The group stage of World Cup 2014 is done and we have our entrants in the round of 16, which commences tomorrow. As always there have been surprises, so let's have a look at the teams who have performed contrary to our expectations.
1: Costa Rica. Anyone who has watched this Tico team in recent years knows they're tough as damned nails. Honestly, CONCACAF qualifying trips down there are about as bad as visits to Azteca.
Going into the tournament I fully expected them jump up and bite somebody. But I didn't expect them to jump up and bite everybody. They ambushed Uruguay in the opener, then beat Italy before taking their foot off the pedal and drawing with England in a meaningless closer. Picked by most to finish last in one of the more difficult groups in the tournament (on paper, anyway), CR took seven points of nine to win it. Not half bad.
2: Chile. Hardly a dog by anyone's reckoning - Chile emerged from the always hellish South American region and that alone suggests that you're not to be taken lightly - but this was one of those stone cold lock groups in most people's view. You had the Dutch and you had Spain, and the Chileans were slotted for an early trip home. Even me - I have been saying that Spain was over the hill for awhile now, but I thought they still had enough left in the tank to advance. Shows you what I know.
3: Greece. Are you fucking kidding me? This side's strategy is built around boring the opponent to death. Also, everyone in the stadium. And those viewing on TV. You'd get more excitement out of watching paint dry, and you'd have at least as good a chance of seeing a goal scored. Ivory Coast and Japan, you need to go to your rooms and think about what you've done, because now we have to endure the Greeks in the damned knockout rounds.
4: Algeria. You pretty much had to figure Russia for the second slot in Group H, unless South Korea somehow got on a roll. But they, like you and me, will be watching the rest of the Cup on TV while the team most expected to bring up the rear prepares for ... wait for it ... Germany. The Algerians have forgotten 1982 about like the Mississippi Tea Party has forgotten the Civil War. So that ought to be fun.
1: Croatia. It isn't like I gave Mexico no shot in Group A, but let's face it, the only reason they're even in the tournament is because of national hero Graham Zusi. They stumbled, they bumbled, they picked up a critical injury in the pre-tournament warmups. Meanwhile, Croatia showed up with a talented side led by Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandžukić. I'm still not entirely sure how they got themselves eliminated.
2: Spain. The team that revolutionized football. The team that won the last three major tournaments, including Copa 2010. The team spearheaded by arguably the greatest one-two midfield punch in history. Yes, Xavi and Iniesta are past their primes, but they figured to have enough left to at least advance, especially given the amount of talent around them. A disappointing exit for tiki-taka.
3: Ivory Coast. Come on, Greece? All you needed was a freakin' draw. Salomon Kalou my fuzzy ass....
4: Italy. The Azzurri are broken. Not just as a team, but at the national infrastructure level, I think. They certainly have talent - far more than probably half the sides that will still be playing in the coming days - but for the second Cup in a row they simply couldn't pull it together. The best team will always beat the best players, but when you consistently fail to mold the better players into a coherent collective unit, that suggests something deeply, fundamentally wrong with the organization.
5: Bosnia-Herzegovina. Okay, it's not fair that they're on the list. Their inclusion is less about underachieving and more about being victimized by one of the most unfortunate officiating errors of the tournament. Bosnia gets the 2014 Oughta Award as the team that by all rights oughta qualified.
And no, I don't see England as an underachiever. My picks in that group were Uruguay and Italy. The English simply have too many dead spots in the lineup - center back and right back spring to mind - and they were always going to have a hard time overcoming those flaws. Now, if they don't make noise in four years, given their abundance of bright young talent, then we'll talking about underachievement on an epic scale.
So, on to the round of 16. Costa Rica draws Greece, which means the quarterfinals are going to feature at least one team nobody ever expected to see there. Will there be more? As in, maybe an unheralded team wearing Russian hockey sweaters?
We'll find out soon enough....