory than a footnote.
Germany – Obviously, the biggest winners of the tournament, but coming off a disappointing Euro 2012, die Nationalmannschaft’s triumph represents something more than the world title. Though the reforms Klinsmann introduced helped move the program out of its 2004 nadir, the semifinal loss to Italy two years ago highlighted a fragility in the team – a fault that introduced new doubts for a squad with nearly unmatched talent. With their win in Brazil, though, there’s no more room for doubt. Even if this generation crashed out of the next two tournaments, they’d still have this moment on top of the world.
Goal-line technology – From Ochoa’s save on Neymar in the group stage to Ron Vlaar’s near goal in Holland’s penalty kick shootout against Argentina, goal-line technology was implemented simply, elegantly, and without error, with the goal-no goal graphics sparking a number of memes through the competition. Perhaps FIFA should have implemented this sooner, once they did, they got it right.
Vanishing spray – While it was funny to hear the rest of the world’s reaction to a technology the Americas have used for some time, vanishing spray still represented a big win for world soccer. Perhaps that victory was lesson by some’s confusion the vanishing paint with an ability to make objects disappear, but that’s more about branding (and, education levels) than implementation. As Major League Soccer knows, there’s no reason why every major league shouldn’t use this stuff.
The World Cup – Seemingly from the tournament’s opening weekend, Brazil 2014 was lauded as one of the most entertaining World Cups in memory, and while there was some discussion of the tournament slowing as it reached its knockout rounds, drama in competition’s final rounds helped restore the competition’s last impression. With the last bastion of soccer nihilism watching in record numbers (at least, that’s how some want to see the U.S.), the World Cup was winning some of soccer’s final battles. Unless our memories fail us, Brazil 2014 will be remembered as one of the greatest World Cups.