Small Team, Small town, Big dreams – The Story of San Felipe

Amidst a string of national championship wins by big Chilean clubs like Universidad de Chile, Colo Colo, and Union Española, a tiny team won their first championship—surprising and surpassing all. The team was San Felipe, our Chilean Black Swan, presented to you by Sebastian Moraga at Goalden Times.

San Felipe

It all began with a fever.

With Chile having realized its dream of hosting a World Cup, the national football association (ACF or Central Association of Football in Spanish) determined that the football fever that had gripped the nation during those cold mid-year days of 1962 was enough to sustain 18 teams in the Primera Division—Chile’s top league.

Increasing the number of teams within Chile has always been a risky proposition. Not only does the country’s geographic shape make for some long trips, but the number of solvent squads has always been lower than the number of squads hoping to become solvent someday. So, filling up the calendar with trips to cities that have teams that can barely pay the bills rarely works out in anyone’s favour.

But this was 1962. The country had just finished third in the World Cup due to the coaching of Fernando Riera, and had a team the likes of which Chilean fans would not see again for decades. Names like Leonel Sanchez, Eladio Rojas, Alberto Fouilloux, Misael Escuti, Manuel Rodriguez, Adan Godoy, and an attacking midfielder named Jaime Ramirez had become part of the country’s football folklore. These names would only grow more legendary with the passage of time.

It was in the midst of this World-Cup fuelled enthusiasm that the ACF decided to expand itself to areas deep in the mountainous ranges of Chile.  Cities outside the capital had always been represented well with teams like Santiago Wanderers (oddly enough not located in Santiago but in the port city of Valparaiso) and Everton, located in the beach resort town of Viña del Mar. However, cities far from the coast had been lacking in representation, with a couple of exceptions like Rangers in the agricultural hub of Talca and O’Higgins in the mining town of Rancagua.

Perhaps seeking to fill that gap, the ACF allowed San Felipe, a town about 74 miles east of Valparaiso, to join the Primera Division. The team, Union San Felipe, known since then as the Uni-Uni (Oon-EE, Oon-EE) had been founded in 1956 after two amateur teams, “Tarcisio” and “Nacional”, had decided to merge.  After a year in the amateur ranks, they joined the professional ranks in 1957 by playing in Chile’s second division.

They were nothing more than a tough side till 1960, when they first turned heads after finishing third in the Segunda championship—six points away from Green Cross-Temuco, the champions. The next year, the Uni-Uni would climb over the hump and join Chile’s top league—finishing second in the Segunda Division, one point shy of champions (and nearby rivals) Union La Calera.

As with most fevers, this one also waned with time. Even after a few successful years that saw Union San Felipe reach ninth and eighth places during its first two years as a top-bracket team, San Felipe encountered the ghost that haunts most small-budget teams that are located away from Santiago—relegation.  Just two years after joining the top league, the Uni-Uni finished in the 15th place, just three rungs above the cellar. Their 1965 and 1966 campaigns would get them no closer to the elites, finishing 14th in both years.

Then, San Felipe finished eighth in 1967. What looked like the harbinger of better days was instead more of a mirage at the start of painful wanderings. By 1968, San Felipe had returned to the second division.

By 1968, some of the football fever had given way to a methodical and passionless tournament fixture that would only last a couple of years. Furthermore, ACF splitted teams into two groups: the teams from Santiago and the teams from outside Santiago.

 Gone were the round-robin tournaments where everybody played everybody else twice. Instead, the teams from Santiago, the capital city, would play for the Metropolitan championship, and the rest would play the Provincial championship. The top teams in each would play a new tournament named the Championship of Honour, while the teams near or in the cellar in the Metropolitan and the Provincial would play another tournament called the Promotional.

San Felipe finished next-to-last in the Provincial and last in the Promotional, sentencing itself to play the 1969 season in the second division, the dreaded Segunda. It would stay there for two years until 1970, when it won the second division championship and returned to the top league. It was, although nobody knew it at the time, the beginning of another fever—one that caught many by surprise.

At the helm of San Felipe was a man who knew the town, and the teams nearby, well. Luis Santibañez Diaz, barely into his fourth decade of life, had spent already half of it coaching football. He began his career by coaching adults while he was still a teenager in his native Antofagasta, a port town about 830 miles north of Santiago.

Those early days in Antofagasta were the beginning of a pilgrimage that would take Santibañez to places like Ecuador and Qatar in the decades to come. But in the late 1960s, Santibañez had not yet become the household name in Chile as he is now. Back then, he was just a young coach, collecting experiences and waiting for his big break.

When the people in San Felipe came calling, Santibañez already knew the club well—having run its youth squads in early 1960s. Many of the players now playing for the Uni-Uni as pros had been Santibañez’ pupils years earlier.  That familiarity would play a big role in the success Santibañez and San Felipe would achieve. But of course, neither side knew it yet.

After a couple of years, both San Felipe and then-youth coach Santibañez parted ways, but the two were never too far away. When San Felipe lost its top-league status in 1968, Santibañez had a front-row seat to the debacle of relegation as he was Trasandino’s coach in the next-door city of Los Andes. The next year, while San Felipe toiled in the second division, Santibañez coached Coquimbo (coe-KEEM-bo)—a couple of hours north.

Then, in 1970, the two met again. With a young squad and a young coach, San Felipe earned its return to the first division, overcoming the team from south—Iberia Bio-Bio—by one point.

San Felipe
San Felipe squad in 1971 [Source – El Observador]

That year, San Felipe not only overcame a tough team in Iberia, but also participated in one of the weirdest championships in the history of professional Chilean football. At the beginning of the year, a club named Ferrobadminton, which had been born decades earlier out of the fusion of Ferroviarios (railroad workers) and Badminton, decided to split, share a stadium, a roster, and a tournament while working out their divorce. In addition, Universidad Tecnica had been disbanded before the start of the tournament, putting an end to its inglorious 26-year history—during which they had never climbed above fourth place.

Lastly, a team with the very metropolitan name of Municipal Santiago had found itself with no stadium, no real fandom, but at the same time, with no real hurry to acquire either. They were content with finishing in the middle of the standings every year. Frankly, that annoyed the brass at the ACF no end.

The ACF had never been shy about their plan for getting rid of small-time Santiago clubs. They would send them to places far away from the capital so that Chile’s largest city only had well-moneyed clubs. That’s how onetime Santiago teams like Iberia and Green Cross found themselves in the southern towns of Los Angeles (bathed by the waters of the Bio-Bio river) and Temuco.

Enter Municipal Santiago. The ACF forced Municipal Santiago to play its games out of town. After months spent looking for a host, the town of Rengo (60 miles to the south) offered its stadium (but little else).  Municipal Santiago would have to train, teach, and do business in Santiago, and only on game days would they come to “represent” Rengo.

Needless to say, the deal didn’t work out. Rengo never warmed up to “its” club, and Municipal Santiago never tried really hard to make fans, sticking on their jerseys their regular logo, which carried—what else?—the coat of arms of Santiago. Municipal sank to the bottom of the standings, ending its stay among the professional ranks of Chilean football. The team would live to see one more year, before finally disbanding.

At the other end of the spectrum stood San Felipe, itching for a return to Primera that had been several years in the making.  The top brass at San Felipe, now readying for their first season in Primera in almost four years, had one request of Santibañez. It wasn’t medals, trophies, or even the proverbial “good showing.” All the team bosses wanted was a team that didn’t immediately return to the second division.

Perhaps to set an example, the top brass at San Felipe didn’t go crazy buying or renting players to strengthen their squad that had won the second-division championship. In fact, they only signed one big name—a 40-year-old named Jaime Ramirez. This was the same Jaime Ramirez who, along with his group of immortals, had achieved the highest honour Chilean football’s history back in 1962.

It had been nine years since 1962. Having played in three countries and two World Cups, Ramirez was a fading football star at the twilight of his career. Regardless, his name still carried some weight—especially for a team less than 15 years old and fresh off the second division.

Nevertheless, those watching the newcomers prepare for the Primera season wondered if they were taking things seriously enough. One signing? One signing of a 40-year-old for a team hoping not to end up being relegated? On paper, it didn’t seem enough.

It was another signing, with much less fanfare than Ramirez’, that would help turn the team’s fortunes around in the long term. Having spent the last season in nearby Quillota playing for local side San Luis, Uruguayan striker Uruguay Graffigna was friends with some San Felipe players. So, when they asked him to sign on for their first year back in Primera, Graffigna agreed.

Since its inception in 1933, no team from outside Santiago had won the championship until Everton won it in 1950. Everton repeated this feat in 1952. Subsequently, no team from outside Santiago won this tournament in the next 20 years apart from Valparaiso’s Santiago Wanderers in 1958 and 1968.

Then Union San Felipe hit the jackpot in 1971.

According to football historian Edgardo Marin Mendez’ book Historia de los Campeones, the newspaper scribes of the era wrote “It’s not enough for Primera,” about a San Felipe team [1]. By then, the team had added three players from San Luis, including Graffigna, Ramirez, and home-grown talent Rafael Henriquez. Henriquez was back from a loan to Huachipato, a team from the steel mills in southern Chile’s Talcahuano.

The 1971 tournament also brought back the round-robin format of the fixture after three years of experimenting with dull provincial and metropolitan tournaments.

So when San Felipe won its first two matches, nobody paid much attention. Many a team start strong, fuelled perhaps by the adrenaline of playing in the top division after a spell of looking up to it. When the third game came along and the rival was powerhouse Universidad de Chile (winner of the Chilean Championship in six of the last 12 editions), many figured the fabled “Chuncho” (Owl) would be the team to put San Felipe back in its place.

Instead, it was San Felipe that put their hosts in their place, winning 4-3, followed by a 1-1 tie at home against Rangers. This was followed by a goal-fest—a 6-1 victory against Santiago’s Audax Italiano squad, one of Chile’s oldest.

By the time the Audax game had ended, San Felipe had completed five games without losing. The Cinderella team had found itself atop the standings during its first 45 days back from relegation, tied mano-a-mano [2] with nearby Calera. And it was Calera that ended up snapping San Felipe’s winning streak, defeating them 4-1.

Another loss two weeks later created some doubt among the press, because what lay ahead looked difficult—Colo Colo, the defending champion, also undefeated and always backed by a sizeable fan base.

None of that mattered to San Felipe. A team of hardworking players “who run until the last minute [1],” (as Marin quoted Santibañez’ mantra) managed to remain humble and serene. It was that serenity that allowed them to turn around a 1-0 deficit against Colo Colo into a 2-1 victory—their fifth in nine games,

From then on, people started looking differently at San Felipe. It didn’t happen overnight. Many fans expected that sooner or later these young upstarts from the hillsides would hit a losing streak and return to the bottom of the standings. But it never happened.  And they began to gain new followers week after week.

The players believed in Santibañez and listened to everything he says. “The only thing he asked of us was to play to win,” Graffigna said of Santibañez in an interview with the author last February. The “Old Man” Ramirez fit well with the young team, on and off the pitch.

“It was a very simple, humble team,” Graffigna commented. “But it was a team that wanted it and went after it. It was our dream to win. We wanted to win every Sunday. Away or at home, we wanted to win.”

 The forwards defended, the defence attacked—it was total football three years before it became a worldwide phenomenon with Rinus Michels and the Netherlands.  Every week, the squad from San Felipe kept on surprising with their quick touches, hardworking attitude, and their team-first roster of 18 young players and one veteran.

In his book La Historia de los Campeones, Chilean football historian Marin posits that the key to the team’s success was that it battled hard in every game, not just in stretches and who decided to enjoy as a personal triumph their devotion to the group.  “They believed in Santibanez, and the results advised them it was wise to keep believing in him,” he wrote [1].

Chilean football historian Marin posits that the key to the team’s success was that it battled hard in every game, not just in stretches and who decided to enjoy as a personal triumph their devotion to the group

The acceptance of Santibanez’ football philosophy was no doubt aided by the fact that four of the 11 regular starters had been coached by him in their youth squads.

 “He would only tell us what to do with the ball. Nothing else. And when we didn’t have the ball, to get it back as quickly as possible,” Graffigna said. “All the players knew what to do. Nobody ever told Santibañez he was wrong and the players lived up to his expectations.”

Graffigna ended up scoring 15 goals for the champions [1], one more than his teammate Manuel Nunez, nicknamed “El Poroto”—the jelly bean. Ramirez himself had a goal, one of the last ones of his illustrious career. The goals by Nuñez had cemented him as the fifth-top scorer in the Primera championship, behind three other Chilean players and a Paraguayan, Eladio Zarate. Zarate ended up with the top score of 25 goals while playing for Universidad de Chile. Remarkably, Nuñez was the leading scorer for the team and for all the other non-Santiago squads.

Scoring 15 goals was an impressive feat for the Uruguayan striker, who had suffered a broken leg two years earlier and had spent the previous year playing for nearby San Luis and sleeping in the team’s headquarters.

By the time the team defeated Colo Colo a second time in October 1971, what seemed impossible at the beginning of the year now almost seemed like a plausible goal. They were a hairbreadth away from winning consecutive championships in both Segunda and Primera. No Chilean team had ever done it— much less a team from outside Santiago, in a Santiago-centric championship like Primera.

In their penultimate showdown, San Felipe beat Deportes Concepcion with a last-minute goal by Graffigna. In their last match, San Felipe beat Lota Schwager (from the coal-mining town of the same name) and won the first Primera championship in its history.

“It was a beautiful competition, my first championship,” said Graffigna, in an interview with the author. He played in all 34 games that season [1].

The team never lost twice or more in a row, it did not lose twice to the same opponent [1] However, five teams lost both their home and away games to San Felipe [1]. In the last 13 games of the season, it only lost once, in December, in the heat of summer when the title was already theirs [1].  That’s when fans unfurled their signs that read “Del Ascenso a la Libertadores,” (From Relegation to the Libertadores Cup)  a feat unmatched by any Chilean football team till date.

Not since San Felipe has a Chilean team reached Primera after playing in the second division, won Primera the next year, and qualified for the Libertadores Cup. San Felipe did it first, although the heights of success would prove too much for the squad, its inexperienced players, and its young coach.

“We behaved badly at the Libertadores,” Graffigna says almost 50 years later, from his home in Quillota. “We didn’t have our heads in the Libertadores. Try as we might, we weren’t trying hard and we weren’t doing the things we needed to do.”

Back then, the Libertadores’ first round teamed up two teams from one country against two teams from another, playing in a round-robin format. Union San Felipe’s stadium was not big enough for the requirements of CONMEBOL (back then referred to as the CSF, for Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol). Thus, they had to play their home games in Santiago.

And it was in Santiago where San Felipe would achieve its first triumph in an international competition—a 3-2 victory over Universidad de Chile. It would be the only win for the Uni-Uni during that tournament’s first round, which saw the Chilean champion finish last in its group.

“We kind of went on a bender of sorts at the Libertadores, we thought of ourselves as better than we really were,” Graffigna said. “We weren’t smart enough to play against those teams.”

And if going from champions of Segunda to champions of Primera in two years had been a hard-to-rival feat, going from champions of Primera to the cellar of Primera in two years proved much easier. In 1972, San Felipe finished next-to-last, two points away from dropping to Segunda. The spectre of relegation never stood too far away. In 1973, the squad reached the last game of the season tied for last with Universidad Catolica. A win by San Felipe and a loss by Catolica saved the Uni-Uni from relegation, but not for long. The team finished last the next year, and returned to Segunda.

Thus ended a Cinderella story that saw a team come from the depths of relegation to the summit of top-flight Chilean football and then back down again in half a decade. For at least three people, though, the meteoric rise and fall worked out well enough. For Santibanez, the title with San Felipe was the long-awaited big break. After one more year with San Felipe, he signed with Union Española, a Santiago team. With “Furia Roja,” (Red Fury) , Santibañez would win the championships in 1973, ’75 and ’77, and finish second in the Libertadores of ’75. He would finish as runner-up in the Primera Division in ’76, losing in a one-game playoff after tying Everton for first place. In 1979, he was handed the reins of the national team and finished second in Copa America, narrowly missing out on first place on goal difference, after three final matches and an extra time was unable to separate them from eventual champions Paraguay. In 1981, he led the team to qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Luis Santibáñez [Source – José Ignacio Gutiérrez]

For Manuel Gaete, midfielder for San Felipe, the title would be the first but not the last. Hooking up again with Santibañez, this time in Union Española, Gaete would win the 1975 title, scoring four goals and playing in all but two games [1].

And for Graffigna, the 15 goals he scored for Union San Felipe were his ticket out of the hillsides and on to the big city. Union Española signed him in 1972, and the red uniforms of Union became a little too red when worn by Graffigna, much to the dismay of the striker.

A condition known as scabies curtailed his time with Union, right at the start of the team’s most successful era. It sprouted on his chest and glutes, and the itching made playing football impossible for him.

“Nobody would believe me,” Graffigna remembered.  “Then, the doctors wondered how I played football with that on my body.”

 However, neither the condition, nor the ensuing nickname of “sarnoso,” (scabby one) managed to curtail Graffigna’s career. He went on to sign with Mexico’s Pachuca, and later play in the Netherlands and in the then-thriving North American football League, under the name Uri (short for Uruguay) Banhoffer (his mother’s maiden name.)

“The president of the team saw my name, Uruguay Gustavo Graffigna Banhoffer and didn’t like it, so he shortened it,” says Graffigna, who retired at the beginning of the 1980s and then tried his hand at coaching. “Coaching wasn’t for me,” he insists.

After 1982, Santibanez’ star began to fade, beginning with a disastrous 1982 World Cup showing in Spain that saw Chile lose all its games. After that, Santibanez would never win another Primera championship and although he never lost faith in his coaching bonafides, he never got the second chance he so desired at the helm of the national team. He died in 2008, his name having long been besmirched by allegations that he drugged his players [3]. A former player, oddly named Jaime Ramirez (no relation with the player Santibanez managed) verified this in a TV show in 2013.

To Graffigna, the name Santibanez is not synonymous with anything other than that magical season of 1971.

“We worshipped him,” Graffigna said. “That season changed our lives.”

After losing its top-flight status in 1974, San Felipe spent the next 20 years on a roller-coaster ride that began with a terrifying slide, missing out twice, but just barely, on dropping down to Tercera and out of the professional ranks of Chilean football.

After eight years in Segunda, San Felipe returned to Primera in 1982, but without the vigour of 12 years earlier. After four years of poor showings, USF returned to Segunda for a year, before climbing back to the top rank in 1988 and returning to Segunda in 1989. They stayed there for 10 subsequent years.

The new millennium’s arrival saw a San Felipe committed to making, if not a splash, at least an effort to return to Primera and stay there. Thirty years after Luis Santibañez had given the team its first Segunda crown, former USF star Raul Toro repeated the feat, winning the Segunda championship, which by then had taken on a new moniker, the slightly confusing “Primera B.”

The return to Primera lasted six years. Then after a few seesaw years, the team won its third Segunda (or “Primera B”) championship in 2009. Additionally, it won one of Chile’s oldest tournaments, the simplistically named “Copa Chile,” which is played parallel to the main tournament and offers berths to the Sudamericana Cup as rewards to its champion.

The trip to Sudamericana Cup was a little better than their foray into the Libertadores almost 40 years earlier, but not by much.

Since 2013, San Felipe have been trying hard for a return to Primera A once again. A competition is in its 61st year currently, and San Felipe have played 36 seasons looking up at the top bracket and 24 as part of it. Marks that perhaps belie the turmoil the team has encountered in the last 10 years, during which the beloved Uni-Uni has found itself under the helm of more than 20 coaches.

There are enough reasons for them to miss the glory days of 1971, a legend that grows more lovable with each coaching change and passing year.

“It’s something very special,” says Graffigna.

References

  1. [1] Marin E. La Historia de los Campeones; B00KK88TCS, 1991
  2. [2] mano-a-mano : meaning an even confrontation, hand-to-hand in Spanish. It’s when two similarly powerful teams go up against each other. Its likely origin is arm wrestling, which pits one person’s hand against another person’s hand.
  3. [3] Red Gol

Cover Image Credit: Francisco Javier Argel

Tik Tact Tales

World Cup 2014 is still fresh in our memory. So what new did we come across? Which teams impressed us with their discipline or attacking flair? And which managers did impress us with their tactical maneuvering? Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes all these and more here with GT.

With the FIFA 2014 World Cup finally coming to a close, there has been a great deal of debate going on about whether this World Cup was the greatest ever. There were several indications that it was definitely one of the best in post world war era. If on the one hand we had loads of goals  (at least in the group stages), plenty of drama and endless emotions, captivating us for more than a month, on the other hand we also witnessed some fascinating tactical battles throughout the campaign. Let us take a look at some tactics that left a lasting impression.

Germany

Germany started the competition in 4-3-3 formation with Philipp Lahm, possibly the best right back in the world playing as midfield anchor. Joachim Löw had a fluid front three of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller with the licence to roam and interchange at will.

Germany formation in the final - dictating the middle of the pitch
Germany formation in the final – dictating the middle of the pitch

Germany stormed through to the second round but looked slow and susceptible against an attacking opponent. In the round of 16 match against Algeria, the German full backs –Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, centre backs in their club teams, started venturing forward but without any substantial impact. It exposed their centre backs and Löw , the mastermind, unleashed Manuel Neuer in an extremely aggressive sweeper keeper role. It was a move which could have backfired but he trusted his keeper who never let him down with 17 perfectly timed clearances outside his penalty box. Germany, however, looked more threatening and settled as Lahm moved to his natural right back role to replace the injured Mustafi, thus paving the way for Sami Khedira in the midfield. The latter added much needed pace in the Die Mannschaft middle third while Bastian Schweinsteiger looked far more comfortable in the deep ball playing role than his captain –  the move ultimately elevated Germany to another level but happened more by chance than planning.

Löw made another decisive switch in the next match against France by introducing an out and out striker in Miroslav Klose upfront. He provided a focal point to the German attack, and allowed Müller to start at his usual right hand channel and drift inside. Although Klose had little impact on the game in the attacking third and more precisely, inside the penalty box, he helped push back the French centre backs, and thus freed up the space for German midfielders to maintain the goal threat.

With Khedira getting ruled out during warm up and his replacement Christoph Kramer having a poor game before leaving the field due to an injury , Germany were set back in the final with the shortage of central midfielders. Özil had to fall back to the midfield trio where he was never at ease. Löw  though had the final say as his super subs André Schürrle and Götze combined to clinch the title.

Germany had a very peculiar team – from an ultra-modern goalkeeper to the old-fashioned goal poacher. But just like the previous two winners Italy and Spain, Germany also had a variety of attacking threats– they seemed to find a goal scorer from virtually every corner of the field during critical moments. Joachim Löw should be credited for not only winning the World Cup, but also nurturing so many young talents en route.

Argentina

Alejandro Sabella made a huge tactical error as he started the campaign with a 3-5-2, but he quickly went for damage control at half-time. With Bosnia and Herzegovina using only a lone striker upfront, Sabella spared an extra man from the back to add more solidity and control in the midfield. Lionel Messi definitely enjoyed the hybrid 4-3-3 formation and his own false 9 role.

Angel di Maria taking on Swiss defenders succesfully – Source: Squawka

Sabella drastically changed things around in his next match and moved to a 4-2-4 system against an Iran side expected to sit back and defend for their lives. Iran showed tremendous discipline and robbed Argentina of any space. Once again Argentina failed to impress.

Finally Sabella addressed the core issue, albeit through an injury to front man Sergio Agüero. Ezequiel Lavezzi was introduced and though he did not produce a tangible end product, he was honest in his wide position and provided a proper 4-2-3-1 balance to the team which gave Messi the licence to roam around. Messi, as expected, was heavily marked throughout the World Cup. However, he constantly managed to drag at least two of the opponent midfielders out of position, which was opening up a vast area between the lines for others to drift into. Unfortunately, more so after the injury to Ángel di María, none of his team mates managed to take advantage. All of Argentina’s movements were distressingly linear playing into opposition hands.

Messi dictated much of the tempo for Argentina. His reserved, calculated and sudden burst of speed while attacking meant that Argentina’s tempo changed from the qualifiers, where they preferred breaking quickly. This tactical shift was very critical for La Albiceleste – the more classic eloquent Latin American display with Messi playing  an archetypal Argentine #10 devoid of any strong European influence.

Pegged by injuries to key players, Sabella opted for Lavezzi and Enzo Pérez– a central midfielder –on the wings, semi final onwards. Lavezzi, a forward, was naturally more effective venturing forward. It showcased how two makeshift wide players, given virtually similar roles, carried them out quite differently. Especially against Germany in the final, Sabella missed a trick by not asking Lavezzi to stick to the right side taking on an uncomfortable German left back Benedikt Höwedes, a right central defender.

In the finals against Germany, Sabella made an inexplicable change at half time, a switch which tilted the balance of the game in Germany’s  favour – in came a half fit Agüero for a very lively Lavezzi and Argentina changed to a midfield diamond.  They lost all the width and pace down the flank, and played to the German hands by being extremely narrow in the central areas. Sabella opted for a star player sacrificing the team shape and it cost him the World Cup.

Netherlands

Louis van Gaal deployed three centre backs with a high-risk strategy – high defensive line, ready to keep possession in deep areas in own half and launch direct balls forward bypassing the opponent midfield and defensive lines. There was clear instruction for two outside centre halfs to track down the two most forward players from the opponent team, even if it meant going beyond own midfield line. This paved the way for a high pressing game with an open channel for kick starting quick counter attacks.

This strategy had some loopholes though. Australian midfielders were ready to make runs deep from their own half to exploit the zone vacated by Dutch centre backs high line. But this, in effect, opened up the game more as Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben found themselves one on one against the opponents’ mid fielders. Van Gaal closed down the game by bringing in a pacy winger Memphis Depay to keep the Australian full backs more occupied. A change of formation to 4-3-3 also deprived the Australian front three any open space, resulting in a slower game, where gap in quality eventually won.

Dutch center backs - de Vrij and Martins Indi - tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain
Dutch center backs – de Vrij and Martins Indi – tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain – Source: Squawka

One masterstroke by van Gaal was using Dirk Kuyt, a forward by position, as an auxiliary wing back. It allowed the Oranje to transit seamlessly from a three centre back to classical 4-4-2 during different phases of the match. This was pretty apparent in the round of 16 match against Mexico. After a stalemate in the first half where both the teams cancelled each other out in a 3-5-2 set up and were producing a slow drab game, Van Gaal switched Kuyt to a conventional full back and introduced an out an out winger. The team played an immensely attacking 4-2-1-3 formation, though at the cost of a weaker midfield , as the Dutch won the game through wide areas by pushing the opponents’ wing backs even further – rather 3-4-1-2 to very attacking 4-2-1-3.

A very courageous move was already made by substituting Van Persie for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a natural penalty box poacher, perfect for getting on the end of crosses. But the move of the match came during the water break, after which Kuyt moved upfront from his right-back position, with Georginio Wijnaldum covering the right of the pitch. This tactical switch resulted in the late Dutch dominance and a 2-1 comeback win.

The Dutch were good against teams taking the game to them which meant more space to work in counters. But in the quarter final they faced Costa Rica, a mirror image of themselves,  albeit with less attacking flair and prowess. It could have produced a stalemate but not with Netherlands involved. Van Gaal moved his wing backs further up to push back the opposition wing-backs, stretched his forwards with Wesley Sneijders’ across the pitch and kept the Costa Rican centre backs occupied to basket their build-up play.

Costa Rica were content at keeping their shape at the back, and hence did not have anything to offer going forward. The Dutch were controlling the game but had a redundant defender in a 3 v 1 at the back, with none of the three centre backs stepping up into midfield to dictate the game. The Oranje, surprisingly took second half of the extra-time to address this issue, but rightfully changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4, with and Huntelaar coming on up front at the expense of Bruno Martins Indi.

Then came the most talked about substitution of this World Cup. within the 119th minute, van Gaal substituted sub goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen  with Tim Krul. It was more of a psychological move than anything else : Krul is not a penalty specialist, but the iota sub convinced Costa Rica that he was.

And what an inspired substitution it was! Except for the first kick, Krul came out of his goal every time the striker walked towards the penalty spot to place it, normally walking to one side. Then Krul dived in the opposite direction of his walk. And Krul guessed it right every time, saving two in the process.

Netherlands were brilliant throughout the tournament, with van Gaal relying upon an uncommon, tight man-marking system. He was refreshingly flexible to change his formation each game to match his opposition midfield, with wing backs dropping back to have an overload in defence.

Brazil

Luiz Felipe Scolari changed the way his three attacking men lined up, a tactic that surprised everyone. Oscar, most effective when operated centrally, was drifted to a wider role on the right. Neymar loves to operate from left but he was effectively used as a support striker to centre forward Fred. Hulk, who started right behind the lone striker Fred during, last year’s Confederations Cup win was shifted to the left wing. This change may be due to Neymar’s increased stocks since last year which prompted Big Phil  to offer his star player more time with the ball. But this overhaul complicated things for their most creative player, Oscar, who was visibly not comfortable playing out of position.

There is no denying the fact that nowadays Brazil lacks real skilful, creative, attacking footballers, and Scolari, hence, rightly set up the Seleção as a primarily counter-attacking team. He showed his experience by playing a midfield shuttler in Ramires and sacrificing one of the front men against teams fielding three men at the back.  But sometimes he was let down by the inexperience of Neymar, who played more like a second striker than a number 10, making himself vulnerable to marking.

Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany
Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany. Not tracking back even when the defence surely could do with some help – Source: Squawka

In the annihilation at the hands of Germany, everything that could go wrong for the hosts went wrong. The most perplexing decision was the inclusion of Bernard  in the starting XI. There has been questions on whether it was solely because he is a local Belo Horizonte boy, and Scolari, having lost Neymar already, was desperately trying to cash in on his popularity.  The whole team performance was bizarre. Brazil were atrociously broken into two sections –six defenders, four attackers, and no midfield link between them. The defence could not pass the ball to the attackers, and the front four could not retain possession much longer to ease the pressure on the back six.

In the second half, Scolari made some changes – Paulinho and Ramires replaced Hulk and Fernandinho, switching to more of a 4-3-3, with Luiz Gustavo behind Ramires and Paulinho. In hindsight, this is probably the team and shape Scolari should have started with.

Chile

Chile were one of the most versatile sides in the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli dished out a midfield diamond with plenty of variations. Marcelo Díaz, the holding midfielder would often drop deep making it a three centre back allowing the full backs to operate more like wingbacks. From there, long diagonal switch of play across the width of the field was one of the characteristics of quick Chilean counter attacks. Up front, at top of the diamond, Jorge Valdivia played further up more like a false nine rather than in a number 10 role. Striker duo of Alexis Sánchez and Edurado Vargas regularly drifted wide dragging the opponent centre halves with them and creating space for Valdivia to run into. Sampaoli also proved his worth as a clever tactician by introducing a fast, direct centre forward Jean Beausejour late in matches and switching to more traditional 4-3-3 to exploit tiring defences.

At times, Chile showed they can be reactive and can adapt very quickly. Sampoli fielded 3-4-1-2 against Spain, to replicate the Dutch pressing game against Spain. He was not copying blindly though – Chile were cautious, giving due respect to Spain as often they sat back deep to form a five man defensive line. But they overloaded when attacking and quickly changed play by passing the ball from one flank to another, a highlight of their famous win.

Colombia

Jose Pékerman, the veteran Argentine coach, was widely expected to field a narrow 4-2-2-2 in the World Cup but was handicapped by last minute injury to star forward Radamel Falcao and shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Star of the campaign was James Rodríguez – not only he dazzled forward but always came deep to collect the ball and play some glorious through balls. Rodríguez was thought to be uncomfortable in a converted winger position but he showed tremendous adaptability and his longitudinal awareness was absolutely brilliant. It also helped that they had two skilful full backs in Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Pablo Armero who besides providing width and making overlapping runs, were comfortable with the ball deep in opponent territory, holding and dribbling past defenders. Colombia displayed tremendous discipline with the back four and the two holding midfielders, and lit the stage with Rodríguez and another trickster in Juan Cuadrado. But they suffered up front as both Jackson Martínez and Teófilo Gutiérrez failed to impress. Had they got a decent striker in the final third to support Rodríguez, Colombia might just have gone all the way.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica shocked everyone the most with their honest and disciplined display of tactical football. Jorge Luis Pinto, in his second stint as the national team coach, deployed a back three in a counter attack based system. This was in stark contrast to all other teams in the tournament having a three centre half system – Netherlands, Mexico et al were comfortable with the ball, pressed higher and had a possession based approach. On the other hand, Pinto’s team defended deep and relied on direct counter attacks – not through long balls but refreshingly eye catching speedy passing to wide areas. Sometimes they did press high up but generally they allowed the opponent teams to come at them, get exposed at the back and then break free.

 

Costa Rica were brilliant at setting up off side traps – their tally of 41 successful traps till the quarter final stages was more than double of the second ranked team (Germany) in this category. It shows how cohesive their defensive unit was. But the same unit struggled to switch to a conventional flat four after going down to ten men against the round of 16 match against Greece. Pinto’s tactical shift to 4-4-1 took a while to get going as the wing backs continued to play very wide instead of playing close to the centre backs. They eventually rectified themselves by playing narrow, helping out the stoppers and leaving the flanks to be taken over by the wingers. They eventually won the match on penalties, but did not have enough tricks up their sleeves to progress further in the competition.

France

Didier Deschamps succeeded in bringing France out of the 2010 World Cup debacle and spearheaded a well-knit unit. France’s star performer was Mathieu Valbuena who occupied the right-sided position in a three men attack but often drifted inside into pockets of spaces in more central positions. He carried out the double role of a right winger as well as a perfect #10 – on top of a midfield diamond – with aplomb.

Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide - again Nigeria in Round of 16
Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide – against Nigeria in Round of 16 – Source: EPLINDEX

But Deschamps struggled to fit in his striker duo of Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud in the starting XI efficiently. First of all, Valbuena had to be shifted in the left wing where his utility was compromised. Then, Giroud could not hold up the ball up front effectively enough, and often he mistimed his runs to create space for others. Benzema also became less effective whenever asked to operate from the left in a 4-3-3 system, did not offer any width at all, and could not go behind the last defender into goal scoring positions. In effect, his narrowness resulted in Valbuena’s diminished return.

But Benzema playing as a wide man was even more problematic due to his minimal defensive contribution. Against less disciplined teams such as Switzerland (at the group stage) this approach was still workable, since Swiss right-back Stephane Lichtsteiner was regularly getting caught in the French half and Benzema could exploit the space in counter-attack. But against more tactically sound sides like Nigeria in the round of 16 match, Efe Ambrose had a more balanced role to carry out. He attacked the French left wing with no one tracking him and combined well with Peter Odemwingie to create problems for Patrice Evra.

Les Blues were playing a lop-sided 4-4-2 and were going nowhere. Deschamps addressed the issue by taking off Giroud, introducing Antoine Griezmann, and shifting Benzema upfront in a classic 4-3-3. This move changed the game – Griezmann’s directness and verticality in possession proved decisive as he linked well with both Benzema and Valbuena. France won courtesy a Paul Pogba header from a corner but ran out of ideas in the quarter final against eventual winner Germany.

Belgium

Marc Wilmots biggest tactical genius was perhaps the use of his substitutes. In the opener against Algeria he struggled in the first half with a 4-4-1-1 and an inept toothless attack. At the half time, Kevin de Bryune was shifted to a central position, and Belgium now had a potent target man with super sub Marouane Fellaini playing as the second striker. Fellaini did not disappoint and pulled Belgium level with a brilliant header.

Wilmots then put up an example for everyone – he did not hesitate to start with Divock Origi upfront, ahead of his number 1 striker, an underperforming Romelu Lukaku in the knock out stages. But he was not stubborn to prove himself right as he changed things whenever required. The round of 16 match against USA was turning out to be a frustrating one for the Belgian faithful. USA kept on losing the ball frequently and Belgium kept on squandering chances against an impregnable Tim Howard. Wilmots could do nothing much but still he shook things up by introducing a bit of pace by introducing Kevin Mirallas in place of Dries Mertens. In extra-time Lukaku was called off the bench to inject even more pace upfront at the expense of Origi. And Belgium finally got the crucial breakthrough as Lukaku teed up De Bruyne on the break. Ten minutes later the reverse sequence happened and Lukaku’s cameo helped Belgium overcome a stubborn USA side. Belgium created a lot in the match, but a clinical striker made all the difference late in the match.

Wilmots was handicapped with the lack of natural full backs – everyone in his back four was a centre half.  So there was no consistent overlapping runs, no overload in the wide area and one cannot succeed at the World Cup without such a basic weapon.

Notable mentions:

    • England coach Roy Hodgson excited all of us with four attackers in a 4-2-4 system. But obvious downside of this formation was lack of defensive responsibilities and less protection for full backs which cost them a lot. Also Wayne Rooney’s positioning was an issue – he was shifted constantly during and in between matches from either flanks to the behind the striker position. World Cup was no place to decide the best position for the team’s most influential player.
    • Paulo Bento used Cristiano Ronaldo more as a second striker and shifted Raul Merieles towards the left to cover for his vacated space. This was effectively a 4-4-2 but with neither forwards tracking back, it was always a lost battle in the central midfield where the opponent always created a 3 on 2 overload.
    • Greece are one of the most defensive sides the World has ever seen. But they showed their attacking flair too against a 10-man Costa Rica while trailing by a goal. Like any other side, they introduced strikers, moved up the # 10 to play more like a 4-2-4. But they did not simply hit the long balls – instead they pushed the ball wide, stretched the play, forced Costa Rica to work hard, tired them out, and lashed some brilliant crosses into the box. They were patient throughout and finally were able to equalize.
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 - Long balls to stretch the play
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 – Long balls to stretch the play – Source: Squawka
    • This World Cup saw a return of three centre back formation. But at the end, many of the teams shifted from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 as the wing backs were instructed to be more responsible defensively. At the end of the day, it was evident that the same system could look very different by the roles carried out by individual players.
    • Another notable aspect was that how cagy an affair it can become when two sides fielding the same 3-5-2 formation lock horns (Uruguay vs Italy in the group stage, Netherlands vs Costa Rica in the last eight). Strikers become well marked by the insurance of an extra sweeper; there is no free width to be exploited as the wide areas are well guarded by the wing backs creating 1 v 1 all the time. Midfield area becomes too predictable and three CMs cancel each other out.
    • As we advanced in the tournament, teams got more cautious. Full backs / wing backs were instructed to track their opposite numbers more closely rather than being used as an outlet for attack. This reduced the possibility of having a 2 v 1 overload in the opposition wide areas and the game got more predictable.  Same was the scenario in the middle of the pitch – the midfield triangles were formed much lower; sometimes entirely well within own half by the central midfielders and very few ambitious balls were played forward.  As a result goal scoring opportunities diminished and so did the goals.

At the end of the day it really comes down to the individual players. The coach can always come up with the best of plans to tackle the opponent. But it depends on the players’ adaptability and discipline if they can execute that plan. And how well individuals can execute the tactics differentiates the winner from the rest of the bunch.

Goalden Times top few moments from World Cup 2014

Every World Cup brings in some unique moments. Some just fade away with time, some gets engraved in the football lovers’ memory forever. Subhashis Biswas from GT handpicks 11 best moments of World Cup 2014.

11. Guillermo Ochoa’s goalkeeping

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During the second group match of the World Cup against Brazil, the world suddenly took notice of the long curly-haired head-band wearing Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. He saved a Neymar header when the ball was about to enter the goal, by flying to his right, ala Gordon Banks in 1970. He then saved a David Luiz header from point blank range in the second half, by sheer reflex. He again saved a shot from Hulk which had a goal written all over it. The ball did not enter the goal. Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw with Mexico largely due to Ochoa. Ochoa’s heroics continued in the next match against Croatia as well, and he denied Mario Mandzukic and Luka Modric from scoring as Mexico won 3-1 to enter the round of 16. In that match against Netherlands, Mexico was 1-0 up against Netherlands till the 87th minute. Ochoa again saved two close range efforts from the Dutch offense line, and one of the saves were as incredible as it can get, with pure reflex denying the Dutch a sure shot goal. . Finally a Wesley Sneijder thunder and an Arjen Robben theatrics denied Mexico further progress in the World Cup, but Guillermo Ochoa, the ex-AJ Ajaccio goalkeeper, now free agent at that, had won many hearts and applauds for his performances in the World Cup. Big clubs are already lining up to get the signature of this keeper on the dotted line.

10. Flying RVP

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In their first group match, Spain was up 1-0 in the match, via a controversially awarded Xabi Alonso penalty following which Diego Costa went down in the box after minimal contact. Netherlands was desperate for an equaliser. Just before the halftime, in the 44th minute, left wing back Dale Blind received a ball near the centre line, towards left side of the pitch. He quickly noticed an advancing Robin van Persie near the Spanish penalty area, with three defenders backtracking towards their goal. Blind delivered a perfect left-footed cross, which took a parabolic trajectory and was going towards the Spanish penalty area. van Persie realised he was a little behind the ball, and also realised that Iker Casillas was way off his goal line. He threw his body in front, as if he was taking off to fly, and headed the cross with his body a good 2-3 feet above the ground, in a flying position. The header exploited the gap Casillas had left behind him and the ball looped inside the Spanish goal leaving the goalkeeper hopelessly stranded. The flying picture position of Robin van Persie was symbolic as it signalled the taking off of the Dutch Wrld Cup campaign (they won the match 5-1, and eventually finished 3rd in the World Cup

9. Spain’s disastrous campaign and early exit

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The signs were evident in last year’s Confederations Cup. Yet victories in the qualifying campaign forced Vincente del Bosque in denial mode. But the shortcomings of Spain finally got brutally exposed in the final round. Spain ruled the world of football for 6 six years winning everything wthat was there to be won – . 2008 Euro, 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro. They were drawn in a tough group with Netherlands, Chile and Australia, but pundits expected them to win the group. Little did they expect that an ageing midfield, ineffective defence and nonexistent forward line would be unable to put up even a fight against the Dutch and Chile. Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets can no longer execute the “tiki-taka” brand of football with perfection they used to do around three years ago. Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos were never on the same page when an attack came towards Spanish defence. Add the embarrassment of Iker Casillas to this. The legendary goalkeeper, winner of several accolades in his illustrious career, was literally scrambling in kneel-down position inside the penalty area for most of the time against Netherlands and Chile. He conceded seven goals in two matches (in 1-5 loss to Netherlands and 0-2 defeat against Chile), and Spain exited the World Cup just after 180 minutes of football. The future, though, is bright for Spain with a lot of young talents like Ilaramendi, Isco, Thiago Alacantara, David de Gea, waiting in the ranks. But first, the football association has to get out of their self-denial mode.

8. Tim Howard’s heroics

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USA always comes up with a fighting and spirited display in the World Cup . This time around, it was no exception. They were grouped with eventual winner Germany, always dangerous Portugal, and last edition’s quarter finalists Ghana in Group G. They emerged from that group with four points, defeating Ghana 2-1, sharing spoils with Portugal 2-2, and losing to Germany 0-1. Their inspirational goalkeeper, Everton’s Tim Howard was the mainstay as the last line of defence, making some incredible saves during the group stage, especially against an attacking Portugal side and eventual champions Germany. But Tim Howard’s heroics scaled a different level in the round of 16 match against Belgium. He denied Divock Origi several times; including a fist to clear a thunderous 20-yard drive by the striker. He denied his Everton colleague Kevin Mirallas with his feet in the 76th minute. Vincent Kompany then headed in Kevin de Bruyne’s cross goalwards but Howard’s heroics again denied him. These are just glimpses of Tim Howard’s monumental performance that day. He marshalled the whole defence, and took the game to extra time, only to succumb to goals from Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. He made an incredible total of 16 saves – an all time record for the World Cup in recorded matches (since 1966) – , many of which would have been goals with any other goalkeeper on any other day. USA bowed out losing 1-2, but Tim Howard’s performance will remain as one of the greatest performances by a goalkeeper in a World Cup match.

7. Chile fans stormed media center

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Chile faced Spain in Estadio Maracana on 18th of June in their second group match, with Chile having a chance to qualify for the next round with a win and knocking Spain out of the World Cup. But chaos is an understatement to what had happened just before the match. About 100 Chilean fans, without tickets to the match, and wearing replica Chile jerseys, broke into the media center inside the Maracana stadium. The fans ran through the media center, then broke a glass door, and took out temporary doors, partitions, TV sets – whatever came their way. Some of the fans started taking photos with their mobile phones as if it was a moment to savour for life!. A group of fans were shouting slogans and flaunting posters. The part of media center was not heavily guarded, and the fans got a free passage, and almost were in the hallway which lead to the field and locker room. The chaos lasted for about 20 minutes before the security personnel cordoned the area and forced about 85 fans to sit in front of a wall. Most of these personnels were later deported from the country within 72 hours. Chilean fans accused FIFA of making the ticket price high in Chile, and selling tickets illegally. According to them, all Chileans should be allowed to enter inside the stadium during a “Chile match” !

6. Klose world record

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This was his fourth World Cup. Miroslav Klose had already scored five goals each in 2002 and 2006, and four goals in 2010. He needed two more goals in 2014 edition to surpass Ronaldo as all time leading scorer in World Cups. Germany heavily relied on their midfield in this edition of the Cup, with Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil providing the attacking threat upfront. Klose, therefore, was not the main target man, according to Joaechim Loew’s plans. He was an unused substitute in the first match against Portugal, where Muller stole the limelight with a hattrick. Klose came in as substitute for Mario Goetze as Germany was trailing 1-2 to Ghana in their second group match (only time Germany trailed in the whole tournament). Within two minutes of coming in, he tapped in from close range after a corner, to equalise the score at 2-2. Having equalled the goals tally on 15 with Ronaldo,. Klose had to wait till the semifinal match-up against Brazil to score again. Germany routed Brazil 7-1 in that match. Klose scored the second goal for Germany in the 23rd minute in a 7-1 rout. Brazil’s meltdown stole all the limelight , but the silent assassin had done enough to register himself permanently in the World Cup history books.

5. Neymar’s fracture

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The game between Brazil and Colombia in the round of 16 was not for the purists a clean one. Total 54 fouls were committed. Brazil started the brutality with a series of fouls on Colombian youngster James Rodriguez – and ended that match with a staggering 31 fouls — the highest in a World Cup match since they were recorded from1966 – and slowly Colombian defenders and midfielders started to return the favour . Defender Juan Zuniga was probably the most hostile of them all. He committed a foul on Hulk in the first half which should have resulted in a yellow card. But the defining moment came on the 87th minute of the match. Brazil was winning 2-1, and Colombia was in search of an equaliser. An aerial ball came towards Neymar, and Zuniga was just behind him. Before Neymar could reach the ball, Zuniga leap-frogged over Neymar’s shoulder and tried to reach the ball. In the process, Zuniga’s knee collided fiercely with Neymar’s back. Immediately the poster boy of Brazilian football fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Medical help arrived, assessed the seriousness of the injury, and stretchered him off immediately to the hospital. The doctors diagnosed that there is a fracture at the transverse process below third lumbar vertebra, which means the fracture is at the spinal cord ! Had it been a couple of inches lower, Neymar could have been paralyzed for life. The fracture did not require surgery, but needed rest and minimal movement for recovery. Neymar was out of the World Cup, and so was Brazil, a match later, against Germany in the semi-final. Neymar lying on the ground, writhing in pain, became symbolic with Brazil’s exodus from the cup of their dreams.

4. The viral image of David Luiz cheering up James

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Brazil faced Colombia in the quarter final, with one James Rodriguez hogging as much limelight as Neymar Junior before the match. James Rodriguez had scored five goals in four matches prior to the QF match, with a brace against Uruguay in the round of 16 match. His dazzling runs, dribbles, quick passing, left footed volleys and intelligent positioning had impressed football lovers around the world, and a tough match was on the cards against the Brazilians. Brazil did not give him much space though,; with Fernandinho and Marcello marking him tight during the match, Rodriguez was at the receiving end of many fouls committed by Brazil. Brazil took an early lead via Thiago Silva from the corner, and David Luiz doubled the lead via a free kick in the 2nd half. Rodriguez scored his sixth goal (and would eventually win the Golden Boot) via a penalty in the dying minutes of the match, but Colombia lost 1-2 to bow out of the tournament. Colombia won many hearts through their display of attractive skilful football. James Rodriguez cried inconsolably after the match, as the dream of a budding youngster was shattered by the host nation. David Luiz then walked up to embrace Rodriguez, exchanged jerseys with him, and pointed towards him and encouraged the crowd to appreciate the efforts of this sensational young player. The image of Luiz pointing towards Rodriguez went viral across social and print media, and became a symbol of affection and sportsman spirit during the World Cup.

3. Brazil’s fan handing cup to German fan

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Clovis Acosta Fernandes,the 58-year old man with the hat and moustache, as the whole world recognises him, has been to every World Cup since 1990 and many a Copa America, totalling to over 150 international matches. He travels with the Brazil team and this is his seventh World Cup, the first one at home. Clovis carried a replica trophy of the World Cup, which is almost exactly of the similar size of the original. Only difference according to him, was that his trophy was “kissed” much more times than the original. He is often known as Brazil’s 12th man.

He was in the stands at Belo Horizonte, on 8th of July during the semi-final between Brazil and Germany. He could not believe what was happening before his eyes. Germany won the match 7-1, leading 5-0 after only 30 minutes of football. The whole country was weeping, crying. Clovis was crying. Clovis hugged the trophy with tearful eyes, as if he did not want to let his dream evaporate and was instantly labelled the the Saddest Man in Brazil all over the international media. But this man has a golden heart. After the match, Clovis walked up to a lady, who was a German fan, , handed the trophy over to her, and said ”Take this trophy with you to Maracana. It is in good hands with you. Congratulations.“ His gesture won him admiration from across the world, and showed everyone that football is all about sportsman spirit and big heart.

2. Ghana cash convoy

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A series of three cars, flanked by five police cars- a convoy of total of eight cars were moving along the highway entering Brasilia, where Ghana was supposed to play Portugal in their last group match. The unusualness of this incident was that- those cars were carrying more than $3 million in cash! Yes, this was probably the only instance in World Cup history where the national federation of a country had to pay that large amount in cash to its players, that too in the face of an imminent threat to boycott just before they took the field in a World Cup match. According to their star player, Kevin- Prince Boateng, the preparation for the World Cup was a shambolic one. The Ghana team had to fly economy class on a a 12-hour flight, and stay in hotel rooms where the ceilings leaked and the rooms were flooded. The players were not paid their dues, and Ghana’s football federation did not use the money they received from FIFA for World Cup preparations. Immediately Boateng and fellow senior player Sulley Muntari were suspended and sent back home by Ghana Football Fedeartion. Ghana’s president John Mahama had to intervene and the “cash convoy” arrived in Brasilia, and the players then agreed to take the field against Portugal. Social media was flooded with the images of the cash convey arriving at the hotel with armed escort and defender John Boye kissing a stack of money after it arrived by armed escort. Apparently the players wanted the money in cash as most of them did not have even bank accounts back home! Ghana lost the match 1-2 and bowed out from the tournament with only 1 point. They were the only team not to be beaten by Germany though (2-2 draw), and only team who actually led eventual winner Germany during the World Cup.

1. Suarez Biting

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Italy and Uruguay – both the teams were on three points having defeated England and lost to Costa Rica ! The superior goal difference meant Italy needed a draw where Uruguay had to win the match to qualify for the next round. The match was never entertaining, as both the teams were really aggressive and frequent fouls stopped the game from gathering any momentum. . Claudio Marchisio was sent off in the 59th minute, and the Italians were fighting hard to hold off Uruguay for rest of the match. Around the 79th minute of the match, an off the ball incident left the world completely in shock. Luis Suarez had jumped on to Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder, then covered his face with his palm and fell on ground. Chiellini was on the ground as well, but immediately got up, exposed his shoulder from his shirt and showed the bite mark to the referee. Suarez was sitting on the ground holding his teeth!! Referee did not punish Suarez, a bemused and shell shocked Italian team conceded from a corner through Diego Godin two minutes later, and had to go back home.

Suarez and Uruguay team tried to downplay the incident initially, but later, after criticism poured in from around the world, FIFA took the matter seriously. After investigation, FIFA handed a four-month and nine- match ban to Luis Suarez. Uruguay lost to Colombia 0-2 in the round of 16 match and bowed out of the competition.

B for Bestest

After covering Group A in our last post, here comes the Group B preview. Analysis by Debojyoti Chakraborty.

Group B features the last World Cup finalists and a very good Chilean side. So, eventually one of thesetop two teams willhave to cut a sorry face. Apart from the tag of Group of Death, there are other complicated issues in Group B. There is a small incentive for the winner of this group – in all likelihood they would avoid the Seleçãoin the first knock-out stage. So, it seems that the winner of the first match of this group – Spain vs Netherlands, will most likely not only survive the group but also get an easier opponent in the Round of 16.

 

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Spain remained unbeaten throughout their qualification campaign, never had to come back in any of those matches. They dropped occasional points, but nothing to really worry about their qualification.

Spain has been ruling the charts for quite sometime now. They have won virtually everything – 2010 World Cup, 2012 Euro – only to stumble at the final hurdle at Confederations Cup last year. They have to defend their world crown in the same nation. Last time, kinks in the seemingly invincible Spanish armada were found with an ageing squad having to play under the scorching heat of the midday sun. Their task is not any easier this time round.

La Rojawill be playing a familiar high pressing, short passing game with a side boasting stars from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Their full-backs Daniel Carvajal and Jordi Alba will play like virtual wingers while they have possession. Centre-back pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will also be joining the play near or beyond the halfway line. A midfield line-up featuring Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andreas Iniesta, David Silva and CescFabregas would give nightmares to any opponent. Players of the calibre of Koke, Isco and AsierIllarramendi have not been – or eventually will not be – able to make the squad; such is the plethora of talent in the Spanish midfield. On top of that, Diego Costa will slot in as the centre forward and for years, Vicente Del Bosque just might be relieved of his central striker problem.

Spain lost their opener against Switzerland last time and then went on to win their maiden glory – the first team to lift the cup after starting with a loss. This edition, they can ill afford that kind of warm up time. Spain has been drawn in a difficult group but still should make the next round. Only question is whether they can top the group and get a potentially easier opponent in the round of 16. In all probability, they should.

 
 

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After losing to Spain in the final of the 2010 World Cup, Netherlands went through a torrid time. They failed to secure a single point at the 2012 EURO – after being drawn in a tough group featuring Germany, Portugal and Demark. But to their credit, Netherlands did perform quite well in the qualifying campaign. They dropped only two points in the 10 matches they played, scored aplenty (34) and achieved the best goal difference in the European qualifiers (+29).

Their opponents during the qualification – none of them featured in the top 30 FIFA ranking – did not put up any fight. But the Dutch are facing an uphill task right from the group stages of this World Cup. Progress to the next round is not guaranteed and there is a surprisingly negative feeling amidst the supporters.

As always, Netherlands has a star-studded squad. Rafael van der Vaart (Hamburg) Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), ArjenRobben (Bayern Munich) and Robin van Persie (Manchester United) are stars in their own rightand form an awesome foursome upfront. Van Persiehas even scored 11 goals in the qualifying campaign to go past Patrick Kluivert as the all-time highest goal scorer for the Dutch. The main man, however, will be Robben – swapping positions in a free flowing midfield and suddenly bursting up through either flanks.

But the Oranje have time and again failed to gel as a cohesive unit. This time the pressure will be even more on manager Louis van Gaal as they will have to deal with an inexperienced back line and midfield. Many believe this tournament has come in too soon for many of them. Don’t be surprised if they fail to make the cut.

 
 

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Making this group even tougher is Chile – another La Roja. Chile’s recent record is quite good – they finished third in South American qualifying, drew with Spain and defeated England in friendlies, and had lost only two of their 15 matches last year. This March they showcased a spirited display of aggressive pressing and fluent passing against the mighty Germans where they finally lost by a solitary goal.

Chile has qualified for two consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history. They had finished their journey in the round of 16 in South Africa last time. This time they have their best side ever in the tournament but as luck would have it, are drawn in the toughest group in the competition. As their manager Jorge Sampaoli put it: “The margin for error is zero.” Even if they do qualify, they face a repeat of their last match from four years back at the same stage of the tournament – they would most likely line up against the hosts.

Chile has ample star power in their ranks in the form of Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal and Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez. They also have some young and improving players like Eduardo Vargas, who is enjoying two back-to-back fruitful seasons after being loaned out of Napoli. Chile will never die wondering for sure.They were the second highest scorer in the qualifiers, but also let slip the most number of goals. So one thing is for sure, embrace yourselves for some spicy Chile action.

But having to face the finalists from 2010 – Spain and Netherlands – qualifying for the knockout round itself will be a major success for them. But count them out at your own risk. Also, watch out for the enthusiasm for Sampaoli. He has previously not hesitated to shout instructions from the tree-top after being shown a red card!!!

 
 

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Australia – now a member of the Asian Football Federation – qualified for the World Cup from their group behind Japan, but the journey has been anything but smooth. They could not get a win in their first three matches, upped the tempo to win their last five matches and got the green signal seven minutes from time in their final match against Iran.

Australia will start the competition with no pressure whatsoever. Nobody expects them to win anything – many back home will not crib if they fail to get even a single point. They are the lowest ranked team to feature this year and are drawn in the toughest group.

New manager Ange Postecoglou took charge of an ageing team as recently as in December, 2013 after they were thrashed in couple of friendlies following a dismal qualifying campaign. His main task would be to induct some fresh blood instead of relying too much on the fading stars like Tim Cahill. Leading this young brigade could be Australia’s Player of the Year, Mile Jedinak. The midfield architect is no stranger to grinding out results, being captain of the struggling Crystal Palace and he would be vital in adding some steel to this team. It will be unfair to expect the Aussies to set the stage on fire. As any other team with limited ambitions, they would just crowd around their own penalty box, shut the door and try to score through quick counter attacks.

The Soccerooshave progressed remarkably over the last decade, but are still no match for any of the teams they would be playing against. But they can play spoilsport and decide the fate of this group.

Predictions

While the rematch of 2010 World Cup final on the very second day of the 2014 edition sets the stage on fire, one would be really brave to undermine the challenge posed by Chile. If either of the 2010 finalists – or both of them – is caught off-guard,the tiny Latin American nation will be ready to pounce in. Even if this challenge is negotiated, the mighty Brazil awaits them in the next round. Looks like, a winner takes all for this group.

Passing Shot

Diego Costa has represented his native country Brazil last year but then decided to turn up for his country of birth, Spain. Those matches being friendlies, Costa was in a position to choose the country he prefers to represent internationally.

Spain had gone past both Chile and Netherlands en route World Cup 2010 victory.  But they will have very little knowledge about the Aussies – this will be their first ever international meeting. Similarly this will be the first competitive match between Chile and Netherlands.