What an amazing first round of matches this World Cup has produced. The spirit of Brazil (the 1970 team, not the 1994 version) has been present in almost every game as more goals have been scored at this stage than ever before. This is what caught our eye from the group stage...
We prefer John Brooks to Lionel Messi
Yes, the stars have certainly come out to play, starting with Neymar lighting up the opening match with two goals. There have followed some marvellous performances from Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Andrea Pirlo, Karim Benzema and Lionel Messi (in the second half), not to mention Germany’s anti-star striker, Thomas Mueller.
This first round of matches has also thrown up some less familiar names, which is rare when our consumption of football is so comprehensive. And yet: how many fans had watched Ferencvaros last season and knew how impressive Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 21-year-old holding midfielder Muhamed Besic would be against Argentina?
Then there is the John Brooks story: the all-American-sounding player who has lived in Germany all his life, one of four squad members born to American servicemen based in Germany. The 21-year-old only played 14 times for Hertha Berlin last season and was in the squad as centre-half back-up. When he replaced Matt Besler at half-time, it was his first competitive match for USA. Four minutes from time, his headed goal was the winner, sparking one of the all-time great celebrations – Brooks looked stunned, incredulous, disbelieving, and didn’t know where to look or where to run. He had dreamed he would score the winner two days earlier – and that’s what the World Cup is all about.
New heroes are a rarity at this level these days: let’s hope the tournament can provide a few more before the group stage is out.
It’s not how you start the tournament, but how you end it
“Holland thrillingly showed there is life after the Group of Death… and left the best to last… Some goals. Some team.” - The Daily Telegraph
“The new Dutch have now mastered, and destroyed, the reigning world champion… they have dared to identify and promote new talents.” - New York Times
These are not reports from Netherlands' stunning 5-1 demolition of Spain in Group B’s first match, but from Euro 2008, when Marco van Basten’s Holland side beat Italy 3-0 and France 4-1 in the group stages. In the knock-out round, though, they came unstuck and lost 3-1 to Russia. What’s the lesson? It’s too early to call Netherlands early favourites, as we all know that starting the tournament so well is not a guarantee of ending it well. Look at the biggest first-game winners compared to eventual winners in recent World Cups:
Biggest first game winner: Germany 4 Australia 0
Eventual winner's first match: Spain lost 1-0 to Switzerland
Biggest first game winner: Spain 4 Ukraine 0
Eventual winner's first match: Italy beat Ghana 2-0
Biggest first game winner: Germany 8 Saudi Arabia 0
Eventual winner's first match: Brazil beat Turkey 2-1
Biggest first game winner: France 3 South Africa 0
Eventual winner: France beat South Africa 3-0
Biggest first game winner: Argentina 4 Greece 0
Eventual winner's first match: Brazil beat Russia 2-0
That's to take nothing away from Netherlands' success, which quite rightly should be seen as their best performance since winning the Euro 88 final. For Van Basten’s volley, read Van Persie’s header.
Have there been this many good goals at a World Cup before?
The beauty of goals is of course subjective, unless you are Thomas Mueller when a scuffed two-yard tap-in is clearly a thing of wonder, but this round of matches has already thrown up more memorable strikes than the whole of the 2010 tournament. Are players inspired by being in Brazil? Are the defences worse than normal? Is there a sense among coaches to go for it in game one as things can still be turned around in case of defeat?
Whatever the reason, the first five days of this World Cup have been dramatic and hugely enjoyable. If the players can play with the same attacking abandon in the knock-out stage, we could have a classic World Cup. Netherlands 5-1 Spain is probably the best match this competition has thrown up since the Germany-Italy semi-final in 2006. Here are our top five goals scored so far:
Top 5 World Cup goals – so far:
1. Arjen Robben’s second v Spain
2. Robin van Persie’s flying header v Spain
3. Clint Dempsey v Ghana
4. Lionel Messi v Bosnia-Herzegovina
5= Haris Seferovic v Ecuador
5= Dries Mertens v Algeria
Expect a missed penalty soon
Six penalties have been scored out of six – and that's quite a lot of penalties for the opening 16 games of the tournament. All but one of them, Mueller’s against Portugal, was the opening goal of the game. Interestingly, the first five penalties of the tournament were all taken to the same corner, the kicker’s natural side, which is often the default preference when the pressure is high. Algeria’s Sofiane Feghouli was the first to kick to his non-natural side, beating Thibaut Courtois from the spot. The average penalty scoring rate at a World Cup is higher than the usual 78%, it goes up to 80% in these tournaments, but when the pressure is at its peak, in the shoot-out, it drops as low as 71%. So while the spot-kicks are going in at the moment, in the pressure of the knock-out rounds, it might be a different story.
Defenders love a showboat
This has already been a World Cup of great moments, from the emotion of Brazil’s national anthem on opening night to Pablo Armero’s rehearsed goal celebration. Other moments also stand out: Jogi’s bogey (as Germany coach Jogi Loew picked his nose then shook the hand of Cristiano Ronaldo), Joe Hart’s reaction to a slow ball-boy, and Guillermo Ochoa’s masterclass against Brazil. But my favourite moment so far has to be Argentina defender Marcos Rojo clearing the ball inside his own area using a rabona kick, when the kicking leg is wrapped behind the standing leg. If any moment sums up the beauty and madness of this World Cup so far, that's it.
Team of the first round
Keylor Navas (Costa Rica), Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast), Geoff Cameron (USA), Raphael Varane (France), Daley Blind (Holland); Andrea Pirlo (Italy) Valon Behrami (Switzerland); Oscar (Brazil), Raheem Sterling (England), Arjen Robben (Holland), Thomas Mueller (Germany)
Subs: Tim Howard (USA), Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland), Matteo Darmian (Italy), Oscar Duarte (Costa Rica), Muhamed Besic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Mario Gotze (Germany), Tim Cahill (Australia)
Ben Lyttleton is the author of ‘Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty’ (Bantam Press), out now.
- Sports & Recreation