Quality wins through in the end
In keeping with the exhilarating unpredictability of this World Cup, it has conspicuously ended a trend. Somewhat paradoxically, though, that has also seen Brazil 2014 completely conform to form.
This is the first tournament in which all eight group winners have reached the quarterfinals. For all the fears it could be another 2002 -- in which the number of early shocks actually made the latter stages so much less earth-shattering -- the last eight arguably involves more giant clashes than any World Cup since 1990. At least three ties look like traditional heavyweight clashes, the kind of quarterfinals that fans became so accustomed to when the tournament had only 16 teams and the concentration of quality was so much greater.
All team assessments
Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast | Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
For once, at least one second-place team did not sneak through. Of course, part of that is precisely because the surprises of the earlier rounds were still rippling out. The Netherlands initiated the shocking scale of Spain's demise with that remarkable 5-1 win before reaping the benefits of the aftermath and finishing top of their group. Similarly, Costa Rica became the first team in history to eliminate three former World Cup winners from a group before meeting a faded former European champion in Greece in the round of 16. The Ticos perhaps remain the one anomaly and represent the round of 16 surprise we might have seen in other campaigns. They just did the hard part first.
There can be no denying that basic luck has been a determining factor too. The weaker table-toppers generally had the fortune to be drawn against weaker second-place teams, with Costa Rica vs. Greece the prime example.
Similarly, there was the blind luck common to so many of the actual contests. Had a single bounce of a ball been different, a single swipe of a foot been purer or a single referee's call a little less certain, we could have seen so many different results.
Consider how so many of the games ended. Brazil got through on penalties after Chile smashed their crossbar right at the death. Argentina needed a desperate last break before Switzerland hit the post from just inches out with seconds remaining. The Netherlands required a remarkable late rally against Mexico, with that itself involving a long-range strike out of nothing and then a controversial -- if justified -- penalty. Algeria could have been out of sight long before Germany put them out, and there was still a panicked late siege. Belgium came to the brink of collapse against the U.S. France should have had a man sent off against Nigeria and were initially under huge pressure. Uruguay were broken down by a unique James Rodriguez strike. And Costa Rica vs. Greece went all the way to penalties, too.
It's striking to see basically all of the games spin on such specifics. As Argentina's Pablo Zabaleta freely admitted, there was a healthy amount of fortune involved. "You need that in a World Cup, the luck factor," the full-back said with a relieved smile after the Switzerland game. "In this World Cup, it seems all the teams are suffering to win. Not a single opponent is easy. Everyone you think would be an inferior opponent, they are very complicated to play. Today, teams are very well-prepared, physically and technically, so it takes much more to win a match."
There should be no overlooking, either, that each of the quarterfinalists provided much more themselves. In many cases, it could be argued that they made their own luck. Brazil and Argentina dominated their games, while that does not even come close to describing just how badly Belgium battered the U.S. France eventually reasserted control of their tie against Nigeria with a commanding display, and Germany ended their normal 90 minutes by then reversing the pattern of play and pinning Algeria back. Even Mexico ultimately lacked the Netherlands' individual quality, as the Dutch were able to produce a moment of inspiration beyond their opponent.
That all points to other patterns distinctive to this World Cup. For a start, as Zabaleta argued, all the teams are "suffering to win." In at least six of the eight round of 16 games, the notionally inferior team earned huge admiration for the manner they stood up to the first-place teams, but it couldn't really be said that they completely deserved to go through. In some cases, it would have been totally against the broader run of play.
By the end, though, quality came through. That is the long-term lesson, the real pattern of the round of 16, and it fits with the character of a joyously open and adventurous World Cup. Those teams willing to try to maximise their attacking talent just about got the job done, even if it was by the slimmest of margins.
It all makes for a round of quarterfinals in which there are minimal gaps between the teams. Now this World Cup might get truly unpredictable.