Monthly Archives: November 2017

Basic French Lesson: Articles

You may have seen the first two Dutch lessons. Here is the French lesson on basic articles. It’s hopefully new information for some of you, and good practice for me. And for all native Francophones out there: Pardonnez-moi pour mes erreurs. J’ai besoin de la pratique encore. Ceci est la meilleur façon.

Allons-y! (Let’s go!)

1. Definite articles
As mentioned before, we only use “the” as the definite article in English. In French, we use le for masculine and la for feminine, both in the singular form. In both genders, the plural is les.

By the way, one thing that’s important to note in French is that it’s what isn’t pronounced that’s important. In this case, the word “les” sounds like “hey” or “day.” Most of the time, when a word ends in a consonant in French, that consonant is not pronounced unless the next word begins with a vowel. This is called the “liaison” rule, but we’ll get into that later.

Le chien – the dog
La pomme – the apple
Le poulet – the chicken
La gomme – the eraser

With nouns that begin with vowels, there’s one slight difference. Both masculine and feminine use l’ with nouns beginning with vowels.

Note: the letter “h” is treated as a vowel as well, so it takes the same rule.

L’homme – the man
L’oiseau (masc.) – the bird
L’histoire (fem.) – the story/the history
L’outil (masc.) – the tool
L’eau (fem.) – the water

Most words that use the ending “-eau” are masculine, but “eau” itself is an exception. In this case, the word for water and words related to it (la glace – the ice) are feminine.

2. Indefinite articles 
In English, we use “a/an” for the indefinite. The gender is neutral. In French, it does go by gender. Un is used for masculine and Une is used for feminine. It remains the same with both consonants and vowels.

Un homme – a man
Une femme – a woman (or a wife)
Une robe – a dress
Un lion – a lion

3. Partitive articles
This is where it gets a little complicated. The partitive article isn’t really common in English. It’s used for unknown quantities of things. In French, they insist on having it in front of the noun. This is often said as having “some” of an item, but not all of it.

There are four partitive articles in French.

Du (de + le) – masculine
De la – feminine
De l’ – vowels in both genders
Des – plurals

J’ai de la viande.                          I have meat or I have some meat.
Il veut du vin.                              He wants (some) wine. 
Tu bois de l’eau.                          You drink (some) water.
Avez-vous des ananas?             Do you have (some/any) pineapples?

That’s it for most of them.

Special thanks to http://www.frenchtoday.com for extra help.

Image of National Flag

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Both images courtesy of http://www.flags.net. (The World Flag Database)

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2018 FIFA World Cup draw simulation

Almost four years of preparation have brought us to the verge of the World Cup draw. Here is the official seeding, based on the FIFA Rankings in October 2017.

Pot 1 
Russia (hosts)
Germany
Brazil
Portugal
Argentina
Belgium
Poland
France

Pot 2
Spain
Peru
Switzerland
England
Colombia
Mexico
Uruguay
Croatia

Pot 3 
Denmark
Iceland
Costa Rica
Sweden
Tunisia
Egypt
Senegal
Iran

Pot 4
Serbia
Nigeria
Australia
Japan
Morocco
Panama
South Korea
Saudi Arabia

In accordance with FIFA rules, only UEFA may have two teams in one group. Therefore, if Peru, Colombia, or Uruguay were drawn, they’d have to be placed in with a UEFA team as the top seed, etc.

Here’s my mock draw, to the best of my abilities. To make it easy, I won’t re-arrange the seeding from the pots. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, just a random series of guesses.

Group A 
1. Russia
2. Spain
3. Iran
4. Panama

Group B
1. Brazil
2. England
3. Costa Rica
4. South Korea

Group C
1. Germany
2. Switzerland
3. Tunisia
4. Saudi Arabia

Group D 
1. Belgium
2. Croatia
3. Senegal
4. Australia

Group E 
1. Argentina
2. Mexico
3. Sweden
4. Morocco

Group F 
1. Poland
2. Colombia
3. Egypt
4. Serbia

Group G 
1. France
2. Uruguay
3. Iceland
4. Nigeria

Group H 
1. Portugal
2. Peru
3. Denmark
4. Japan

For obvious reasons, I’d love to see Belgium get an easier draw. But in order to be the best, you have to play the best as well, right? We’ll see what happens. What would your mock draw be?

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Photo courtesy of FourFourTwo.

2017 World Series: Deep in the heart of Texas

The 2017 World Series was the one hundred fifteenth year overall, and one hundred thirteenth played, of the modern World Series which began in 1903. After 55 years, a change of leagues, the Lone Star state would finally have its World Series title. It was the third consecutive year with both teams looking to break a 25+ year title drought, and new records on offense were established. And after seven brilliant nights of baseball, Houston was able to give its fans something to cheer about after being devastated by weather and its own baseball demons.

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(The 2017 World Series logo. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.) 

2017 World Series
Houston Astros (AL) over Los Angeles Dodgers (NL), 4-3

Managers: A.J. Hinch (Houston); Dave Roberts (Los Angeles)

Hall of Famers*
None

Series MVP: George Springer, OF (Houston)

*as of 2017

Analysis
Five new Hall of Famers were inducted in 2017 – Tim Raines, in his final season, Jeff Bagwell, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, a first-ballot inductee. The latter two had won an MVP award in the 1990s – Bagwell in 1994, and Rodriguez in 1999; the Veteran’s Committee saw former commissioner Bud Selig and longtime Braves GM John Schuerholz rounding out the Cooperstown lineup.

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(The Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2017. Photo courtesy of Baseball Hall of Fame.) 

In one of baseball’s most eerie – and most tragic – parallels, Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in a tiny town in the Dominican Republic called Juan Adrian on January 22. Ventura had paid tribute to St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, and fellow Dominican, Oscar Taveras during the 2014 World Series by writing “RIP O.T. 18” on his cap while pitching Game 6. That same day, former utility infielder Andy Marte was killed after crashing into a house en route from the Dominican city of San Francisco de Macoris.

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(Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura died in a car crash in Juan Adrian, Dominican Republic on January 22, 2017. That same day, countryman Andy Marte died in a separate accident. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)

Several major natural issues affected play. First, Hurricane Harvey led to severe flooding in Houston and other major areas of Texas. Nevertheless, the Astros came in as one of the hottest teams. They clinched the AL West, their first division title since switching leagues. Part of this came from acquiring pitcher Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers. In the Motor City, the Tigers completely collapsed, falling from 86 wins to only 64, dead last.

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(Houston had major damage after Hurricane Harvey. Elsewhere, Irma in Florida also affected play several weeks later. Photo courtesy of ABC News.)

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(Justin Verlander was sent by the last-place Detroit Tigers to the Astros. Photo courtesy of USA Today.)

Few gave the Minnesota Twins much of a chance when the season began. I know I was one of them. Nevertheless, they used a healthier pitching staff and lineup to earn the second wild card spot in what many expected to be a rebuilding year. They set a record by becoming the first team in MLB history to make the playoffs after losing 100 or more games they year before (they went 59-103 in 2016, and selected outfielder Royce Lewis first overall in the draft in June).

Two players hit four home runs – Cincinnati’s light-hitting shortstop Scooter Gennett on June 6, and Arizona’s J.D. Martinez (against L.A.) on September 4.

(Cincinnati’s Scooter Gennett hit four homers against the Cardinals. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

(J.D. Martinez’s four HR game. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Two teams used significant winning streaks to get them to the playoffs. Minnesota’s AL Central counterpart, the defending league champion Cleveland Indians, were in a close race with Minnesota for much of the year. But then they shattered a fifteen-year record previously held by Oakland – they won twenty-two games in a row, second most all-time and the most ever in the American League. Anchored by ace Corey Kluber, who won the Cy Young Award in a slight upset, and a solid lineup including Francisco Lindor and newly acquired Edwin Encarnacion, many that felt the Indians were due for a down year were proven wrong. The streak lasted from August 24 until September 14, with the Royals beating them at home 4-3 on September 15. In September and October, they incredibly won twenty-six out of thirty games. It looks like Terry Francona may be making his case for the Hall of Fame.

(The Cleveland Indians set an AL record with 22 consecutive wins. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

In the senior circuit, the Los Angeles Dodgers rode a strong pitching staff to the NL West division title. Clayton Kershaw was his usual self, although he missed about six weeks with an injury, which probably cost him his third season of winning 20 games. But with the midseason acquisition of Yu Darvish from the Rangers, and a rookie named Cody Bellinger playing first base, along with Corey Seager and Justin Turner in the lineup, the Dodgers had three separate winning streaks of at least nine games, topping out at eleven in July. They also ironically enough had an eleven-game losing streak in early September, so they lost the shot to challenge for the all-time wins record, but they went on to win at least 104 games and lost only 58.

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(Cody Bellinger was a superb rookie for the Dodgers. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)

The rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees came back, after an eight-year hiatus. Each team had a rookie (or two) that helped them each make the playoffs. In the Bronx, it would be Aaron Judge. He set a rookie record with 50 home runs, breaking the record held by Mark McGwire in 1987. As good as the offense was in New York, they had a shaky bullpen. After re-signing Aroldis Chapman in the offseason, Chapman fell apart during the middle of the season, losing several games in August against the Red Sox. One of them came off of a home run by rookie third baseman Rafael Devers, who smacked a clutch home run off of a fastball clocked at 103. Pairing with Devers was left fielder Andrew Benintendi, a Cincinnati native who hit a respectable .271 during the season, and finished with 20 home runs and 90 driven in.

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(Aaron Judge was AL Rookie of the Year, and set a rookie record with 51 home runs. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.)

(Judge’s 50th home run of the year. Photo courtesy of YouTube.)

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(Both Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers had solid rookie seasons for Boston. Photo courtesy of http://www.overthemonster.com.) 

For the Red Sox, it was a strange season in many ways. In May, its unfortunate history with race relations came up after a fan insulted Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones with slurs during a game in Fenway. Additionally, Cy Young winner Rick Porcello fell apart, finishing with an 11-17 record. But they acquired lefty Chris Sale in a trade with the White Sox, and he won 17 games on his own and also had over three hundred strikeouts. Sale tied a record with nine straight games with at least ten strikeouts. Their bullpen was a lot stronger as well, which had been their Achilles heel during the previous season. They retired David Ortiz’s jersey on June 23. Additionally, they were able to play small ball pretty well, which given the dimensions of Fenway Park is always a pleasant surprise when they can do it. With two games remaining the season, the Red Sox clinched the division for the second straight year, the first time they had ever won the division in consecutive years. The Yankees took the first wild card spot, and hosted the Twins in that playoff.

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(Chris Sale had over 300 strikeouts to lead the majors, and won 17 games along the way. Photo courtesy of Boston Globe.)

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(David Ortiz’s #34 jersey was retired during the season. Photo courtesy of http://www.necn.com.)

(Craig Kimbrel helps the Red Sox clinch the AL East for the second year in a row. Photo courtesy of YouTube.)

The AL Wild Card game got off to a fast start for Minnesota. Brian Dozier led off the game with a homer, and a two-run shot later by Jorge Polanco led to a 3-0 lead before the Yankees had two outs in the inning. Luis Severino was given a quick hook by Joe Girardi after only one-third of an inning, the shortest outing in postseason history by any Yankee starting pitcher. The bullpen held, and the Yankees rallied with a three-run homer by Didi Gregorius. Widely seen only as Derek Jeter’s replacement, Gregorius jump-started the Yankees, who took the lead in the second on a solo homer by Brett Gardner. Heads-up baserunning helped the Twins tie in the third. With David Robertson on the mound for New York, the Twins had the bases loaded with one out. Byron Buxton’s speed helped Minnesota tie the game at four apiece. But from there, the Twins wouldn’t score after that. Buxton himself later left the game after crashing into the outfield wall. In the bottom of the third, the Yankees took the lead for good on an RBI single by Greg Bird. Aaron Judge smashed a two-run homer of his own, and a bases loaded walk in the seventh (painfully with two outs as well) forced in a run. David Robertson went 3.1 innings in relief, the longest outing of his career, to earn the win. In a non-save situation, Aroldis Chapman finished off the Twins, and the Yankees advanced to play Cleveland with an 8-4 victory.

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(Aaron Judge’s home run gave the Yankees clutch insurance runs. Photo courtesy of Albany Times Union.)

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(Yankees players celebrate clinching the AL Wild Card. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.)

(Highlights from a very good AL Wild Card game. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

In the NL Wild Card Game, it would be the Arizona Diamondbacks against the Colorado Rockies. While Jon Gray was a rising star for the Rockies, he was hit hard, and early, by the D-Backs. A three-run homer by Paul Goldschmidt gave Arizona an early lead, and by the third inning, it was 6-0 Arizona. Colorado rallied to within 6-4 against Zack Greinke, using small ball to get there, then got to within a run in the seventh. But relief pitcher Archie Bradley, batting for himself, helped Arizona with a two-run triple. It was the break Arizona needed, as each team traded runs in the final three innings. Ultimately, Arizona won 11-8, becoming the first team since the very first World Series in 1903 to hit four triples in a playoff game.

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(A shocking triple by relief pitcher Archie Bradley led Arizona to the NL Wild Card. Photo courtesy of Sporting News.)

(Highlights from the NL Wild Card game. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Unfortunately, Arizona’s run went no further. They were swept by the division rival Dodgers in the NLDS. Despite Clayton Kershaw allowing four home runs in the game, all of them were solo shots, and the Dodgers battered around Tajuan Walker to win 9-5 in Game 1. It was a messy first game, with each team making two errors, and no pitching. In Game 2, Arizona smacked two homers against Rich Hill, and the Dodgers didn’t hit any, but their small ball play helped them beat Robbie Ray 8-5. Ray’s two wild pitches in the first four innings allowed the Dodgers to take the lead. Chris Taylor gave them the lead with an RBI single. A four run fifth broke the game open, making it 7-2, highlighted by a stolen base and a two-run double by Austin Barnes. A 3-1 victory in Game 3 pushed Los Angeles through. Mid-season acquisition Yu Darvish used his slider to push them in an knock Arizona out. Cody Bellinger and Austin Barnes homered for Los Angeles.

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(Austin Barnes had two big RBIs in Game 2 and a homer in Game 3. Photo courtesy of http://www.dodgersway.com.)

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(Five strong innings from Yu Darvish gave the Dodgers a series-clinching victory. Photo courtesy of http://www.truebluela.com.)

The defending champion Chicago Cubs opened on the road against the Washington Nationals. A pitcher’s duel between Kyle Hendricks and Stephen Strasburg ended with a Cubs 3-0 victory in the first game. The Cubs were no-hit for the first five innings, before Kris Bryant had a two-out RBI single, followed by Anthony Rizzo’s single to knock in Bryant as well. They were set up by a fielding error by Anthony Rendon at third base. The Cubs added an insurance run in the eighth and Wade Davis got the save.

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(Anthony Rendon committed a crucial error to allow the Cubs to steal Game 1. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Rendon redeemed himself in Game 2 with a homer against Jon Lester. Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo both homered to give the Cubs a 3-1 lead heading into the eighth. Six outs away from heading home up 2-0, Adam Lind led off with a single for Washington. Against reliever Carl Edwards, Jr., Bryce Harper rocked a game-tying homer to make it 3-3. Washington was back in it.

(Bryce Harper’s massive two-run HR tied the game for Washington. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Following a walk to Rendon, Mike Montgomery came in to relieve Edwards and allowed a single to Daniel Murphy. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a three-run homer of his own, giving Washington a 6-3 lead, which held up in the ninth after Sean Doolittle set down the Cubs in order. The series was one-one heading to the Windy City.

(Ryan Zimmerman won Game 2 for Washington with a three-run homer. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Game 3 was another pitcher’s duel, featuring Max Scherzer for Washington and Jose Quintana for Chicago. Despite committing four errors in the game, the Cubs put themselves on the verge of the NLCS by winning 2-1. Washington had the lead on a Zimmerman double in the top of the sixth, before the Cubs rallied in the seventh and eighth. Pinch hitter Albert Almora tied the game with an RBI single, before Anthony Rizzo hit a bloop single off Oliver Perez to win it.

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(Albert Almora hit a game-tying RBI single in Game 3. Photo courtesy of Chicago Daily Herald.) 

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(Anthony Rizzo’s bloop single won Game 3 for Chicago. Photo courtesy of http://www.sportsnet.ca.) 

Washington would force a Game 5 with a 5-0 victory in Game 4, following a one day delay from rain. Because of this, Stephen Strasburg was able to go on normal rest, pushing Tanner Roark back for Game 5. Jake Arrieta, on the verge of free agency, started for the Cubs and was very good. The notorious Chicago winds led to a steady rain all day, leading to a Washington run on an error by Addison Russell.

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(Addison Russell’s error led to Washington’s first run. Photo courtesy of Chicago Daily Herald.) 

The 1-0 scoreline held up until the top of the eighth. Jon Lester was on in relief. With one out, he walked Ryan Zimmerman. Although Lester almost never attempted a pickoff during his career, he attempted one this time. Zimmerman apparently beat it back, although it looked like Rizzo applied the tag on the foot. Cubs manager Joe Maddon challenged, and won it. Zimmerman was out! The one downside was that it had no effect, with Murphy singling to chase Lester. Following a wild pitch and two walks, lightly-regarded outfielder Michael Taylor hit a grand slam that just barely cleared the wall, giving the Nationals their margin of victory.

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(Jon Lester picks off Ryan Zimmerman at first base. Photo courtesy of http://www.mlb.com.) 

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(Michael Taylor rounds the bases after his grand slam broke the game open. Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune.) 

With both teams’ seasons on the line, Washington gave the ball to Gio Gonzalez, while Chicago went back to Kyle Hendricks. Chicago broke through first with an RBI single by Rizzo, which allowed Jon Jay to score. In the second, Washington scored four times via two homers, one by Daniel Murphy, and the other by Michael Taylor, his second consecutive at-bat with a homer.

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(Daniel Murphy’s second inning home run tied Game 5. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

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(Michael Taylor’s home run made it 4-1 in the second. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

Small ball helped the Cubs in Game 5 (they didn’t hit a single home run), as they used it to get back to within a run in the third. With the bases loaded, Addison Russell drove in a run with a ground out, and a wild pitch by Gonzalez brought in another run.

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(Willson Contreras scores on a wild pitch by Gio Gonzalez. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News.) 

With the score still 4-3 in the fifth, Washington’s bad defense let them down. Even more painfully, Max Scherzer, en route to winning his second consecutive Cy Young Award, was on the mound. And the damage was done with two outs. Contreras hit a single to start a rally. Pinch hitter Ben Zobrist also singled, and then Russell doubled to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead. Scherzer walked Jason Heyward intentionally, and it looked like Javier Baez struck out. But catcher Matt Wieters made two mistakes – he dropped the third strike, and trying to complete the strikeout, he threw the ball away from Zimmerman and Murphy. Controversy also ensued when it looked like Baez hit the catcher’s mitt. Despite protests from Dusty Baker (once the manager of the Cubs, ironically), the call stood. Russell scored and the runners moved up one base. With pinch hitter Tommy La Stella batting for Hendricks, Wieters made a third mistake – his glove accidentally made contact with La Stella’s bat, which is catcher’s interference. The Nationals had to be furious at the irony. La Stella was awarded first base. With the bases loaded, Jon Jay was hit by a pitch to make it 7-4. The Nationals had completely unraveled.

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(Dusty Baker talks with the umpires after Matt Wieters’ passed ball allowed the Cubs to increase the lead. Wieters alone made three major mistakes in the fifth inning. Photo courtesy of Washington Post.)

Chicago made it 8-4 in the sixth, before Washington rallied, also with two out. They made it 8-5 on a mistake by Contreras, who himself allowed a wild pitch from Mike Montgomery to get by him, scoring Jayson Werth. A double by Murphy scored another run and suddenly it was 8-6. Bryant drove in a run in the seventh, scoring fan favorite Kyle Schwarber. It proved to be crucial.

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(A wild pitch from Mike Montgomery led to Washington scoring two runs to cut the deficit. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Washington put a scare into the Cubs in the seventh and eighth, getting a run in each inning, one on a sacrifice fly from Bryce Harper, and the other on an RBI single from Taylor. Maddon perhaps made the same mistake in the World Series a year prior, bringing in his closer (in this case Wade Davis) for at least seven outs. But it didn’t end up costing him this time, as Davis retired the side in order in the ninth, getting Werth and Harper to strike out to end the game, and the series. Once again, Dusty Baker was playing checkers on a chessboard. Over the years, Baker had been known as a traditionalist in a rapidly modernized game. His teams lost twelve straight games when playing from ahead, dating back to 2002. Additionally, although he had loosened it a little bit, he was still known for overusing his starting pitchers, and preferred veteran players (often past their prime) ahead of rookies or youth. It was Washington’s third Game 5 loss of the decade, all of them at home. Baker was relieved of his job as manager following the series. Cubs coach Dave Martinez was hired to replace him.

(The Cubs close out the ninth inning against the Nationals. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

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(Dusty Baker was not brought back by the Nationals after their postseason loss. Photo courtesy of New York Times.) 

The NLCS was a rematch from the previous year, although the seeding was reversed this time. The Dodgers lost a big part of their lineup before the series began when shortstop Corey Seager was left off the roster due to an injury. Making only his second start of the season in Game 1, Charlie Culberson replaced him. Getting the ball in Game 1 was Clayton Kershaw. He had been known as a spectacular regular season pitcher, but a choker in the postseason. Scoreless into the fourth inning, Kershaw allowed a two-run homer to Almora to give the Cubs the lead. Still not entirely recovered from his injury, Kershaw wasn’t at his best, going five innings in a no-decision.

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(In NLCS Game 1, Albert Almora gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead by homering off Clayton Kershaw. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

In the fifth, the Dodgers tied the score. Following a pair of walks, Yasiel Puig followed with a double, and a Chris Taylor sacrifice fly was next. Puig would have an amazing day, finishing with a pair of RBI and several clutch hits. After Taylor homered to give them the lead in the sixth inning, Puig hit one of his own in the seventh to make it 4-2. Later in the inning, Culberson doubled and Justin Turner singled. The throw came in to the plate and Culberson was initially called out. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, the same Dave Roberts who stole second to start Boston’s comeback in 2004, protested the call, and it was overturned, on the basis that Willson Contreras blocked the plate before he had the ball, which is against the rules (if he had the ball first, it would have been legal). As a result, Joe Maddon raced out to argue the call and was ejected. That made it 5-2 Los Angeles, which held up as the final score. Converted starter Kenta Maeda, who like Darvish was also a righty pitcher from Japan, earned the win in relief, and Kenley Jansen got a four out save. Funnily enough, Maeda had originally been scheduled to start Game 1, but Kershaw got the call instead.

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(Yasiel Puig came through with a homer and a double in Game 1. Chris Taylor also had a great day with two RBI of his own. Photo courtesy of Denver Post.) 

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(Because of an illegal blocking of home plate by Willson Contreras, Charlie Culberson was able to score the Dodgers’ fifth run. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times.) 

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(Originally scheduled to start the first game, Kenta Maeda earned the win in relief. Photo courtesy of The Japan Times.) 

In Game 2, the Cubs once again took an early lead on a solo home run by Addison Russell in the top of the fifth, coming off of Rich Hill. The Dodgers tied the score in the fifth with a double by Culberson and an RBI single by Turner. The score remained 1-1 into the ninth. After the Cubs went down without scoring, Brian Duensing walked Puig to lead off the inning and John Lackey walked Chris Taylor later in the inning with two out. Up next was Justin Turner. He took the 1-0 pitch and crushed a walk-off three-run shot to center field. The Dodgers were halfway to the pennant.

(Justin Turner won the second game with a ninth inning home run. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

In Game 3, the Dodgers put themselves on the precipice of the pennant with a 6-1 win. Yu Darvish gave the Dodgers 6.1 strong innings, and Chris Taylor added his second home run. The Cubs staved off elimination with a 3-2 win in Game 4, with Arrieta beating Alex Wood. Dave Roberts knew what it was like to see a 3-0 lead blown (remember 2004). Would the Cubs be able to rally?

Fortunately, the Dodgers wouldn’t have to worry about that. The Cubs scored only eight runs in the entire series, all of them on solo homers. They had no offensive depth in this series, and I would argue I wasn’t entirely wrong that they were too home run dependent. This time, seven RBIs from utility player Enrique Hernandez, including three homers (and one of those a grand slam), led the Dodgers to an 11-1 pennant-clinching victory. Kershaw was better this time, and Culberson caught the final out of the series off of a line drive. The Dodgers outscored the Cubs in the series by twenty runs.

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(Dodgers utility man Enrique Hernandez had three homers, including a grand slam, to lead the Dodgers to the pennant. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.) 

(The Dodgers win the NL pennant. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

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(The Dodgers celebrate the 2017 NL pennant. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News.)

Coincidentally, the Astros and Red Sox had finished the season with a four-game series at Fenway Park. Now, they were playing each other in the ALDS. Only five years after switching leagues, the Astros seemed to be the favorite of many, having come into the postseason with 101 wins. For Boston, it seemed to be a “happy to be there” year, given how inconsistent their offense was. The two dynamics were on display in the first two games. Both of the first two games at Houston’s Minute Maid Park resulted in the hometown Astros winning by identical 8-2 scorelines. In his first playoff start, Chris Sale was rocked hard, with Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman hitting back-to-back home runs in the first inning. The Red Sox got back to 2-1 with an RBI single by Sandy Leon which scored Mitch Moreland, although bad baserunning doomed them from scoring more, as former Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick threw out Dustin Pedroia, who was trying to go to third base on the same play.

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(Dustin Pedroia’s costly baserunning hurt Boston’s chances to get an extra run in the second. Photo courtesy of USA Today.) 

Boston tied the score in the fourth from a Rafael Devers sacrifice fly, but would score no more. Marwin Gonzalez had a two-run double in the bottom half, and Altuve finished with three home runs in the game, two off Sale, who went five innings and gave up seven runs. His third off of Austin Maddox in the seventh made him the first Astros player to do so. And it wasn’t that surprising – Altuve went on to win MVP honors that year. And Justin Verlander helped his own cause by pitching six strong innings.

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(AL MVP Jose Altuve hit three homers in Game 1, including two off of Red Sox ace Chris Sale. Photo courtesy of USA Today.) 

(Altuve’s third homer of Game 1. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

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(Justin Verlander shed many of his postseason demons with six innings in Game 1. Photo courtesy of http://www.climbingtalshill.com.) 

Boston’s other steady starter was Drew Pomeranz, but Houston beat him as well. Carlos Correa and George Springer both homered in the first three innings, and Dallas Keuchel went 5.2 innings to get the victory. Correa added a two-run double in a four-run sixth, and Houston was one win away from the ALCS.

Heading to Fenway Park, Boston needed a win to stay alive. But their choice of starting pitcher made many nervous, with journeyman Doug Fister, best known for his years with Detroit, got the ball. He’d had his moments during the season, but was inconsistent and Houston had a 3-0 lead after the first inning. Carlos Correa’s second homer complemented an RBI single by Bregman. Houston almost put the game and the series out of reach one inning later. With two men on, and Fister knocked out of the game, Josh Reddick came to bat with two outs. On the 3-2 pitch, he lofted a fly ball to right field that looked like would leave the park. But Mookie Betts was waiting in right. Betts had fallen to .264 this year, but had still made the All-Star team and raced back. He made the catch to save the Red Sox and give them something to cheer about. Houston didn’t score in the inning. Boston rallied with a single by Sandy Leon, although it could and probably should have been more, as they loaded the bases with nobody out. Had Houston made it 6-0, the Red Sox were probably dead. But Betts’ catch gave them new life.

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(Mookie Betts’ spectacular catch in ALDS Game 3 allowed the Red Sox to rally. Photo courtesy of http://www.boston.com.) 

In the third inning, the Red Sox rallied. Struggling all year, Hanley Ramirez singled in Mitch Moreland, part of a triumphant 4-for-4, three RBI day. Rafael Devers followed with a two-run homer. Not only was it Boston’s first HR of the series, it gave them their first lead.

(Rafael Devers homered to give the Red Sox a 4-3 lead in Game 3. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

That 4-3 lead held up until the seventh inning. Boston’s bullpen got 1.2 innings by Joe Kelly, who then gave way to David Price. Known for his postseason struggles, and having lost a significant part of his season due to a shoulder injury, Price was in the bullpen from September on. He was amazing, going four strong shutout innings, striking out four and getting timely help from the Red Sox defense. His final batter was a strikeout of Marwin Gonzalez to keep Boston ahead going into the seventh inning stretch.

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(David Price’s four innings of relief kept Boston ahead in Game 3. Photo courtesy of Boston Globe.) 

The Red Sox got some much-needed insurance in their half of the seventh. Andrew Benintendi led off with a walk and Mookie Betts singled. Houston pitcher Lance McCullers was replaced by Chris Devenski. Mitch Moreland singled to load the bases. Then Hanley Ramirez capped off his spectacular day with a two-run single, making it 6-3 Red Sox. Ramirez went to second on the throw.

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(Hanley Ramirez capped off a four-hit day with a crucial two-run single in the seventh inning of Game 3. Photo courtesy of http://www.masslive.com.) 

The next batter was Rafael Devers. He worked the count full, then hit a blooping fly ball to left field. The ball dropped untouched and Moreland scored. Joe Musgrove relieved Devenski and got a fly ball to hold the runners. Jackie Bradley, Jr. was next to bat.

On a 2-2 pitch, Bradley lofted a fly ball to right field that wormed its way around the Pesky Pole. Josh Reddick raced back for it. In order to avoid crashing into the wall, he kicked his leg up on the fence. He had the ball for a second – and then it popped out of his glove and landed over the fence for a three-run homer. That made it 10-3 Red Sox. After being robbed of a home run earlier, Reddick gifted one back to his old team.

(Jackie Bradley Jr.’s three-run shot capped off a six-run rally. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

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(Bradley’s homer was the result of Josh Reddick deflecting the ball over the fence. Photo courtesy of Toronto Star.) 

The rally was over, but Boston had a seven-run lead that it wouldn’t give up. Addison Reed pitched the eighth and Carson Smith the ninth, each holding Houston off the board. Boston won Game 3 by the score of 10-3 to remain alive in the series.

Many Houston fans started to worry. Not only did Houston have a tendency to blow leads in the postseason, but Boston had a tendency to rally from deficits. Would that trend continue in Game 4? Rick Porcello got the ball for Boston. He’d had a tough year, but he pitched his heart out in Game 4. He allowed a run in the first inning, but it came on a beautiful double play, so it also resulted in two outs. Boston got one back on a Xander Bogaerts homer. Houston re-took the lead in the second when George Springer singled in a run. Against veteran journeyman Charlie Morton, who was only a journeyman because of his struggles with the health of his arm, Boston attempted to rally, but frustratingly did nothing with a bases loaded, no out rally. They were still only down by a run but they should have done something.

Chris Sale came out of the bullpen in the fourth inning and kept the Astros off the board for four innings. In the meantime, Boston regained the lead on a two-run homer by Benintendi. Heading into the eighth, Boston led 3-2.

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(Andrew Benintendi homered to give the Red Sox the lead in the fifth inning. Photo courtesy of Boston Herald.) 

Six outs away from forcing a decisive fifth game, Sale went back to the mound. Alex Bregman greeted him with a game-tying solo homer, and it was clear Sale was tiring. After getting a groundout, DH Evan Gattis singled. Sale got the next batter out but was done for the day. Closer Craig Kimbrel came in to pitch for Boston. With Springer at bat, a wild pitch sent pinch runner Cameron Maybin to second. Springer followed with a walk. On a full count, Josh Reddick broke Boston fans’ hearts with an RBI single to left that scored Maybin. The Astros got another run in the ninth, when veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran hit an RBI double. It was necessary as Rafael Devers led off the last of the ninth with an inside-the-park solo home run to make it 5-4. But from there, Ken Giles retired the side, getting the final out on a grounder to second from Dustin Pedroia. Despite a heroic performance from Devers, and a better performance in the final two games, the underdog Red Sox were eliminated for the second year in a row. Following this series, Dave Dombrowski fired manager John Farrell. Despite three division titles, a World Series championship, and surviving a bout with cancer, it wasn’t enough to save Farrell in the end. To add insult to injury, he had been ejected earlier in the game for arguing with the umpires.

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(Veteran Carlos Beltran drove in the series winning run with a ninth inning double. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle.) 

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(Following the series, John Farrell was fired by the Red Sox. Photo courtesy of Boston Globe.) 

The other ALDS was between Cleveland and New York. To maximize his rest, Corey Kluber was pushed back for Game 1. Instead, Trevor Bauer got the ball and used his curveball to stifle the Yankees. The Indians won 4-0, and it was only the fourth time that the Yankees had been shut out all season. Cleveland scored a run on a ground ball double play from Roberto Perez, after loading the bases with nobody out against Sonny Gray. In the fourth inning, Jay Bruce’s two-run jack made it 3-0. The final run game in the fifth inning on a single by Jose Ramirez, two wild pitches, and a sacrifice fly. Cleveland had drawn first blood.

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(Trevor Bauer mixed in a fantastic curveball to help the Indians to a Game 1 win. Photo courtesy of http://www.sportsnet.ca.)

Part of the problems the Yankees had with Bauer was that they had trouble with off-speed pitching, like curves and sliders. But with veteran CC Sabathia going in Game 2, Gary Sanchez’s homer in the first inning staked New York to a 2-0 first inning lead. Carlos Santana tied the game for Cleveland in the first after a walk, error, and hit batsman loaded the bases. Following a second inning RBI by Jason Kipnis, the Tribe had a 3-2 lead. But four runs in the third chased Kluber, including a three-run shot from Aaron Hicks. New York led 6-3 after three innings.

(Aaron Hicks hit a homer to give New York a three-run lead in ALDS Game 2. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Following a Greg Bird home run that made it 8-3, New York looked to be in control. But controversy awaited the Yankees in the sixth. The Indians had two on and two out with Lonnie Chisenhall up to bat and Chad Green on the mound. Green came inside, and wa charged with a hit batter. Except that the ball actually hit the knob of Chisenhall’s bat, and then bounced into the glove of Gary Sanchez, which should have been a third strike on a foul tip. Sanchez petitioned his manager Joe Girardi to challenge the call. Girardi did nothing. Chisenhall went to first base. The next batter, Francisco Lindor, followed with a grand slam off the foul pole and the Indians were within a run at 8-7. Yankee fans never forgave Girardi for his non-move. The play loomed even larger when Jay Bruce homered to tie the game in the eighth inning.

(Video of the Chisenhall play and the Lindor grand slam. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

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(Francisco Lindor hit a grand slam to get the Indians within a run. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.) 

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(Jay Bruce tied the game with a solo shot in the eighth. Photo courtesy of http://www.cleveland.com.) 

The game went to extra innings, with both teams getting chances, but nobody converting. Finally, Cleveland broke through in the thirteenth inning. Austin Jackson led off with a walk, and then stole second. Yan Gomes followed with a walk-off single. Cleveland won 9-8 and was one game away from the next round.

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(Yan Gomes won Game 2 with a walk-off single in the 13th. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

The Yankees were on the verge of elimination. They sent Masahiro Tanaka to the mound to try to save their season. He came through big, dazzling Cleveland with his splitter, and Aaron Judge made a great catch in the sixth inning to rob Francisco Lindor of a two-run homer. A pitcher’s duel resulted in a 1-0 win for New York, with Greg Bird’s second homer of the series the only run of the game. Cleveland put runners on in each of the last two innings, but did nothing against David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman.

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(Aaron Judge’s triumphant catch in right field kept the Yankees alive in the series. Photo courtesy of http://www.cleveland.com.) 

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(Greg Bird won the third game with a solo homer in the seventh. Photo courtesy of Denver Post.) 

In Game 4, Bauer faced off against Severino. This time, Cleveland was let down by sloppy defense. Their pitching staff allowed seven runs. But, thanks to four Indians errors, only one of them was earned. Four runs were scored in the second inning, following an error, and a passed ball. Todd Frazier and Aaron Hicks got RBI hits, and then Brett Gardner singled and stole second. Aaron Judge followed with a two-run double to make it 4-0. An errant throw in the third made it 5-0. Cleveland got back to withing 5-3 on homers by Carlos Santana and Roberto Perez. But another error gave a run back via a sacrifice fly. Sanchez homered to complete the scoring, finishing at 7-3. For Cleveland, it was becoming somewhat of a joke. Three previous times, they had lost a 2-0 or 3-1 lead in the series. Would they do it again? It couldn’t be that cruel, right?

Back in Cleveland, New York continued their comeback. In his first two at-bats, Didi Gregorius hit a pair of homers to make it 3-0 by the third inning. Although Cleveland used four consecutive singles in the fifth to make it 3-2, they would do no more. In the top of the ninth, Brett Gardner used a 12-pitch at-bat to drive in two runs to make it 5-2. Aroldis Chapman completed a two-inning save and the Yankees’ comeback was complete. For Cleveland, they had blown a big lead for the second year in a row, and third time in ten years. Was the Cleveland sports curse really dead? Or just in hibernation?

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(Brett Gardner’s two-run single in the ninth completed New York’s comeback. Photo courtesy of http://www.pinstripealley.com.) 

The ALCS opened in Houston and the hometown Astros won 2-1, with Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka waging a classic pitcher’s duel. Houston got both their runs on an infield single by Altuve, a stolen base, a Correa single, and an RBI by Yuliesky “Yuli” Gurriel. Greg Bird’s homer in the top of the ninth was the only Yankees run. Game 2 had the exact same score, with Justin Verlander pitching a complete game, allowing only an RBI double to Todd Frazier that lodged in the center field fence. This was in response to a solo homer from Carlos Correa that had opened the scoring. With the score 1-1 in the last of the ninth, Altuve singled and stole second off of Chapman. With Correa up next, he hit a ball to right field. There was a play at the plate. The throw came in. Altuve slid. Safe! Gary Sanchez didn’t field the ball cleanly, allowing the winning run to score. Houston

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(Jose Altuve scores the winning run in Game 2. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.) 

New York rallied in Game 3 to get back in the series, using clutch homers by Todd Frazier and Aaron Judge to demolish Houston 8-1. They used a rally in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece.

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(Aaron Judge hits a three-run homer off of reliever Will Harris. Photo courtesy of Wall Street Journal.) 

What started as a pitcher’s duel sprang to life in the sixth inning. Yuli Gurriel opened the scoring with a bases-clearing double against David Robertson. One inning later, Starlin Castro’s error allowed Marwin Gonzalez to score and make it 4-0 Houston. They were nine outs from a 3-1 series lead.

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(Yuli Gurriel opened the scoring of Game 4 with a three-run double. Photo courtesy of Chicago Daily Herald.) 

But New York rallied. Aaron Judge’s second homer got the Yankees on the board and chased Lance McCullers from the game. Later in the inning, a Didi Gregorius triple and Gary Sanchez sac fly made it 4-2. In the bottom of the eighth, Frazier singled and so did Chase Headley, who was able to avoid a close tag after tripping en route to second base.

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(Chase Headley was able to avoid the tag from Jose Altuve to keep the Yankees alive. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle.) 

Brett Gardner followed with a run scoring groundout. Then Aaron Judge doubled to tie the game at four. Gregorius singled, and Sanchez completed the comeback with a two-run double to make it 6-4 New York. Chapman pitched a perfect ninth for the save. The series was two up.

(Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez provided late heroics in Game 4. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Judge continued his tear in Game 5, breaking open the game in the third with an RBI double to make it 2-0. Gary Sanchez had two RBI, including a solo home run, and the Yankees put themselves on the verge of the pennant with a 5-0 win, with Masahiro Tanaka getting revenge on Dallas Keuchel from Game 1.

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(Gary Sanchez had a homer and a double to put the Yankees up in the Series 3-2. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)

Back in Houston, Justin Verlander attempted to save the season for the ‘Stros. After four scoreless innings, Astros catcher Brian McCann drove in a run with a double, and after a walk loaded the bases, Altuve had a two-run single to make it 3-0. Although Aaron Judge hit his third home run of the series in the top of the eighth, Altuve led off the bottom half with a solo shot of his own, en route to four runs in the eighth. Houston stayed alive with a 7-1 win and tied the series at three games apiece. Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to keep Houston in it, en route to ALCS MVP honors.

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(Justin Verlander went seven strong in ALCS Game 6. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

In Game 7, Charlie Morton pitched for Houston. CC Sabathia went for New York. On names alone, Sabathia had the advantage. But Morton was better that night. He held the Yankees to only three hits, shutting them out for only the fifth time all season. Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve homered, and Brian McCann drove in an RBI. The final score was 4-0 Houston. The last out was a Greg Bird fly out to center fielder George Springer. Not only did they become the first team to win the pennant in both leagues, but it was only the fifth time that the home team won every game in a postseason series in MLB history.

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(The Astros celebrate the 2017 AL pennant. Photo courtesy of CNN.) 

As a result of the new collective bargaining agreement, home field advantage in the Series went to whomever had the better record. So, for the first time in five years, the NL had home field advantage. Game 1 opened in Dodger Stadium, with Dallas Keuchel facing off against Clayton Kershaw. On the 45th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s death, his widow and family threw out the first ball. On the first pitch of the game in the bottom of the first, Chris Taylor homered to start the game off for the Dodgers. Alex Bregman homered to get one back for Houston, but a two-run shot from Justin Turner made it 3-1, which was the final score of the first game. Kershaw had his World Series win, going seven innings with 11 strikeouts, no walks, and allowed only three hits. Even more amazingly, the game was over in only 2 hours and 28 minutes, the shortest game in 25 years.

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(Chris Taylor’s leadoff homer sparked the Dodgers in Game 1. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News.) 

Game 2 saw the two teams combine for a single game record of eight homers, with four apiece from each team. Rich Hill faced off against Justin Verlander, although both got a no decision. Houston took their first lead of the Series in the top of the third when Josh Reddick scored from an Alex Bregman single. Homers in the fifth and sixth by Joc Pederson and Corey Seager (now back in the lineup for the Series) led to a 3-1 Dodgers lead. Houston rallied via Carlos Correa’s single in the eighth inning. Then in the ninth, the fireworks started. Marwin Gonzalez smacked a game-tying home run off of Kenley Jansen, which was only his second blown save of the season. It went to extra innings tied 3-3.

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(Marwin Gonzalez’s home run in the ninth tied Game 2. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times.) 

Both Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa both homered in the tenth off of Josh Fields, before Los Angeles got one from a solo shot by Yasiel Puig. Later in the inning, Enrique Hernandez drove in Logan Forsythe with an RBI single, the first run the Dodgers scored that wasn’t via long ball. In the top of the eleventh, George Springer’s first homer of the series, a two-run shot off of Brandon McCarthy, made it 7-5. Charlie Culberson homered to make it 7-6, but Ken Giles got the save by striking out Yasiel Puig to end the game. After being swept in their first appearance, the Astros finally had their first win in World Series history, after 55 years.

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(George Springer hit a two-run homer in the top of the 11th inning to give Houston their first World Series win. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Review-Journal.)

Game 3 only saw one home run, from Yuli Gurriel in the second inning. But it was met with controversy, as he had played in Japan and apparently made a racial slur and gesture towards pitcher Yu Darvish, who is from Osaka, after reaching the dugout. He apologized later. Darvish was a disaster, going only 1.2 innings, as he surrendered three more runs in the second inning. Los Angeles got a run back from three consecutive walks and a run scoring double play from Corey Seager. In the fifth inning, Evan Gattis singled to make it 5-1, before the Dodgers got two back on a wild pitch and a Yasiel Puig RBI groundout. The Dodgers only had four hits in the game, and Lance McCullers earned the win, going 5.1 innings. In relief, Brad Peacock earned his first career save, going the final 3.2 innings of the game, striking out four and allowing no hits. The final score was 5-3 and Houston was up two games to one.

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(Brad Peacock pitched three and two-third innings to earn the save in Game 3. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Most people felt it was going to be a great series. And Los Angeles proved it by winning the fourth game by a 6-2 scoreline. Even then, it was scoreless through the first five innings. Springer hit his second home run off of Alex Wood, which was the only hit he allowed in 5.2 innings. But one inning later, Logan Forsythe drove in a run that scored Cody Bellinger. Bellinger returned the favor in the top of the ninth with an RBI double, then got four more runs from a sac fly by Austin Barnes and a three-run shot by Joc Pederson. That five-run ninth held up, especially because Alex Bregman homered for Houston in the ninth. The Dodgers leveled up the series at two apiece.

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(Joc Pederson’s ninth inning home run was the key hit for the Dodgers in Game 4. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News.) 

Many consider Game 5 as one of the best World Series games ever. It was a rematch of the first game, Kershaw against Keuchel. Los Angeles opened the scoring with a three-run first inning, getting a two-run RBI from Logan Forsythe and scoring a third run on an error by Yuli Gurriel. In the fourth inning, Austin Barnes made it 4-0 Los Angeles with a single. Houston got on the board on an RBI single by Carlos Correa, and then a three-run homer by Gurriel tied the game off of Kershaw.

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(Yuli Gurriel tied the game in the fourth inning of Game 5 with a three-run homer, and is congratulated by Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle.) 

Each team rallied with a three-run homer in the fifth: Bellinger off of Collin McHugh, and then Altuve answered back to tie it at 7-7, hitting it off of Kenta Maeda, and saddling Kershaw with a no-decision in 4.2 innings. In the top of the seventh, George Springer had one of his few not-so-good moments, misjudging a sinking line drive by Bellinger that resulted in a triple, and scored Enrique Hernandez from first base. Springer atoned for his mistake with his third homer of the series, tying the game. Houston took the lead for the first time when Altuve doubled in Bregman, followed by Correa hitting a two-run homer. The Astros had a lead of 11-8. The Dodgers cut it to 11-9 on a Seager double, before Brian McCann homered to make it 12-9 with Houston three outs away from a 3-2 Series lead.

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(George Springer homered for the third time in Game 5. Photo courtesy of Wall Street Journal.)

Now it was L.A.’s turn to rally. With one out, Yasiel Puig hit a two-run homer to get them within a run. Austin Barnes doubled, and Joc Pederson grounded out. One strike from losing the fifth game, Chris Taylor singled to score the tying run. Now it was 12-12. The game went to extra innings for the second time in the Series.

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(Yasiel Puig homered to keep the Dodgers in it. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle.) 

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(Chris Taylor’s RBI single tied the game for Los Angeles in the ninth. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Although longtime Dodger vet Andre Ethier was able to get on base in the top of the tenth, he was stranded there. Kenley Jansen got the first two batters in the tenth, before hitting Brian McCann with a pitch. Springer followed with a walk and pinch runner Derek Fisher replaced McCann. On the first pitch of the next at-bat, Alex Bregman singled to left. Ethier made a decent throw, but it was late and Fisher scored the winning run. The Astros won 13-12 on a walk-off single. They were heading back to Los Angeles won win from the title.

(A single from Alex Bregman drove in the winning run in Game 5. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

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(Alex Bregman won Game 5 with a single. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle.)

(Highlights of an excellent and thrilling Game 5. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

The series shifted back to Los Angeles after an off day. Against Rich Hill, Springer hit his fourth homer of the series in the third inning to give Houston a 1-0 lead. Hill wasn’t terrible, but having to play from behind, Dave Roberts put him on a shorter leash than usual and pulled him after 4.2 innings, leaving with the bases loaded. Houston didn’t score in that inning, and wouldn’t score anymore in that game. Taylor tied the game in the sixth with a double and Seager hit a sacrifice fly to make it 2-1. It would prove to be the winning run of Game 6. Justin Verlander was still great, leaving after that sixth inning with nine strikeouts. Unfortunately, he’d be saddled with the loss after Houston couldn’t rally. Los Angeles got one last run on a Joc Pederson home run, his third overall. Kenley Jansen got the save, redeeming himself from the previous game. It seemed only fair that given the quality of both teams, it would go to a seventh game.

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(George Springer’s fourth Series homer was the only Houston run in Game 6. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News.) 

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(Corey Seager drove in the winning run in Game 6 with a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

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(Kenley Jansen strikes out Carlos Beltran to force a seventh game. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle.) 

Game 7 was the first one ever played at Dodger Stadium, with Sandy Koufax throwing out the first pitch. McCullers and Darvish, a rematch of Game 3, would be the starters. Now, for all of the brilliance of the Series, the last game was somewhat of a let-down for neutral fans. It wasn’t a terrible game, but it wasn’t really a great one either. It would be decided by the second inning.

Houston scored twice in the top of the first, when George Springer doubled and an error by Cody Bellinger allowed Alex Bregman to reach second base. Following a stolen base, Altuve drove him in to make it 2-0. McCullers helped his own cause with an RBI groundout, before Springer followed with his fifth home run overall, tying a record set by Chase Utley and Reggie Jackson. That made it 5-0, and for all intents and purposes, the game was over before it started. For Springer, it was also his fourth straight game with a homer. He was a deserving Series MVP.

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(Series MVP George Springer celebrates his fifth and final home run for the Astros, effectively clinching the title for the Astros. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)

Darvish was done in the second, again, and McCullers left in the third – the first team neither starting pitcher made it into the fourth inning in a Game 7. The Dodgers had runners on, and actually outhit Houston in the final game six to five, but kept wasting chances by leaving eight men on base in the first five innings. In the sixth, Andre Ethier, the longest-tenured Dodger, drove in Pederson for Los Angeles’s first run – and as it turned out, their last as well.

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(Andre Ethier drove in a consolation run for the Dodgers. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times.) 

During the game, Clayton Kershaw pitched four innings of relief, all scoreless, but it was too little, too late. But Charlie Morton was better, going four innings of relief to get the win, retiring the last eleven batters he faced.

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(Charlie Morton got the win with four brilliant innings in Game 7. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle.) 

The Dodgers were still trailing in the ninth. Morton struck out pinch hitter Chase Utley. Chris Taylor grounded out to second. Corey Seager was their last hope. He hit a grounder to Altuve on the first pitch, who threw to Gurriel. And for the first time, the stars at night were the biggest and the brightest on the baseball diamond.

(The Astros win their first championship in team history. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

In many ways, it was only fitting that the Houston Astros took it. Much like Boston in 2013, their home city had faced a major tragedy during the year. They had finished last only four years earlier, and had been swept in 2005, their only previous appearance. They had waited 56 years for this moment. And with that dominant lineup and pitching, who’s to say they’re not the favorites for next year?

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(The Astros celebrate the World Series title. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.) 

Fun Facts
This is the first championship for Houston in their history, after 56 years. It was also the first for any team from the state of Texas, and the city of Houston’s third in all sports, with the Houston Rockets having won the NBA title in 1994 and 1995.

Game 1 was the warmest game in World Series history, played in 103 degrees Fahrenheit temperature.

For the first time since 1970, both World Series participants had at least 100 wins, and the first time since 1931 since both teams won 100 games and had a seventh game.

The two teams combined for a World Series record 25 home runs. Yasiel Puig’s ninth inning shot in Game 5 was the record setter. Houston hit fifteen in the Series, Los Angeles ten.

Following the Series, having finally won his elusive championship, Carlos Beltran announced his retirement after 19 years, one of the true Hollywood endings.

For his gesture and remarks about Yu Darvish, Yuli Gurriel was suspended for the first five games of the 2018 season without pay.

As an example of how evenly matched the teams were, each team scored 34 runs, although Houston had nine more hits and a higher team batting average.

For the fourth consecutive season, the championship winning team clinched on the road.

This was the first time since 1972 that an AL team won a Game 7 on the road. It was also the first time in fifteen years (2001-02) where two straight years had a Game 7.

For the first time, MLB sold sponsorship deals to every postseason Series. YouTube won the bidding rights to the World Series.

During the Series, Boston Red Sox management arranged for Houston coach Alex Cora to become their manager for the 2018 season. Before Dave Martinez got the job, John Farrell interviewed for Washington’s managerial job.

Joe Girardi was not brought back after the ALCS. As of this writing (November 24, 2017), his replacement hasn’t been named yet.

For the third time ever in a non-strike season, no pitcher won 20 games. In fact, for the first time ever, nobody even won 19 games. Clayton Kershaw led the NL with 18, and the AL saw three – Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco of Cleveland, and Jason Vargas of the Kansas City Royals.

Many people felt that the offense was higher because the ball was slicker. Players and coaches on both sides mentioned that it was tougher to grip, which affected many pitchers throwing effective sliders. Since the slider is his main out pitch, that could be why Yu Darvish struggled in both of his starts.

Final Thoughts
I have family who live in the Houston area, or have ties to it. To them, I say congratulations and enjoy, and here’s to a great 2018 MLB season. And to all the neutral readers, this is truly a project of love. If you keep reading them, I’ll keep writing them.

References and Sources
Baseball Reference
Baseball Almanac
Baseball Hall of Fame
Wikipedia
Getty Images
YouTube
CNN
ABC News.
http://www.crawfishboxes.com.
http://www.pinstripealley.com
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Canopy of Lights 2017

With the exception of one semester in Antwerp at the age of seven, I’ve lived in Bloomington my entire life. So I’m a little disappointed in myself that I never went to the Canopy of Lights until this year. In fact, I didn’t even know about it until last year.

It was actually a pretty good Thanksgiving, but I’m also not that sad to see it go. If I had to pick between the two, Christmas would win every time. Not even for the gifts, but just because I could actually do something related to the holiday. I don’t feel overwhelmed as much, if at all.

Plus, even if the autistic subculture is less likely to be seduced by packaging, I have to admit, I’m a sucker for decorations this time of year. Maybe I could enjoy Thanksgiving more if it were willing to decorate itself a little bit. That does matter to some people.

It was a sight to see. I ran into three friends from high school during the event, two of whom are brothers. We even had some come down from Indianapolis, which does something similar in Monument Circle. That’s next on my list. 🙂

The lights feel very comforting. They’re my beacon home for the rest of the year. I was glad I got to go with family, too – my parents and brother and sister-in-law were all there as well. The latter two came in from Ohio for the weekend.

Here’s a good photo I got of the courthouse lights from Kirkwood Avenue.

It’s said to be the most wonderful time of the year. Hopefully, this good cheer will continue as 2017 winds down. I’m sure a lot of us could use it right about now. But I feel it was a better year than I expected. We’ll see what happens in these final four or five weeks of the year.

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Bloomington: November

For one week, the students are given time off for Thanksgiving. Then, for many Indiana University students, it’ll be one or two more weeks, then finals, then Christmas. With the end of the year fast approaching, and Thanksgiving/Black Friday right around the corner, and with several of my co-workers taking finals as well, it’s going to be a hectic time.

It’s advised to take it a day at a time. I look a little longer time-wise, giving myself about a week. The rains came today, and pretty hard at that. Our Hoosiers defeated Rutgers 41-0 in one of their best games of the last generation, certainly in the last quarter century. Perhaps because I never grew up with a winner in college football, maybe that’s why I never got into it. And I’ve known a lot of losing with them. They’re still alive for a bowl berth, and would be guaranteed to get one with a win against rival Purdue next week. After an early morning on Friday, I get the weekend off, so that’ll be nice.

It’s bitterly cold right now, a standard November in Bloomington. Despite this, it’s tempting to take a walk, although not for too long since I’m waking up early all week. But even though the skies were gray, life went on in this Midwestern college town. The men’s soccer team opens against Old Dominion in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, as the second overall seed, they can make some noise. It was beautiful to watch them this season. I don’t want it to end just yet.

When I was in college, I had some rough times. I wasn’t sure about who I was, and I was scared about facing the real world. As odd as it sounds, I’ve fallen in love with parts of it all over again, after being out of it for seven years at the end of this school year. Maybe that’s what’s supposed to happen – as the saying goes, you never really appreciate something until you don’t have it anymore. I look at my diploma and realize how incredibly lucky I am to have it.

So, yes, you could call this a post about swallowing some of my pride and admitting that I liked a lot of college after all. I still had some moments I’d rather forget, but I wonder if I could go back now knowing what I know from the “real world” and apply it back in. I’ve heard that many undergraduates who start later – say in their mid-20s – tend to understand that better, having had some of that experience. Is order important? Maybe.

I’m beginning to ask wiser questions, and that atmosphere prepared me for it. Perhaps that more than anything else I love – the atmosphere of college towns. For me, it’s nice to reflect on these things.

November in Bloomington – it’s hard to avoid. In many ways, the campus becomes more beautiful in the winter time. The canopy is amazing. Enjoy the final weeks of the semester, and have a good week off. In the meantime, I may just go take a brief walk. Even if it’s just around the block, I think it’ll be nice to do so.

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Photo courtesy of Indiana University Bloomington. 

2014 FIFA World Cup: Brazil

With Russia’s World Cup on the horizon, we’re at the end of the project for the time being. For the first time since 1950, jogo bonito was scheduled to host the Cup. But corruption was a concern for both the host country and the organization that gave it the right to do so. By the end of the following year, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and many of his cohorts would be out of a job. Nevertheless, the game went on. Brazil 2014 saw several teams make triumphant returns, two of them – one South American, one European – make quarterfinals, with one team having their player win lead scoring honors; the same result from a lesser-known Central American team that would quickly be on the rise; it saw a rematch of the 2010 final, and an embarrassment to the defending champions; it saw a resurgence of one of the game’s greatest player, four years after struggling to find his form; it saw a plucky American team navigate a group of death and get one back on an old rival; it saw video technology introduced for the first time, as well as vanishing spray on free kicks; and it saw a disastrous crash an burn from the hosts; what was supposed to be a superstar team couldn’t overcome impossible expectations, and in one fell swoop in Belo Horizonte, six minutes would expose the flaws of their history.

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(Brazil 2014’s logo. Photo courtesy of http://www.globalaccessibilitynews.com.) 

2014 FIFA World Cup 
June 12-July 13 

Host: Brazil 

Champion: Germany 
Runner Up: Argentina 
Third Place: Netherlands 
Fourth Place: Brazil 

Golden Boot: James Rodriguez, Colombia (6 goals)

Analysis
While the United States bid on both the 2014 and 2022 World Cups – and lost both, leading to a lot of anger – Brazil really put together the only real bid, and was selected in 2007. While FIFA was attempting to bring the World Cup back to South America for the first time in over 30 years, Brazil was in a state of flux; over the years, both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo had earned reputations for being dangerous despite their alluring promises, and FIFA was in no great shakes itself. Nevertheless, Brazil put on a remarkably good tournament, with the Summer Olympics to follow only two years later.

Qualification and preparation 
Just like in 2010, there was only one new team in 2014. After several near misses, Bosnia-Herzegovina won their qualifying group in Group G on goal differential, ahead of Greece, who advanced to the playoff; also winning their groups were Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia (finishing ahead of Portugal), England, and Spain. And in Group A, the Belgians were returning after a twelve-year absence. In the decade since their last appearance, conflicts over language and regional politics threatened to split Belgium in two. For a brief period in 2010 and 2011, they held the record for the longest time without an official government, beating Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to earn that distinction. For some Belgians, they were actually excited about being number one at something, although they weren’t really happy about what it was for. It was said that two things united the Belgians: the monarchy and the Red Devils. They came into full force during qualification. On December 9, 2011, Belgium’s new government was formed with Francophone Elio Di Rupo taking over as Prime Minister. Having narrowly missed the 2012 Euros on the final day, the Red Devils began their World Cup qualifying campaign with new optimism. There were encouraging signs – led by Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, who served as captain, their U-23 team had barely missed out on a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in China. Kompany and several other players were now on the senior team. For Kompany, the son of Congolese parents, and often injury-prone, to score their first goal in qualifying was all the sweeter for the fans (leading them that day to a 2-0 victory over Wales).

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(Captain Vincent Kompany helped the Belgians during their qualifying campaign. Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.) 

For a while, Belgium and Croatia ran neck-and-neck, with both teams earning the exact same result. As Wales, Scotland, and Serbia fell off the pack, it would be a two-team race for those two countries. Belgium were given tremendous help on June 7, 2013, when Scotland upset Croatia 1-0 in Zagreb. From there, Croatia’s campaign went into a tailspin, drawing with Serbia en route to a head-to-head showdown with Belgium on October 11, also in Zagreb. Belgium was able to qualify automatically with a 2-1 win, with both goals coming from rising star Romelu Lukaku, who was only 20 at the time. His second one was extremely lovely, playing a strange hop on a pass from Axel Witsel and beating the defender one-on-one with blinding speed, playing a deflection off the goalkeeper, and then gently walking the ball into the goal himself. While Croatia got one back with six minutes to go, Belgium were headed back for the first time in 12 years, with leading World Cup scorer Marc Wilmots as coach. Les Diables Rouges étaient de retour. De Rode Duivels waren terug. The Red Devils were back.

(The Romelu Lukaku goal that got Belgium into the Cup. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

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(Lukaku scored twice during that magical night in Zagreb. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

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(Belgium celebrates qualification to Brazil 2014. Photo courtesy of Daily News.) 

Another key player for them was winger Eden Hazard of Chelsea FC. He wouldn’t quite have the Cup performance that everybody was expecting him to, but when he was on, he was on.

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(Eden Hazard was seen as the man to make Belgium go as far as he could carry them. Photo courtesy of http://www.benefoot.net.) 

Denmark was the second place team left out of the playoff (with Italy winning it), so the matchups for the playoffs were as follows: Ukraine-France, Greece-Romania, Iceland-Croatia, and Sweden-Portugal. In truth, all of them could have been amazing teams that year. Iceland had never come that close before, and were on the rise. But they weren’t quite there yet, as Croatia beat them 2-0 on aggregate to advance. Greece, who would have won any other group (finishing behind the Bosnians on goal differential with an incredible 25 points), had a 3-1 win and a 1-1 draw to advance. France’s situation was dire at first – trying to regain some of their Gallic charm after the disaster of 2010, they lost 2-0 to Ukraine in Kiev. To guarantee qualification, they had to win by at least three goals. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened. A goal from Karim Benzema and two from Mamadou Sakho, the last one with eighteen minutes to play, got Les Bleus in.

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(Two goals from Mamadou Sakho in Paris helped France complete a marvelous rally. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.) 

The final matchup was Sweden-Portugal, billed as the matchup between two major players, Cristiano Ronaldo versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The latter was Bosnian by origin, but was born and raised in Sweden. Unfortunately for “Ibra,” it wasn’t enough. Ronaldo scored the only goal in the first leg in Lisbon. The two players waged a classic duel between them. Ibrahimovic scored twice in four minutes, the second one giving Sweden a brief lead. But only five minutes later (77′), Ronaldo scored again, and two minutes later completed a hat trick to lead Portugal in. It was a shame that Sweden failed to get in, because Ibrahimovic was just as amazing that night. Sadly, he never got back, announcing his retirement in 2016.

(Sweden vs. Portugal was also Zlatan versus Ronaldo in a classic match. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

South America’s qualifying was relatively straightforward, with Brazil qualifying as hosts. Argentina won the group, followed by Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador. Colombia and Chile had an amazing player of their own – James Rodriguez (pronounced “HA-mes”, by the way) for Colombia and Alexis Sanchez for Chile. And Brazil had their own superstar, a striker named Neymar. Perhaps expectations were too high, although given that they had just won 3-0 in the Confederations Cup final over Spain, perhaps it was understandable at the time.

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(James Rodriguez in action for Colombia. Photo courtesy of http://www.bundesliga.com.) 

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(Alexis Sanchez in action for Chile. Photo courtesy of Daily Express.)

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(Neymar in action for Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://www.cbc.ca.) 

The same teams from Africa from 2010 made it in, although it took Algeria a lucky 3-3 away goals rule loss to advance over Burkina Faso. For a while, it looked like Cape Verde would make the final two-leg playoff, but they were deducted points on the final day, allowing Tunisia to advance, where they lost to Cameroon. Asia saw four of its usual teams get in: Iran and South Korea in Group A, and Japan and Australia in Group B. The fifth place qualifier was amazing, with Uzbekistan and Jordan facing off. Both legs finished 1-1, so a penalty shootout was required. What followed was incredible, with penalty after penalty being scored. In the end, Jordan won 9-8 when Aznur Ismailov’s kick missed for Uzbekistan. Jordan would play Uruguay in the playoff.

The other major drama came in CONCACAF on the final day. Mexico had been in trouble the entire cycle, going through three managers in a calendar year, and lost in their final match to Costa Rica. If Panama held on to beat the United States at home, then Mexico would be out all together. But in stoppage time, the United States scored two dramatic goals, which kept Mexico into the playoff against OFC winner New Zealand and sent Panama packing. Announcer Christian Martinoli’s voice broke as he cried, “GOL DE ESTADOS UNIDOS!!!” on their equalizer. Then he switched to English briefly: “We love you! We love you forever and ever! God bless America!!” He then criticized the Mexican players, commenting how it took two late goals from their archrivals to keep them alive.

(The call from Christian Martinoli. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Another famous match involving the United States took place in March 2013 in Denver against Costa Rica. 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the USSF, and the United States won 1-0 on a Clint Dempsey goal. It was most famously remembered for the snow that blanketed the field all game. It was known as the “Snow Game.”

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(U.S., in white, and Costa Rica, in red, players in action during “The Snow Game” in Denver, March 2013. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)

The intercontinental playoffs were pretty straightforward. Given new life, Mexico took full advantage, winning both matches over New Zealand, finishing 9-3 on aggregate. Uruguay also had an easy run, winning the away leg against Jordan 5-0 to qualify automatically.

The official ball was the Brazuca, which was colorful and less bouncy than the Jabulani. It would come in as a great addition to the Cup.

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(The Brazuca, the official World Cup ball for 2014. Photo courtesy of http://www.soccerballworld.com.) 

The draw went as follows.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea

Several major games would take place: a rematch of Spain-Netherlands, with Spain favored; a fabulous Group D with three winners (Uruguay, England, and Italy), and a potential group of death involving four teams that made the round of 16 in 2010.

The competition 
Group A 
The opening match took place in São Paulo between the hosts Brazil and Croatia. Brazil were pretty much everybody’s favorite, and expectations were higher than ever. So it was surprising when Croatia took the early lead after only ten minutes, and it came off of an own goal by defender Marcelo. It was the first time an own goal was the opening goal of the tournament. As it turned out, Brazil’s back four would face questions and criticism all tournament long.

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(Marcelo scores an own goal to put Croatia ahead. Photo courtesy of FIFA.) 

It took Brazil a little longer to get started, before Neymar scored (29′) a pretty rolling shot to get Brazil back in it. It stayed 1-1 heading into halftime.

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(Neymar scores the equalizer for Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://www.neymarjr.net.)

In the 71st minute, Brazil took the lead with Neymar scoring his second. Dejan Lovren was called for a controversial foul on Brazil’s Fred inside the penalty area, and the penalty was converted. People felt Fred took a dive. Later in the match, it looked like Croatia had equalized via Ivica Olic, but another foul was called against them, this on a foul on goalkeeper Julio Cesar.

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(The penalty call that led to Brazil’s winner. Photo courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald.) 

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(Ivica Olic had a goal disallowed for a questionable foul call. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

In stoppage time, Oscar added a third for Brazil, and the final score would hold up at 3-1. But it could have been 3-2 on either side. Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura was criticized for his performance, and many saw that Brazil had a lot of passion, but also a lot of holes defensively. As they’d find out later, passion wasn’t enough.

(Highlights of a memorable opening match. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

The next game also had its fair share of refereeing calls missed as well. Mexico held on to beat Cameroon 1-0 (Oribe Peralta 61′), but it should have been more. They had two legitimate goals ruled out for offsides, and both were missed by Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan – the first was exactly on the same line, and the second one was played in by a Cameroon player, so the rule shouldn’t have applied (it applies when the pass comes from a member of the same team). Agonizingly, both calls took place against the same player, Giovanni dos Santos.

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(Giovanni dos Santos shows his frustration, and rightly so – he had two perfectly valid goals not counted for offsides. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

Brazil and Mexico met in the next match. It finished nil-nil, so each team earned a point, but Brazil hadn’t looked as dominant as they were supposed to. Additionally, Mexico had a heroic performance from goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. He made four big saves, one on a shot from Neymar that curled around the post by mere inches. Brazilian fans, in need of a light, began to worry.

Croatia won 4-0 to stay alive, thanks to goals from Olic (11′), Ivan Perisic (48′), and two from Mario Mandzukic. Cameroon had been eliminated, and were falling apart quickly. Left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto heabutted his own teammate Benjamin Moukandjo, and shortly before halftime, Alex Song elbowed Mandzukic and received a red card. He was suspended for not just one game, but three.

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(A headbutt between teammates. Photo courtesy of http://www.101greatgoals.com.)

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(Alex Song was sent off for an elbow. Photo courtesy of Business Insider.) 

Without Song, the Cameroonians went down to defeat again, losing to Brazil 4-1. Although Joel Matip scored for give them some hope and make it 1-1 at the time, two goals from Neymar before halftime proved too much to overcome. Cameroon would be the worst team at the Cup that year, and have lost their last seven World Cup matches dating back to 2002 (the didn’t make it to Russia, so that streak is still alive as of this writing). It wasn’t pretty, but Brazil won the group on goal differential.

Mexico beat Croatia 3-1, taking second place. It was scoreless for the first half, although defender Darijo Srna wasn’t called for a handball inside the box, and a bad foul by Rafael  Marquez only resulted in a yellow card. Marquez went on to score the first goal (72′) and assist on another one, and Ante Rebic was later sent off for Croatia in the final minutes. Impulsive refereeing would become a hot button topic at Brazil.

Group B 
Spain was the defending champion, but had some controversy of their own – Brazil’s native son Diego Costa chose to play for Spain instead. And according to FIFA rules, once you play a competitive match for that country, you’re locked in forever. In a memorable match, albeit one Spain would want to forget, they faced the Netherlands, the first time the two finalists from the previous tournament met in the group stages.

Costa made his presence known early by winning a penalty after he was clipped in the box by the trail leg of Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij. The penalty was converted by Xabi Alonso (27′) and the Spanish looked to be off and running.

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(Xabi Alonso opened the scoring with a Spain penalty. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

But things would go very wrong for the Spanish very quickly. One minute from halftime, Daley Blind saw that Iker Casillas was off his line slightly. He played the ball in towards a rushing Robin van Persie. He jumped in the air like a seal, hit the diving header, and scored a magnificent equalizer. For many, it was the goal of the tournament.

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(Van Persie’s diving header leveled the scores. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.) 

The Spanish completely collapsed in the second half. Talent-wise, there wasn’t much wrong, but they were four years older. And the Dutch just seemed hell-bent on revenge. Blind set up a second goal with a pass to Arjen Robben, who controlled the ball with his left foot, faked out Casillas, and gave the Dutch the lead (53′). Twelve minutes after that, de Vrij got a third from a Wesley Sneijder free kick, although he almost knocked his head on the post doing so. Casillas protested that van Persie fouled him on the play, but not only did that go unpunished, but it was Casillas himself getting a yellow card for excessive complaining. After a potential Spanish second (for David Silva) was ruled out for offsides, Casillas botched a back pass to lead to a fourth, and van Persie’s second, and Robben completed the scoring with a brilliant solo goal. The Spanish had been humiliated in their first game as defending champion – by the team they beat to win it all. It was a little payback, a little bit of oranje woede (orange fury). 5-1 was the final score. Read that again.

(The Dutch completed a 5-1 demolishing of defending champion Spain in their opening match. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Chile and Australia met in Cuiaba, and the Chileans won 3-1. It was over in the first fifteen minutes, as two goals in a three-minute span proved to be too much for the Socceroos to overcome, the first one from Alexis Sanchez. Although veteran Tim Cahill got one back, it wasn’t enough, as a stoppage time goal led to a third.

This was actually a pretty entertaining group, and while Netherlands had fire on offense, they were still perhaps not as strong defensively. Although they beat Australia, it was only 3-2, and Australia really put a scare into them. Robben opened the scoring (20′), only for Cahill to come right back and score one minute later on a brilliant shot.

(Tim Cahill’s amazing strike kept Australia in it. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Australia even had the led for a few minutes, after Mile Jedinak scored a penalty. But only four minutes later, van Persie evened the score again and Memphis Depay won the game in the 68th minute. Australia were eliminated, but unlike Cameroon, they put forth a great effort, and admittedly had fairly low expectations to begin with.

Spain would fall victim to its own success, losing to Chile and being eliminated with one match to go. For the third time since 2002, and second consecutive tournament, the defending champion failed to make it out of the group stage. With only pride to play for, Spain beat Australia 3-0, getting one last strike from both Fernando Torres and David Villa to leave the Australians without a point, somewhat cruelly, actually (they played much better than their record indicated). Netherlands beat Chile 2-0 to finish their campaign, with only placement at stake – Netherlands advanced to win the group, and Chile took second.

Group C
Playing for the first time since 1998, Colombia looked to be a potential dark horse, like the Belgians. They certainly showed why, winning 3-0 over Greece. After only five minutes, left back Pablo Armero had scored for Colombia, and although it was only 1-0 at halftime, Greece’s offense was so poor that they couldn’t rally. James Rodriguez got his first goal to complete the scoring late in stoppage time.

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(A goal from defender Pablo Armero sparked Colombia to a victory. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Ivory Coast had narrowly fallen short in the last two Cups, and they looked to finally break out of the group stage, perhaps their last chance before having to rebuild. But Japan took the early lead (16′), via Keisuke Honda. Ivory Coast rallied to win with two goals in three minutes from Wilfried Bony (64′) and Gervais Lombe Yao Kouassi, better known as Gervinho (66′).

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(Gervinho, left, scored the winner for Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of http://www.independent.ie.) 

Colombia helped their run by beating the Ivorians 2-1, with James Rodriguez starting the scoring (64′), although it was substitute Juan Quintero (70′) who won the game; Gervinho got a consolation goal three minutes after that. Greece and Japan fought to a scoreless draw, with a few chances but nothing that memorable. The big highlight was the first half sending off of Greek captain Kostas Katsouranis in the first half. All four teams were still mathematically in it, but both teams needed to win their final match to have a real shot. Without their captain, Greece would be missing a big piece against a favored Ivorian team.

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(Kostas Katsouranis is sent off for Greece. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Colombia, having already progressed, won their last match over Japan to take all nine points, winning 4-1, although it was only 1-1 at halftime. Rodriguez scored the last one off the bench (having already qualified, they could afford to tinker the lineup), but the big hero for Colombia this time was forward Jackson Martinez, who scored twice in eighteen minutes. They easily won the group with nine points.

Greece kept their hopes alive after a mistake from Ivory Coast defender Cheick Tioté allowed Andreas Samaris, on as an early sub, to give Greece the lead – and score their first goal. A draw would have been enough for the Ivorians, and Bony scored to put them on the cusp (74′). As the match went into stoppage time, the teams went for the ball. On what looked to be incidental contact, Georgios Samaras went down in the box. It looked like he had tripped over his own feet. But it was enough. Ecuadorian referee Carlos Vera awarded the penalty. Samaras converted, to give Greece the 2-1 win and a surprising berth in the knockout stages. Despite a -2 goal differential, the Piratiko (Pirate Ship) was through. Even if it was through no fault of their own this time, Ivory Coast had choked again.

Group D 
Given the competition, few gave Costa Rica much of a chance. I was among them. After Edinson Cavani scored on a penalty (24′), and a fantastic save from Ticos goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Uruguay led 1-0. But the roof caved in for them in the second half, after Joel Campbell (54′) leveled the score. Three minutes later, a cross was headed in by Oscar Duarte. Campbell set up the third Costa Rican goal, feeding Marco Ureña and pulling off a shocking 3-1 upset.

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(Joel Campbell scored once and assisted once to lead Costa Rica to a shocking upset. Photo courtesy of http://www.ticotimes.net.) 

England and Italy met up in the next match, playing in Manaus, right outside of the Amazon basin. England came in with lower than usual expectations, even with Wayne Rooney still in the lineup. Italy were without Gianluigi Buffon in goal, so backup Salvatore Sirigu started in his place. Each team scored in a three-minute period – off of a corner, a low shot from Claudio Marchisio gave Italy the lead (35′). But only two minutes later, Daniel Sturridge leveled for England. Rooney played in the cross on that pass. Only five minutes after the restart, Mario Balotelli – born of Ghanaian parents in Sicily and raised by an Italian couple – took a cross from Antonio Candreva and headed in the winner.

(Highlights of the England-Italy match. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

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(Salvatore Sirigu proved a good backup for Gianluigi Buffon in goal. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Next up was Uruguay against England. Following a red card, Uruguay was without defender Maxi Pereira. Luis Suarez opened the scoring with a header (39′), before Wayne Rooney finally broke through in the second half off a pass from Glen Johnson. But with five minutes to go, Suarez took a pass from goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, which deflected off of Steven Gerrard, and was home from there. Uruguay’s 2-1 victory kept them in it and knocked England out. Costa Rica proved their victory was no fluke either by beating Italy 1-0, after Bryan Ruiz atoned for a missed penalty call when Campbell was whacked hard by Giorgio Chiellini. Even with Buffon back in the lineup, it wasn’t enough.

Chiellini was involved in one more incident. In the final match with Uruguay, after Marchisio was sent off, an infamous moment occurred with just over ten minutes to go. While the ball was in play, Luis Suarez reportedly bit on Chiellini’s shoulder, and as the Italian players and bench protested, Uruguay won a corner, and Diego Godin scored the only goal of the match soon afterwards. Not only did Suarez con the referee, but he also played the victim, grasping his teeth as if the contact had been incidental. Chiellini attempted to show the referee the bite mark, but to no avail. For once, FIFA took appropriate action, suspending Suarez for nine matches, meaning he would miss the rest of the World Cup. He was also fined the equivalent of around $120,000. Suarez didn’t help his cause by having two previous incidents in the past, and was soon on his way out from his club team in Liverpool.

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(Chiellini shows the bite mark from Suarez. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.) 

With nothing to play for, England manager Roy Hodgson tinkered with his lineup and played mostly reserves. Ironically, they actually earned England a point against Costa Rica, in a scoreless draw. Still, England finished dead last in the group. Most England fans couldn’t complain, seeing as how many of them saw it coming.

Group E 
After falling behind to Ecuador, Switzerland rallied behind Admir Mehmedi and a late winner from Haris Seferovic with only seconds remaining in stoppage time, after Enner Valencia opened the scoring. It was Switzerland’s first victory over a South American team in six attempts. France beat Honduras 3-0, and after Karim Benzema opened the scoring for the FFF, goal line technology was confirmed to have its first successful case. Three minutes after halftime, Benzema fired a shot. It hit the crossbar and then bounced off the back of goalkeeper Noel Valladares. He attempted to clear it, but replays showed the ball landed behind the line and it was 2-0 France. Benzema scored a second to wrap it up after teammate Patrice Evra accidentally ricocheted a teammate’s shot back to him.

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(Noel Valladares’ own goal was the first goal confirmed via goal-line technology. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.)

Although Switzerland was the “seeded” team against France, the latter had a field day with the former. The final score was 5-2 France, although France had gotten it to 5-0 at one point before taking their foot off the gas a little bit. Even more impressively, five separate players scored for France, including the first two just over a minute apart.

(Highlights of Switzerland-France. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Honduras was in over their heads from the start; while Carlo Costly got their first goal since 1982 for them, it wasn’t enough as Enner Valencia scored twice to keep Ecuador alive with a 2-1 victory. It got even worse for them, as Switzerland won 3-0 behind a hat trick from Xherdan Shaqiri, the fiftieth hat trick ever scored in the history of the World Cup. With a scoreless draw, it was enough to get the Swiss through, and France won the group. Ecuador and Honduras were eliminated, the latter with zero points.

Group F
Over the years, it’s been said that Argentina has had numerous easy groups. Against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the one newcomer, many felt this was true. Argentina opened the scoring only three minutes in off of an own goal by Sead Kolasinac after Marcos Rojo got a head to it. It took a little longer to find the second, but it was Lionel Messi himself doing the scoring, playing a beautiful one-two with Gonzalo Higuain, and beating the keeper (65′). Since Bosnia-Herzegovina got one back, it proved to be a crucial game winner. Five minutes from the end, Bosnia’s first goal was scored off a give-and-go to Vedad Ibisevic. It was a respectable first game for them.

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(Messi won the game in the 65th minute with this shot. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

Iran and Nigeria played to a scoreless draw in a pretty poor games with few chances. After twelve matches without one, it was the first draw that year chronologically. Argentina won their next match against Iran 1-0. They dominated possession but only were able to get a winner from Messi in stoppage time deep in the second half. Iran had a few chances, one of them a denied penalty chance when it looked like the defender Pablo Zabaleta got his toe on the ball by mere inches.

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(Messi’s game winner vs. Iran. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.) 

Nigeria put themselves in the driver’s seat, winning 1-0 on a goal by Peter Odemwingie. But another missed offside call doomed the Bosnians, as their star player Edin Dzeko had his potential goal ruled out incorrectly. Additionally, the goal was said to have come off of a no-call foul. Worst of all, it looked like New Zealand referee Peter O’Leary was celebrating the victory with Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama at the end of the match, which Dzeko called him out for on social media.

For the fourth time in sixteen years, Nigeria and Argentina met in the Cup. Argentina won 3-2, with Messi scoring twice, although it was Rojo who put the winner in (50′). Twice after Messi’s goals, Ahmed Musa answered back immediately for the Super Eagles. In the final match, Bosnia-Herzegovina got their first win, 3-1, with Dzeko finally scoring and two others coming from Miralem Pjanic and Avdija Vrsajevic. Still, it wasn’t enough, as despite their loss, Nigeria advanced with Argentina.

Group G
In what was seen as the Group of Death, Germany had a surprisingly easy match over Portugal, winning 4-0. Thomas Müller had a hat trick, and even if he may have taken a dive during the first half, it worked out better than anybody thought as Portuguese defender Pepe, known for his temper, headbutted Müller afterwards and got a straight red. Nothing went right for Portugal that match, which seemed to help the Americans. All they had to do was get past the snakebite that was Ghana.

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(Portuguese defender Pepe headbutted Thomas Müller and was sent off during the match. Photo courtesy of Huffington Post.)

The United States, known for giving up fast starts, got off to one of their own as Clint Dempsey scored after only thirty seconds of play off a throw-in. After Landon Donovan was left off the squad, many felt that the Americans had little chance. But with Tim Howard in goal, they kept the Black Stars off the board in the first half. Still, Jozy Altidore had to leave the game for the Americans after pulling a hamstring. Ghana got the equalizer in the 82nd minute, after Asamoah Gyan fed Andre Ayew.

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(Clint Dempsey’s goal for the United States was their fastest in the World Cup, and fifth-fastest overall. Photo courtesy of Huffington Post.) 

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(Andre Ayew celebrates his goal that evened the score for Ghana. Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.) 

With four minutes to go, United States won a corner kick and crowded the box. Substitute John Brooks got his head on it off the kick from Graham Zusi and beat Adam Kwarasey for the American winner. Brooks collapsed in shock and euphoria, and the match that they wanted most. Even if they didn’t make it out of the group, they got their revenge on Ghana. Maybe their priorities got mixed up, but it was a nice way to celebrate my 27th birthday. As you’ll find out in the Russia 2018 post, it remains the Americans’ most recent World Cup victory.

(John Brooks headed home an American winner. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Germany and Ghana fought to a 2-2 draw. After a scoreless first half, the two teams traded goals, with Mario Götze (51′) and Miroslav Klose (71′) getting the goals for Die Mannschaft, and Andre Ayew (54′) and Gyan (63′) getting them for Ghana. For Klose, it tied the record with Brazil’s Ronaldo for most World Cup goals, with 15.

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(Klose’s goal against Ghana tied the record for most all-time. Photo courtesy of ABC Los Angeles.)

United States looked to clinch a spot in the knockout stages with a win over Portugal. They fell behind after only five minutes, though, when Nani gave the Portuguese the lead. Still trailing into the second half, Jermaine Jones got them back in it (64′) with a nice goal, and then Dempsey gave them the lead in the final ten minutes.

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(Jermaine Jones celebrates his goal against Portugal. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.) 

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(Clint Dempsey gave the U.S. a late lead in Manaus. Photo courtesy of Portland Press Herald.) 

But you play until the final whistle. Late into stoppage time, with American fans celebrating sure qualification, C. Ronaldo played the ball in. It was a perfect pass onto the head of Silvestre Varela, who couldn’t and didn’t miss. It was 2-2. American fans had the winds knocked out of their sails. It was still a point, but they could have clinched outright that game. Instead, everybody had everything to play for.

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(Varela scored a late goal to scare the U.S. a little bit. Photo courtesy of http://www.soccerpro.com.)

Now having to play Germany with a spot on the line, the United States gave it their best shot. They actually played a pretty good game, perhaps helped by the fact that their manager was Jürgen Klinsmann, managing against his old team. The Germans ended up winning 1-0 off of a rebound by Thomas Müller, after Tim Howard parried a shot. Portugal won 2-1 in their final game, aided by a John Boye own goal, and a C. Ronaldo shot, but the goal differential wasn’t enough, and the United States managed to sneak through.

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(Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner against Ghana, but it didn’t help Portugal advance. Photo courtesy of http://www.canada.com.) 

Group H
Like Colombia, Belgium came in as a potential dark horse. But they had a slow start against Algeria. Perhaps it was nerves, combined with a more talented Algerian side, but defender Jan Vertonghen gave up an early penalty and saw yellow on the play as well. Sofiane Feghouli converted the penalty, and that 1-0 lead held up through halftime.

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(Belgium had an early scare as Sofiane Feghouli gave Algeria the lead with a penalty. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Belgian fans started worrying, but they needn’t in the end, getting two goals in the final 20 minutes. The first game from Marouane Fellaini (70′), known for his Afro, off of a header. Then with ten minutes to go, Belgium stole the ball, played it around to Hazard, who then found a streaking Dries Mertens waiting (80′). He smashed it home, and the lead held up. For the Red Devils, not only was it their first win since 2002 in the Cup, but it also was their first win in over two years after trailing. Both goals came from the substitute’s bench as well.

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(Marouane Fellaini scored the equalizer for Belgium. Photo courtesy of http://www.worldsoccer.com.) 

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(Dries Mertens scored the winner and saved Belgium’s fans from disappointment. Photo courtesy of Portland Press Herald.) 

Russia and South Korea played to a 1-1 draw, with both goals coming off of goalkeeper blunders. Igor Akinfeev spilled one into the net off of a shot by 이근호 (Lee Keun-ho), before a parried shot allowed Aleksandr Kerzhakov to score following an unlucky deflection as well.

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(A “howler” from Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev allowed South Korea to sneak a point in. Photo courtesy of BBC.)

Belgium and Russia faced off next. Both as Russia and the USSR, they’ve been the most common opponent for the Red Devils. Neither team really played that well, but Belgium did play better. Kevin Mirallas had a shot that hit the post in the second half. Two minutes from time, Eden Hazard made run right to the end line, and passed it to substitute Divock Origi, who fired it into the net to win it for the Belgians. It wasn’t pretty, and defender Thomas Vermaelen went out with an injury early on, but Belgium did indeed make the knockout stages and avoided a lot of potential embarrassment. Algeria rallied to win 4-2 over South Korea, with four separate players scoring, and it was 3-0 for them before forty minutes had even been played. A disastrous match for South Korea left them reeling.

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(Divock Origi scored the winner to get Belgium into the knockout stages with one match to go. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

Having qualified with one match to go, Belgium was able to experiment. Their second-string players started against South Korea, and they did dominate the time of possession and the overall game, but a reckless tackle from Steven Defour on South Korea’s Kim Shin-wook, in what may have been his only appearance, resulted in a red card just before halftime. It was scoreless at the break.

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(Following a late foul, Steven Defour was sent off by Australian ref Ben Williams. Photo courtesy of Reuters.) 

Still, it was pretty obvious the Koreans weren’t going to break through. Twelve minutes away from a scoreless draw, Origi shot the ball, which was parried by Kim Seung-gyu. Waiting on the rebound was captain for the day, Jan Vertonghen. He more than atoned for his mistake against Algeria, firing home the rebound for the 1-0 lead…and the win. For the first time, Belgium won all three group stage games to win the group, while the Koreans went home with one point.

Algeria and Russia faced off for the second spot. It looked like Russia might get there, needing a win. Six minutes in, Aleksandr Kokorin beat goalkeeper M’Bolhi to put Russia in the lead. That lead held up to halftime.

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(Kokorin led off the scoring for Russia against Algeria. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

But if Russia had one problem, it was a tendency to self-sabotage on the big stage. Following a Yacine Brahimi free kick, Akinfeev couldn’t get to the ball in time, which left Islam Slimani open (60′). His shot found the net, and with South Korea’s loss, the door was open for the Algerians. Russia tried desperately to get a second goal, but it didn’t work, and Algeria held on for the 1-1 draw. That allowed them to get in as the second place team, their first appearance ever in the knockout stages. Following the bitter taste of 1982, it couldn’t have come sooner. With Nigeria also advancing, it was the first time two African teams reached the knockout stages.

Knockout stages 
Round of 16 
Brazil still hadn’t worked out all the kinks in their defense, and would pay a price for it in this match against Chile. They were able to get an early goal from magnificently-coiffured defender David Luiz, with Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara maybe getting a touch on it. But that hole was exposed off of a throw in. Midfielder Hulk lost possession near the end line, which was stolen by Eduardo Vargas. He passed the ball to Alexis Sanchez, who scored to level the scores.

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(David Luiz scored the opener for Brazil in the round of 16. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

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(Alexis Sanchez equaled the score for Chile off of a Brazilian error. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

What was a fantastic game went into the halftime break with that same score. Both teams had several chances. It looked like Brazil had broken through, but Howard Webb, the referee of the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, waved it off because he judged that it was a handball. Hulk was also given a yellow card.

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(Hulk’s goal was disallowed for a handball. Photo courtesy of http://www.soccerblog.com.) 

From there on out, Brazil kept most of the possession, with Hulk having a great chance that was saved by Claudio Bravo. The match went into extra time, and Chile almost broke Brazil’s heart. Mauricio Pinilla fired a point blank shot that barely deflected off the crossbar. Only seconds later, Brazilian substitute Jô shot wide by mere inches.

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(Mauricio Pinilla hit the crossbar with a shot that barely kept Chile out of the quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)

It would go to a penalty shootout. Julio Cesar saved shots from Pinilla and Sanchez, with Hulk having his shot saved by Bravo and Willian missing wide again. It came down to the final kick. Neymar took the kick for Brazil, did a little stutter step on his run up, and cheekily scored. Gonzalo Jara had a chance to send it to sudden death, but his shot clanged off the inside of the post by mere inches and bounced out. Brazil went through by the skin of their teeth and Chile went home.

Colombia made their first quarterfinal with a 2-0 win. Both goals were scored by James Rodriguez (28′ and 50′). His first one won the FIFA Goal of the Year Award. He took a pass and played it off his chest, and without missing a beat using his weaker left foot to smash it in from 25 yards away, bouncing off the post and past Fernando Muslera. His second was much simpler, but James’ magical Cup continued. Not that having Luis Suarez would have made the difference, but it couldn’t have hurt either.

(James Rodriguez scored the goal of the tournament for Colombia. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Next up was Netherlands against Mexico in Fortaleza. After a scoreless first half, Giovanni dos Santos got his goal, finally, only three minutes after the break. Arjen Robben claimed that Mexico got away with several hard fouls on him, one of which broke Mexican defender Hector Moreno’s shinbone. Robben has a notorious reputation for diving, and he claimed that Mexico got away with one. With time dwindling down, the Dutch won a corner. Off the corner, the ball failed to clear and Wesley Sneijder scored to tie it off a teammate’s header. Mexico had fallen apart.

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(Wesley Sneijder hit a clutch goal to keep Netherlands alive. Photo courtesy of FIFA.) 

As the match went into stoppage time, the Dutch had more possession than before. Robben went into the box, and went down perhaps a little too easily. The whistle blew. Penalty, Netherlands! The Mexican players and fans were furious. They were even more upset when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar hit the winning penalty. Robben kept insisting that the penalty was just due to the missed one earlier, but Mexico fans crated their own quote: “No era penal.” (“It wasn’t a penalty.”)

In their first ever knockout stage appearance, Greece fell behind to Costa Rica early in the second half via Bryan Ruiz. Late in stoppage time, Sokratis Papastathopoulos managed to score off a rebound following a brilliant save by Navas. After no score in extra time, the match went to penalties. Navas made a clutch save on Theofanis Gekas, and Costa Rica converted all five penalties. They were in their first World Cup quarterfinal, almost impossibly.

American referee Mark Geiger was criticized for several missed calls in the France-Nigeria game. One of them was on a bad cleats high tackle from Blaise Matuidi on Ogenyi Onazi, which caused a torn tendon and his substitution. Matuidi was only shown a yellow for it. Later, Emmanuel Emenike had a goal ruled out for offside (although this may have been the right call, as replays showed), and several other French players getting away with rough fouls. After Onazi left, Nigeria’s midfield couldn’t dictate the pace, and France scored twice in the final twenty minutes to win, one from Paul Pogba and the other an own goal by captain Joseph Yobo. France made the quarterfinals, but still had some controversy attached to them, even if it wasn’t their fault this time.

Algeria was still furious at Germany 32 years after their notorious exit from Spain ’82. They wanted revenge badly. A well-balanced game went Germany’s way in extra time, 2-1. Andre Schürrle opened the scoring in extra time, and Mesut Özil (120′) scored the second. One minute later in extra time, Algeria got one back, so it was clutch. There was no controversy this time, just amazing football.

Argentina also won in extra time on a 118th minute goal by Angel Di Maria, who took a pass from Messi off a run. Switzerland had two shots in extra time, but one hit the post and the other went wide.

The final match was Belgium-United States in Salvador. It was tough for me to watch this game. Belgium dominated the match, but Tim Howard kept the United States in it with numerous saves. In stoppage time, the United States almost won the game on a shot from Chris Wondolowski, but he missed a wide open shot. It went into extra time scoreless.

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(In a losing effort, American goalkeeper Tim Howard was brilliant with numerous saves. Photo courtesy of Portland Press Herald.) 

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(As goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois tries to make the save, Chris Wondolowski misses the shot that could get the U.S. into the quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of Slate.) 

Shortly into extra time, Romelu Lukaku crossed the ball into the penalty area. Defender Matt Besler failed to clear it, and Kevin De Bruyne was waiting for it, and put it in for a Belgian lead. Lukaku added to the scoring twelve minutes later. It was crucial, as substitute Julian Green scored a lovely goal to put the U.S. back within one goal. Clint Dempsey almost had an equalizer, but it was hit too hard and right at Thibaut Courtois. Belgium held on to their second quarterfinal ever, and first since 1986. Howard made fifteen saves, the most in any World Cup game since the stat was officially kept.

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(Julian Green scored a sublime goal in defeat for the U.S. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)

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(Romelu Lukaku scored the winner to put Belgium in the quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

Quarterfinals 
Germany advanced to the semifinals with an early goal from center back Mats Hummels (13′), following a free kick from Toni Kroos. Otherwise, few chances were created by either team.

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(Mats Hummels scored the only goal to put Germany into the semis. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.)

The Brazil-Colombia match was an ugly affair. Defender Thiago Silva scored only seven minutes in, and in the 69th minute, David Luiz scored a magnificent goal off a free kick. But Silva would miss the semifinals due to yellow card accumulation, and the match saw a record 54 fouls committed between the two teams. Only four cards were issued, but it was still ugly. After James Rodriguez got his sixth goal via penalty, Brazil lost another player after Neymar was hit in the back by the knee of Juan Camilo Zúñiga. Although the latter wrote a letter of apology, and many Brazilian players defended. But they would go into the semis two men down. Neymar was out for the rest of the tournament with a fractured vertebra.

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(David Luiz scored a brilliant free kick to win the match for Brazil. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.) 

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(A bad injury left Neymar out for the rest of the Cup. Photo courtesy of New York Times.) 

Argentina advanced to the semifinals by beating Belgium in a fairly even match, winning 1-0. The only goal came eight minutes in from Gonzalo Higuain off of a misplay from Jan Vertonghen. The dark horses had a good run, but most people felt this was about right for them.

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(Gonzalo Higuain scored the only goal against Belgium in Brasilia. Photo courtesy of The Irish Times.) 

In the final quarterfinal match, Netherlands played Costa Rica. Netherlands were statistically better, with more chances, several of which agonizingly hit the post. After a scoreless 120 minutes, it went to penalties. Playing a hunch, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal replaced goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with backup Tim Krul. That hunch worked as Krul saved two shots to help Netherlands advance to the semis.

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(Backup goalkeeper Tim Krul was clutch in the shootout. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

Semifinals
Coming into the semifinals, Germany and Brazil had only met once, in the final in 2002. Back in 1950, The Brazilians had lost in the final in what was known as the “Maracanazo.” Now the two teams met in Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte.

During the national anthems, Julio Cesar and David Luiz held up Neymar’s jersey and loudly sang along. The passion was there. The desire, the obsession with bringing a championship home, was there. But there was one problem: they were too reliant on Neymar that they forgot to play for themselves.

With Thiago Silva out of the lineup, David Luiz was now asked to anchor the back line. He certainly tried, but would prove to be out of his league. Coming in, Brazil hadn’t lost a competitive match in Brazil since 1975.

Eleven minutes in, Germany won a corner kick. The ball came in and Thomas Müller was waiting. He fired the ball in past Julio Cesar. One-nil. It was still respectable for twelve more minutes. Then the deluge began.

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(Müller celebrates the opener versus Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://www.canada.com.) 

After twenty-three minutes, Germany had the ball. Some sleek passing put the ball at Klose’s feet and he pushed it past for number two. For Klose, that made him the all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with his sixteenth overall.

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(Miroslav Klose scored the all-time leading sixteenth goal to make it two-nil. Photo courtesy of Guinness World Records.) 

In six minutes, a nightmare was created. Off the restart, Toni Kroos won the ball, and after a miss from Müller, Kroos put it in himself and made it three-nil. Two minutes later, Kroos stole the ball stole the ball from Fernandinho and played a one-two with Sami Khedira. Kroos got his second in three minutes. It was four. Only three minutes after that, David Luiz lost the ball in his own half. Khedira played a one-two, then got the ball back and got his own goal. Not even thirty minutes into the game, and Germany led five-nil. In most games, you’re lucky to get five goals combined. Germany scored four times in a span of six minutes. All of Brazil had been stunned into silence. Fortunately, Germany didn’t score for the rest of the half. But as they headed into the locker room, the Brazilian fans booed their boys off the pitch. So much pain, effort, money, time had gone into this World Cup. Brazil had given the world jogo bonito, the beautiful game. They had won five championships, had been known for wonder goals and legendary players. And they had a championship winning manager in Luiz Felipe Scolari (Big Phil), trying to repeat the magic. Now, their dream was not only dead, it was a burning pile of rubble. Sometimes, in a blowout, you can play for pride, but not this time. No. This time, there was nothing to be proud of.

The onslaught continued, with Andre Schürrle scoring twice, the second one a sublime goal that had even the Brazilian fans clapping for its technical precision. If there was one thing Brazil could cheer about, it was Oscar scoring once in stoppage time, which the Germans were furious about. That showed how seriously they were taking it.

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(Oscar’s goal was the one bright spot for Brazil. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

I remember watching this match live. I had picked Germany to win, because I felt Brazil had question marks in the back. It was the sensible choice to make. But nobody thought it would be this bad for Brazil. Even North Korea against Portugal wasn’t that bad. In that game, it was an underdog team that kept it respectable for a half before running out of luck and losing to a superior team. This was Brazil. This was the host nation, eliminated before one-third of the match was over…and by rule, they had to play one more game. This was the host nation, in a country trying to pick up the pieces from a declining national pride. This was a country that humiliated a goalkeeper for life for losing a final to Uruguay (which gave his family, ironically, some perverse redemption and forgiveness). This was the home of Pele, Jairzinho, Socrates, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, and numerous others. THIS. WAS. BRAZIL.

Even the bold italics don’t do it justice. All the newspapers the next day gave the player rankings, and every Brazil player earned a zero. Taking much of the blame, and trying to rally his countrymen, a tearful David Luiz apologized on camera for the performance. For that reason, he escaped worse criticism than some.

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(A tearful David Luiz apologized on camera for his team’s performance, one of the most heartbreaking moments in the World Cup for me. Photo courtesy of http://www.101greatgoals.com.)

(Highlights of the Brazil-Germany match. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

By contrast, the Argentina-Netherlands semifinal got few headlines. It ended scoreless and finished on penalties, won by Argentina 4-2. In what was otherwise an amazing game, defender Ron Vlaar missed the first Dutch penalty, and so did Wesley Sneijder.

Third place game
Even with Thiago Silva back in the lineup, Brazil was merely a ghost. Silva got yellow carded after two minutes, although most people felt he should have been sent off. Perhaps referee Djamel Hamouidi of Algeria took pity on him. They had suffered enough. Robin van Persie converted the penalty after only three minutes. Daley Blind made it 2-0 after seventeen minutes, and a third goal in stoppage time completed the scoring. Additionally, Oscar was booked for diving, the only time it happened in this World Cup. Brazil’s humiliation was complete. They couldn’t even say they took home a medal (i.e. third place.)

Final 
Brazilian fans would have been more upset if their archrivals Argentina won the whole thing on their turf. In the final at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. Argentina looked the better side in the first half, but Higuain had a goal ruled out for offside and missed a wide open shot on a pass as well. Messi had some chances, and Germany did as well, with Benedikt Howedes hitting the post, but it was scoreless after normal time.

What would have been Brazil’s worst nightmare was avoiding in the 113th minute. Schürrle had the ball and ran down the left wing, and then he crossed it to Mario Götze, who scored the only goal of the match. Argentina’s search for an equalizer never came. And Lionel Messi, as often seemed to be his tragic destiny, fell one game short.

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(Mario Götze scored the winner for Germany. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.) 

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(Germany lift the World Cup. Photo courtesy of FIFA.) 

Fun Facts 
Germany won their first title since reuniting, and fourth overall, winning as West Germany in 1954, 1974, and 1990.

This is the third final between West Germany/Germany and Argentina, the most all-time. The two teams have also met seven times in the Cup overall, tying Brazil-Sweden and (West) Germany-Serbia (Yugoslavia) for most all-time.

The Netherlands used third string keeper Michel Vorm as a late sub in the third-place game, and became the first team to use all 23 players on their roster.

Brazil set a record for most goals allowed by a host nation, with fourteen in total. In the last two games, they allowed ten.

Ravshan Irmatov of Uzbekistan set a record for referees during Netherlands-Costa Rica. He officiated his ninth game overall.

All of Belgium’s six goals in the Cup were in the final twenty minutes or later of regulation.

In 2017, Jan Vertonghen and Romelu Lukaku became Belgium’s all-time caps (games played) leader and goals scored leader, respectively; Vertonghen sits at 98 games, and Lukaku at 31 goals.

Edin Dzeko of Bosnia and Herzegovina faced off against Sergio Aguero of Argentina in the first match of Group F. Both of them had scored clutch goals to lead Manchester City to an exciting title on the final day of the 2012 Premier League season. Belgium’s Vincent Kompany and Italy’s Mario Balotelli were also on that team.

Honduras set an unwanted record – most games played without a win. They’ve played nine, drawn three, and lost six. They also had the second longest streak without a goal, dating back to 1982, going scoreless for 511 minutes.

Every team scored in the World Cup, and a record was tied for most goals combined by all teams in a World Cup, with 171 in total (which also occurred in France ’98).

Cooling breaks were also issued for the first times, as the hot temperatures were thought to affect player’s health.

In one match, a technical glitch resulted in it starting without playing the national anthems of either country.

Against Japan on June 24, Colombia used keeper Faryd Mondragon as a late sub, making him the oldest player in World Cup history, three days after his 43rd birthday.

In total, Chile has made the knockout stage four times. On every single occasion, Brazil was the team that eliminated them.

Final Thoughts
This project is finished for now. Here’s to the next one in Russia, and to the beautiful game’s continuing legacy.

References and Sources
FIFA
ESPN FC
Wikipedia
YouTube
Getty Images
Sky Sports
Guinness World Records
CNN
BBC
Reuters
ABC 7 Los Angeles
http://www.globalaccessibilitynews.com
http://www.soccerpro.com
http://www.worldsoccer.com
http://www.soccerblog.com
http://www.benefoot.net
http://www.cbc.ca
http://www.canada.com
http://www.worldcupbrazil.net
http://www.bundesliga.com
http://www.soccerballworld.com
http://www.ussoccer.com
http://www.belgianfootball.be
http://www.neymarjr.net
http://www.goal.com
http://www.101greatgoals.com
http://www.independent.ie
http://www.ticotimes.net
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Soccer Men (Simon Kuper)
Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World (Raphael Honigstein)
Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer (George Vecsey)
Soccer’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Clumsy Keepers, Clever Crosses, and Outlandish Oddities 
(John Snyder)
Soccer’s Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves, and Fantastic Free-Kicks 
(Jeff Carlisle)
¡Golazo! The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America 
(Andreas Campomar)
The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet’s Biggest Sports Event 
(David Hirshey, Roger Bennett)
The Mammoth Book of the World Cup 
(Nick Holt)

Russia 2018: The field is set

The field is officially set for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Two newcomers – Iceland and Panama – enter the field, while several major teams make dramatic returns, none more so than Peru, who not only clinched the final qualifying spot mere minutes ago, but make their first appearance since 1982 (and fifth overall), the longest drought of any team returning to the World Cup.

Numerous notable teams are out this year: United States, Chile, Netherlands, and Italy among major (or semi-major) names. Also being eliminated despite appearing in the last two: Honduras, Ghana, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast.

Unlike previous editions, they’re going by ranking instead of confederation. The same geographic principles still apply, although I think it’ll be really tricky how that will work out. FIFA as an organization looks for new ways to stay relevant, especially in the wake of the resignation of Sepp Blatter and his cohorts on corruption charges. I really don’t like this move, and I like the expansion to 48 teams even less. 32 is the perfect amount to me. 48 seems like too much, perhaps affecting competitive balance.

If the old draw procedures were still in effect, here’s what it would look like in my eyes (Pot 1 remains exactly the same both ways):

Pot 1 
1. Russia (hosts)
2. Germany
3. Brazil
4. Portugal
5. Argentina
6. Belgium
7. Poland
8. France

Pot 2
1. Egypt
2. Morocco
3. Nigeria
4. Senegal
5. Tunisia
6. Mexico
7. Costa Rica
8. Panama

Pot 3
1. Australia
2. Iran
3. Japan
4. Saudi Arabia
5. South Korea
6. Colombia
7. Peru
8. Uruguay

Pot 4 
1. Spain
2. Switzerland
3. England
4. Croatia
5. Denmark
6. Iceland
7. Sweden
8. Serbia

Here’s my hypothetical draw.
Group A                                     Group B                          Group C                    Group D                
A1 Russia (host)                        B1 Poland                        C1 Brazil                   D1 Belgium
A2 Morocco                                B2 Sweden                     C2 Iran                       D2 Panama
A3 Spain                                     B3 South Korea             C3 Serbia                   D3 Australia
A4 Japan                                     B4 Egypt                         C4 Tunisia                 D4 Denmark

Group E                                      Group F                        Group G                     Group H 
E1 Germany                               F1 Portugal                   G1 Argentina             H1 France
E2 Switzerland                          F2 Uruguay                   G2 Costa Rica            H2 Mexico
E3 Colombia                              F3 Iceland                     G3 Croatia                  H3 Peru
E4 Senegal                                 F4 Nigeria                     G4 Saudi Arabia        H4 England

Yes, these are purely hypothetical, but still fun. The real draw is taking place on December 1, in just over two weeks. We’ve finally gotten all of our teams in. I’m looking forward to watching. Three years of preparation has brought us here. Here we go!

FIFA World Cup Top Replique Ball White  /  Black  /  Metallic Silver CE8091
Photo courtesy of Adidas.         

“Then look closer, you’ll see luck in my eyes.”

This post’s title comes from the song “Luck in My Eyes” by k.d. lang (stylistically, she does use all lowercase letters). With Thanksgiving being next week, I’m trying to give it a fair shake.

I actually think it’s been a good year for me. Turning 30 hasn’t really had me in a panic mode, I got to be a part of a lovely wedding, and hopefully made some new friends while there, saw my niece and nephew (the latter for the first time in person!), went to several sporting events, and got to be a part of my best friend’s party for acquiring American citizenship. He’s been passionate about it for some time, and hopefully, it was a dream come true for him. I’m grateful to be a part of that.

At the same time, Thanksgiving is always a tough time for me. I give two main reasons: autism and heritage. The Belgian side of me always tends to take over around this time of year, and it’s not really done over there. There’s a classic line from an episode of How I Met Your Mother that sums it up. En route to meeting her fiance’s family for the Thanksgiving, Lily mentions how she can prepare a really nice salade niçoise. One of her future sisters-in-law responds, “But this is an American holiday.” There is a lot of truth to this. From that side of it, I always felt like it would be best to leave that to everybody else.

But the first part is the hardest part of it. Much of the toughness comes from two parts of the condition I really struggle with, food texture and transportation. I can always get my dad to pick me up and drop me off. But I do feel guilty for asking him to do so. And I can’t control my taste buds. I can’t ever remember a time when I’ve had Thanksgiving turkey, or mashed potatoes, or any kind of festive food for the day itself. I usually limit myself to bread, cranberries, and other vegetables, but I’m picky about how they’re prepared, and I often make my own pasta. But that doesn’t really count, because I can do that anytime (and that’s what usually happens anyway). Granted, it’s nice not to have a tryptophan overload. But from what I’ve seen, the traditions are too rooted in families to change. I can’t even say that they should. Ergo, you’ll forgive me if you’re giving me something I have difficulty using, if at all. This issue – that basically I can’t eat much of the staple foods of the day itself – is my main reason for wanting to go to work if I can. I feel like it saves me a lot of potential for embarrassment.

Now that you know this, though, also know that I’m lucky to have a great support system at home and in my life. Thanks for all you do, and believe me, I know I make it difficult sometimes. Thank you to everybody who has stuck with me over the years. It really means a lot. That’s something I’ll always say thanks for.

To conclude, here’s the aforementioned song from the beginning of the post. Have a good Thanksgiving and safe travels if you’re going anywhere.

2010 FIFA World Cup: South Africa

Only twenty years prior, Nelson Mandela had been released from the prison on Robben Island that was used to house many dissenters of the South African apartheid movement. As the world’s premier sporting tournament became ready to take shape, the views expressed in the mining song “Shosholoza” gave the team a new sense of optimism after almost a century of political isolation and despair for many of its citizens. As the song’s lyrics go, “Shosholoza kulezo n’taba stimela siphume South Africa” (Move forward on these mountains on this steam train from South Africa). This tournament saw both finalists crash in spectacular fashion, the defending runner-up embarrassing themselves to an unprecedented degree; it saw the host team earn a measure of national pride, even though they would fail to be the first host nation to advance past the first round; it saw a plucky American team have this sport’s equivalent of the Miracle On Ice; it saw their counterparts in England struggle all tournament, their humiliation coming full circle on a disallowed goal against an old rival; it saw many old powers suffer defeat early, even Germany; it saw a shocking team from south of the equator, the lowest ranked team in the competition, leave with their first points in their history, and even more (not to give too much away); it saw the rise of Africa’s third quarterfinal team, famous for a black star, only for them to be eliminated in controversial and heartbreaking circumstances; and it saw a revolutionary style of play, popularized in La Liga only a few years earlier, to lead a long-divided country overcome all its self-sabotage on the world stage to become one of the best international teams in any international competition, on their way to finally, finally winning their first Cup title.

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(The 2010 FIFA World Cup logo. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

(Once a mining song, “Shosholoza” became a rally song for all of South Africa. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

2010 FIFA World Cup
June 11-July 11 

Champion: Spain 
Runner Up: Netherlands 
Third Place: Germany 
Fourth Place: Uruguay 

Golden Boot: Diego Forlán (Uruguay); Thomas Müller (Germany); Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands); David Villa (Spain) – 5 goals each 

Analysis
There was still some fury left over from the 2006 vote that awarded the Cup to Germany. FIFA president Sepp Blatter was determined to spread the game as wide as he could, and although a short-lived idea of continental rotation was quickly abandoned, South Africa earned the right to host its first Cup, only forty years after having its first guaranteed spot. At the official announcement on May 15, 2004, South Africa won the vote (14 in total) over Morocco (10) and Egypt (0), and as hosts, Bafana Bafana qualified for their third tournament overall. But as the world would quickly find out, the Blatter administration was rife with corruption and allegations of bribery. British newspaper The Daily Telegraph even alleged that Morocco had won the vote, but South Africa was chosen anyway. Although various officials inside Blatter’s cabinet, legendary ex-player Franz Beckenbauer among them, began doubting South Africa’s viability, FIFA launched no formal investigation. Upon hearing the result, an emotional Nelson Mandela lifted the trophy in triumph. Barely twenty years from the collapse of apartheid, South Africa was now a major player on the world stage.

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(Nelson Mandela is overcome as he lifts the World Cup trophy. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.) 

Qualification and preparation 
The format remained the same from each of the last three tournaments: 32 teams overall, with three points for a win, one for a draw, and goal difference used as the first tiebreaker. Official seeding began in Durban in November 2007. Reigning champions Italy were forced to qualify as per new FIFA policies, but they won their group by six points, ahead of Ireland and Bulgaria. Thirteen spots were guaranteed in UEFA, and there was one newcomer, the only official one, although it could have been counted as the first World Cup without any newcomers. What do I mean by that? Well, Slovakia won their group by two points over Slovenia, and since FIFA recognizes Czech Republic as the successor of Czechoslovakia, I’m counting them as a newcomer. Also winning their respective groups were Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy, and Netherlands. Eight of the nine second place teams made a two-legged playoff for the final four spots. The worst second-place finisher would unfortunately be eliminated, which in this case was Norway from Group 9 (paired with the Netherlands). Advancing to the playoff were Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, France, and Ireland.

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(Slovakia made their first official World Cup as a separate country in 2010. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

The UEFA playoffs matched Portugal against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland and France, Greece and Ukraine, and Russia against Slovenia. The Slovenians managed to get into the Cup in what was considered a pretty big upset, using the away goals rule to advance on aggregate (in a two-leg playoff, whomever scores more goals as the visiting team would own the tiebreaker). Zlatko Dedic scored the goal to get them in. Russia filed a protest for the match to be replayed, but it was denied. They took their lead from the Ireland-France matchup, which ended in controversial circumstances.

France won the first match 1-0 at Dublin’s Croke Park with a Nicolas Anelka goal (72′). In the return leg at Stade de France in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, it looked like Ireland would force the issue with a Robbie Keane goal (32′). Since the away goals were tied, they used the same rules as the knockout stages of the Cup. If everything remained the same, it would go to penalties. In extra time, Florent Malouda took a free kick for Les Bleus. Two blown calls would doom the Irish – one was an offside call. As frustrating as those are to miss, it does happen. The other one was unforgivable, and many accused the French of outright cheating. The ball sailed toward the right side box of Irish keeper Shay Given. Racing toward the ball was Thierry Henry, heading toward the left, the ball bounced twice. Henry stuck out his hand and stopped the ball from going out of bounds. It was an obvious handball. Surely, Henry would be disciplined, or at the very least, Ireland should have won a free kick. But Swedish referee Martin Hansson made no call. Having corralled the ball, Henry now passed it to an onrushing William Gallas. Gallas’ subsequent header didn’t miss, and France had leveled the score 1-1, 103 minutes in. Ireland didn’t get a second goal (which would have put them in on away goals) and France managed to qualify. But even many neutral fans claimed it was stolen. Henry didn’t say anything, likely caught up in the heat of the moment more than anything else. La Fédération Française de Football (FFF), France’s organizing committee, seemed hellbent that Henry keep his mouth shut. Henry admitted that he had done the handball, but went unpunished for it. His reputation was never the same after that – not only did he receive threats of physical violence, but many now saw his career as a punchline. Henry contemplated retirement, but the FFF basically encouraged him – some would say forced him – to stay for one last go round. Manager Raymond Domenech was still there from 2006 as well, but he was a sour, unfriendly man who had lost control of the locker room and much of the respect of his players along with it. These tensions would break into out and out mutiny during the competition. Ireland filed a protest to have the match replayed completely, but FIFA refused. Hearing this, the Irish delegation became more furious and threatened suing FIFA, even asking to be added as a 33rd team. All subsequent appeals were rejected. This was one of the first incidents that called for video technology. Perhaps out of spite, Blatter turned it down for the World Cup. He would live to regret that decision later on.

In the other two playoffs, Portugal won both legs 1-0, and Greece beat Ukraine 1-0 after a scoreless first leg. Greece were in their second overall and first since 1994.

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(A handball from Thierry Henry led to a goal that got France into the World Cup. Photo courtesy of USA Today.) 

In hopes of securing easier qualification, Australia switched confederations, moving from OFC to AFC. Now in Asian qualification, Australia’s gamble paid off as they won the first of four spots by five clear points. Also qualifying from their group was Japan, with Bahrain advancing to a playoff. In a politically charged second group, South Korea managed to take top spot, with their neighbors to the north, some would say biggest rivals, North Korea right behind them. For North Korea, it was their first appearance since 1966 and second overall. But with Kim Jong-il having developed nuclear weapons over the years, not only were they seen as over their heads, but won few fans. Advancing to the third place playoff was Saudi Arabia. In that two legged playoff, the Saudis were shockingly knocked out, falling to the upstart Bahrain team on goal differential. A stoppage time goal from Bahrain’s Ismael Abdullatif was enough to put them into a continental playoff against OFC winner New Zealand. But New Zealand would manage to advance 1-0 on aggregate, making their second appearance and first since 1982. In that first appearance, they had lost all three games. They came in ranked #78 in the world, the lowest of any team in the competition. They were even worse than Wales, who hadn’t come close to qualifying. But it was a goal from forward Rory Fallon that put the All Whites in.

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(Rory Fallon’s goal put New Zealand into their second overall World Cup. Photo courtesy of http://www.stuff.co.nz.) 

CAF in Africa saw four teams make it from 2006 – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The last spot came down to Algeria and Egypt, bitter rivals and both looking to end long droughts. They finished tied on both points (13) and goal differential (+5) and goals scored, so they were forced into a special one-game playoff played at a neutral site. Omdurman in Sudan was chosen, and over 15,000 extra police forces were in effect for the match. Algeria got a goal from Antar Yahia (40′) to advance in one of the most exciting matches in history. But both sides alleged violence against the other; two days before the match, Algeria’s team bus was pelted with stones by Egyptian fans, and many of their fans alleged that Algerian fans had brandished knives and flares among other weapons. Another return was in the works – Algeria made it for the first time since 1986, and third overall. Egypt was still left waiting.

(In an amazing one-game playoff, Antar Yahia scored the goal to get Algeria in. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

CONCACAF saw three teams make it in – the usual teams of the United States and Mexico, and Honduras got back for the first time since 1982 with a 1-0 victory over rival El Salvador. They qualified for the final automatic spot ahead of Costa Rica on goal differential, and had to rely on the United States to help them get there, as a stoppage time goal from Jonathan Bornstein at RFK Stadium in Washington helped the U.S. earn a 2-2 draw with the Costa Ricans, who were forced into a playoff against Uruguay. So pleased were the Hondurans that Bornstein was given honorary citizenship.

(Jonathan Bornstein equalized against Costa Rica to send Honduras through automatically. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

The final confederation was CONMEBOL in South America. Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay. and Chile all qualified automatically, and fifth placed team Uruguay made the playoff. Uruguay won on aggregate 2-1, although a potential goal for Costa Rica was denied in the second match for a missed offside call. Two stars led Uruguay, who had arguably their best team in forty years. The first was Diego Forlán, who had widely been known as a high-profile bust at Manchester United, desperately trying to put his career back together. The other was Luis Suarez, with long protruding teeth (and yes, he did pass as a Freddie Mercury lookalike), probably more talented, but also more temperamental and perhaps a Maradona on the other side of the Rio de la Plata. Over the years, Suarez would earn a reputation as one of the game’s most disliked players, for bad dives, biting opposing players, and a reported racial slur he made towards Patrice Evra during a match between Arsenal and Liverpool.

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(Diego Forlán in action for Uruguay. Photo courtesy of http://www.cbc.ca.)

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(Luis Suarez was about to become a great but controversial player for Uruguay. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.) 

Two elements would come to the Cup, and both would be ridiculed. The first was a wooden horn that was said to capture much of the sound of Africa, called a vuvuzela. As well-intentioned as they were, the constant noise (and it was constant, almost non-stop). It sounded as if there was a constant swarm of bees surrounding the field. One person described it this way: imagine if Italia ’90 had been played to the sound of revving Vespa motorcycles. Not quite as loud this time, but certainly just as annoying.

The other one was the Jabulani, the official ball. It was supposed to have thermodynamic panels bonded on, and was supposed to have a low bounce variance. But it was later found out that the ball was widely packed too tightly, which led to numerous strange bounces and would unpredictably change direction in the air. In other words, it was like a beach ball. But how could a ball be too bouncy? Strikers would soon find out the hard way.

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(The vuvuzela would become famous for the wrong reasons. They are seen here in the North Korea-Portugal match. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) 

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(The Jabulani, the official ball, would also cause criticism. Photo courtesy of http://www.worldcupballs.info.) 

The draw went this way, with seeded teams listed first and in order of who played whom.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile

The competition was about to get underway.

Group A
Few gave the host South Africans much of a chance. They didn’t have a lot of big names, and were thought to have a tough group ahead of them. Even the Americans in 1994 were given better odds. But Bafana Bafana would defy them all. South Africa faced off against Mexico first. The latter surprised many by coming out in a black jersey. An exciting first half resulted in a scoreless draw at halftime. But only ten minutes after the restart, South Africa would be rocking loudly at the famous Soccer City in Johannesburg. After winning the ball in their own half, Katlego Mphela played the ball to Teko Modise, who then sent it forward to rushing teammate Siphiwe Tshabalala. After a good first touch, he fired it past goalkeeper Oscar Perez, and not only did South Africa go berserk, but so did an entire continent. It wasn’t that impossible, was it?

(Tshabalala opened the scoring in the World Cup and sent an entire continent into ecstasy. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Unfortunately, eleven minutes from the end, any potential dreams of a major upset would come to an end. Off of a deflection, longtime defender Rafael Marquez fired the ball past South Africa keeper Itumeleng Khune for a 1-1 draw. The scoreline held up, and both sides seemed content with a point. But South Africa had left a clutch two extra points on the table. Elsewhere, Uruguay and France played to a scoreless draw, just like in 2002. Every team had at least one point, but for France, many were criticizing them for their “lackluster” effort, Zinedine Zidane among them. They also had a man advantage as Nicolas Lodeiro was sent off with under ten minutes to go. They couldn’t even score, and it would prove to be the high point of the tournament for France. Les Bleus, the defending runner up, would be turned into a laughingstock by the end of the round.

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(Rafael Marquez equalizes for Mexico. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

The next match saw South Africa against Uruguay on June 16. I remember watching this game live on my birthday, and it was a national holiday in South Africa. But it quickly turned disastrous. Diego Forlán scored twice, the first off of a sublime free kick (24′). The second came after Suarez won a penalty (76′) and also got goalkeeper Khune sent off by referee Massimo Busacca of Switzerland. Four minutes later, it was 2-0 Uruguay. They got one last goal in stoppage time, when Suarez played in a cross that was fired in by Alvaro Pereira. South Africa needed a miracle to qualify now.

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(Diego Forlán scores the first of his two goals against South Africa. Photo courtesy of CNN.)

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(Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune – #16 in red – was sent off with under fifteen minutes to go. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.) 

France not only lost 2-0 to Mexico in Polokwane, but forward Nicolas Anelka went off on his manager Raymond Domenech. Anelka was critical of Domenech, who was seen as in over his head. Anelka was thrown off the team and sent home for the final game against the hosts. But France wasn’t done yet. The team began to mutiny on Domenech. Captain Patrice Evra was one of the highest dissenters. They not only refused to practice in the lead up to the final match, but they wrote their grievances on a piece of paper and made Domenech read it aloud to the cameras. Elsewhere, cameras caught Evra having a major argument with another assistant coach, resulting in Evra slamming his playing badge down on the ground. Domenech had lost his team. Their humiliation was complete one match later.

The Mexico-Uruguay match was a relatively tame affair, with Uruguay winning 1-0. Luis Suarez scored the winner two minutes before halftime. The last match saw France and South Africa face off. With Moeneeb Josephs now in goal, the hosts were still being written off, but then they took a shocking 1-0 lead after only twenty minutes through Bongani Khumalo. Five minutes later, midfielder Yoann Gourcuff was sent off. Then South Africa went up 2-0 after only 37 minutes when Mphela added one as well. France did manage to score one this time through Florent Malouda (70′), but South Africa held on for a massive 2-1 upset. There was one more wedge, though. South Africa’s Brazilian-born manager Carlos Alberto Parreira went to shake Domenech’s hand after the match. But Domenech completely snubbed him, and seemed to be lecturing him on the touchline. Parreira tried again, but still had no luck. Domenech had broken one of the game’s oldest traditions of sportsmanship, and was soon out as French coach. For many of the French players, much of the goodwill towards them had been completely eroded away. They finished last in the group with only one point.

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(France’s Raymond Domenech, right, refused to shake the hand of rival manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, costing him his reputation. Photo courtesy of BBC News.) 

For South Africa, they had earned a respectable four points. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to advance, as Mexico beat them on goal difference. They thus earned the distinction as the first host team to fail to get out of the first round. Still, for many pundits, getting a point at all was seen as a step of pride, and the players left as heroes. Uruguay managed to win the group, and Mexico took second.

Group B
Funnily enough, many of the superstar players, like Messi, C. Ronaldo, and Rooney, would fail to live up to the expectations. For Messi, it certainly wasn’t due to lack of trying. He just couldn’t get luck on his side. But Argentina actually did okay without him, winning all three games. And they had Diego Maradona as their manager.

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(The legendary Diego Maradona was now Argentina’s manager. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

Their first one was a 1-0 victory over Nigeria, with defender Gabriel Heinze (6′) scoring the game’s only goal. South Korea won over Greece 2-0 to get their first victory away from home. Lee Jung-soo (7′) and Park Ji-sung (52′) both scored to lead them. Greece were still looking for their first victory, and their first goal as well. Park’s goal was especially good, as he made a legal tackle on Loukas Vyntra inside the Greece zone and didn’t give it back, sprinting all the way down and putting it beautifully in the net.

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(Park Ji-sung’s beautiful goal helped South Korea beat Greece. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

Facing off in the next game, Argentina beat South Korea 4-1. But the Koreans weren’t as bad as the final score indicated, as it was 2-1 at halftime. Argentina got an own goal (17′) to open the scoring, followed by a goal from Gonzalo Higuain (33), but South Korea leveled right before halftime. The sad part was that Higuain completed a hat trick in the second half, and that was all Argentina needed to advance.

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(Argentina advanced with one match to spare thanks to a hat trick from Gonzalo Higuain. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

Underdogs against Nigeria, Greece certainly looked the part in the beginning, as they went behind 0-1 thanks to Kalu Uche (16′). But things began to change for the Super Eagles after a red card (33′) to Sani Kaita. Greece would get back into the game after going one man up.

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(A red card to Nigeria’s Sani Kaita was the break Greece needed. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

One minute before halftime, Greece finally broke through from a goal by Dimitris Salpingidis. It was followed by a winner (71′) by Vasilis Torosidis, and Greece had their first two goals and first points. Favored by many to do well, Nigeria were on life support.

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(The Salpingidis goal was the first in Greece’s history. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

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(Vasilis Torosidis scored the winner to give Greece their first points. Photo courtesy of Seattle Times.) 

Argentina earned a perfect nine points from the group, earning a 2-0 over Greece. Two lesser-known names were the scorers, one from defender Martin Demichelis (77′) and a later goal (89′) from Martin Palermo. Needing a win to stay alive, Nigeria played South Korea. Once again, an early goal from Kalu Uche gave them a lead (12′). But South Korea rallied and equalized 38 minutes in. They took the lead in the forty-ninth minute through Park Chu-young, and Nigeria looked to be in trouble. They were almost redeemed on a great through ball to center forward Yakubu. He was wide open…and missed it wide. Although he later converted a penalty (69′) to make it 2-2 and earn Nigeria a point, they would be out. In what would become a recurring theme, African teams would struggle in their World Cup. South Korea’s draw earned them four points to go through in second place.

(A wide open miss from Yakubu was a memorable moment. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Group C 
England and United States would get under way first in the town of Rustenberg. Under new manager Fabio Capello, the Three Lions felt they had something to prove. Under previous manager Steve McLaren, widely considered the worst manager in England history, they had failed to qualify for the 2008 Euros after a shock loss to Croatia, who weren’t playing in this World Cup. A big problem in that 2007 match was goalkeeping. It would come back again this time.

United States did them an early favor by allowing a goal from Steven Gerrard after only four minutes. Notorious for giving up fast starts, especially to superior opposition, it took the Americans a while to find their footing.

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(Steven Gerrard – #4 in white – beat Tim Howard to put England up after only four minutes. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.) 

Forty minutes in, England’s dam broke. Goalkeeper Robert Green took a goal kick, but the U.S. won the ball back to keep possession. Fresh off of a finals berth at the previous year’s Confederations Cup, the Americans weren’t pushovers either. One of the stars was Clint Dempsey. He spun out of a challenge, and fired toward goal. It should have been an easy play for Green, because Dempsey didn’t hit the ball that hard. But suddenly, the Jabulani’s notorious bounce would come into play. Green tried to catch it, but he only parried it, and watched helplessly as the slippery ball rolled past him into the net for an American equalizer. Already known for their surliness, the English press would never let Green live it down after that. It was still only 1-1 at halftime. But it was rightly known as a “howler” from then on out.

(Robert Green’s big mistake allowed United States to equalize. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

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(A better angle of the Robert Green blunder. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.)

Later in the match, Green made a fantastic save on Jozy Altidore, on a shot that would have otherwise given the United States the lead. Nobody remembers that part, of course. Late in the match, Emile Heskey almost won the match for England but his shot was saved by Tim Howard. The two teams managed to hold on and each earn a point with a 1-1 draw. But few people, England or otherwise, ever forgave Green. Coach Fabio Capello turned his back on him. But few were worried. Many in England were concerned with the performance, but most laughed it off as an off night. In the other match, Slovenia won 1-0 over Algeria after a similar error occurred to keeper Faouzi Chaouchi. It was Robert Koren (79′) credited with the goal. Still, few expected Algeria to do much. Even The Guardian seemed to be giving Algeria zero chance to get a result. And unlike Robert Green, Algerian fans and players rallied around Chaouchi. Many felt like slippery gloves were the cause, not the ball.

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(An error by Faouzi Chaouchi led to Slovenia’s first Cup win. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.)

Slovenia played the Stars and Stripes next. Once again, the Americans fell behind early. Only thirteen minutes in, Valter Birsa put Slovenia (one of the few teams without an official nickname) up one-nil. It got worse as well, as Zlatan Ljubijankić (42′) added a second. Bob Bradley’s men needed a spark. Fortunately, they got it in the second half.

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(Valter Birsa scored the first of Slovenia’s two first half goals. Photo courtesy of New York Times.) 

Landon Donovan may have left the USMNT ungraciously four years later, but he had a Cup for the ages in 2010. Right after the restart, Donovan took control of the pace, making darting runs and making good passes, even if they didn’t always find the target. Only two minutes in, he took a pass from Steve Cherundolo, which missed a diving Slovenian defender and left him wide open. He dribbled a few times, then went top post against the keeper and smashed it home, absolutely smashed it. Many players would miss it, but Donovan’s frustration was controlled enough to make it 2-1. The U.S. still had a chance. Those that know what happens next don’t need a spoiler, but for those that do, this goal was a prelude to what was coming next.

(Donovan’s goal started an American rally. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Still, one goal wasn’t going to be enough. The pace was about even for another 35 minutes or so, before the Americans got the equalizer they were looking for, when Michael Bradley, coach’s kid and midfielder, lofted on into the back of the net. His was nearly missed, but Altidore was able to control the ball by getting his head on it and Bradley slid in behind to finish. It was now 2-2 and many American fans went crazy.

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(Michael Bradley’s equalizer broke Slovenian hearts. Photo courtesy of http://www.ussoccer.com.) 

Soon after, the comeback was almost complete. Almost. United States won a free kick right outside the Slovenian box. The ball was played in by Donovan and it looked like Maurice Edu had gotten to the ball and headed it in for a 3-2 U.S. lead. But a whistle was blown by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly and it was disallowed. Many times, this is the right call, and many times, fans love giving the Americans a hard time on the football pitch. This time, they were all in agreement: this was a blown call. If anything, Edu had either earned a penalty, scored, or at the very least earned the right to have the free kick re-taken. But Coulibaly’s decision stood. What was more infuriating was that FIFA referees are not obligated to explain their decisions. Fortunately, both teams escaped with a 2-2 draw. But America could have been in the driver’s seat with one match to play, especially with what England did next.

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(Referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali had a notoriously missed call late in the Slovenia-United States match. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

As jingoistic as the media is in England, this time it was at a fever pitch. Most announcers were ridiculing the Algerian team, in shades of xenophobia, if not outright racism. They also took potshots at the French debacle. But there was nothing to laugh about that night. In fact, many have considered this the night when England fans – and many pundits – finally woke up.

Admittedly, Algeria weren’t really all that good that night. Nothing against them, but they created few chances and lacked a big star player. (That’s why I think the Iceland game last year wasn’t as bad as this one, because Iceland had better talent in the tournament it was playing in, and played tactically amazing.) But if Algeria were bad, England were worse. Numerous adjectives have been used: atrocious, pathetic, embarrassing. All game long, they attempted to counterattack, but failed to realize that they didn’t have the players to do it, and one of Algeria’s strengths came in luring them into it. Sloppy passing, hogging the ball (much of it, I’m sure, coming from Frank Lampard), and what many saw as uninspired play was on display that night in Cape Town. Even Emile Heskey got off pretty easy that night – several of them said that while he hadn’t played well, he couldn’t have reached a ball five feet over his head, time after time after time. And Wayne Rooney was one of the biggest culprits, not controlling the game, and just lacking a great IQ. Both teams earned a point in a listless nil-nil draw. But something had changed in the England fans. After forty-four years of optimism, combined with sleepless nights of travel, not to mention the money they spent, many England players heard something they’d never really heard before, and probably never expected to: loud, deafening boos. But Wayne Rooney was having none of it. He spotted a TV camera and fired back: “Nice to see your home fans booin’ ya. That’s what loyal support is.” It probably wasn’t premeditated, if only because Rooney wouldn’t be smart enough to plan that far ahead, but it wasn’t entirely in the heat of the moment either. Many began to look at Fabio Capello suspiciously. And the United States was no fluke. Maybe a stark realization was beginning to hit England fans, summed up in eleven words: their team was not as good as they thought they were.

(Wayne Rooney ranted to a camera after the Algeria match. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Following a disastrous team meeting, including a moment when former captain John Terry re-appointed himself captain without telling anyone and answered the majority of the questions at the press conference. No players supported him, at least not publicly.

Unbelievably, England were able to get through to the round of sixteen that year. Jermain Defoe (23′) scored the only goal of the match against Slovenia, who were still mathematically in it, pending the U.S. versus Algeria result.

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(Jermain Defoe scored the only goal against Slovenia to put England through, after a disastrous first two matches. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.)

Frustratingly, United States was finding out the hard way that Algeria was better than anticipated. Algeria couldn’t and wouldn’t break for most of the game. An early Algerian shot hit the post, and Clint Dempsey had one goal ruled out for offside, and later hit the post himself, and then missed a wide open rebound shot. As the match approached second half stoppage time, many discouraged U.S. fans were planning to lament an elimination despite not losing a match (three draws wouldn’t have been enough). Then came American soccer’s version of the Miracle on Ice.

Following a yellow card to DaMarcus Beasley, Algeria fired a shot, which Tim Howard saved. American players sprinted the other way on the counter. Howard rolled the ball to Landon Donovan, who sprinted up the pitch. He found Altidore, who then passed to Dempsey. With new goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi in pursuit, Dempsey tried a shot, but it was blocked. Still, it wasn’t saved cleanly, and Donovan was right behind on the rebound. British announcer Ian Darke became an American hero himself with his call: “…but Donovan has scored! Oh, can you believe this! GO, GO, U.S.A.!!!”

(Broadcaster Ian Darke had his legendary call on the Donovan stoppage time goal. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

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(The United States got one of its most memorable moments with Landon Donovan’s last gasp goal. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.) 

It was still in stoppage time, so anything could happen. But Algeria’s offense wasn’t likely to score, and after the Donovan goal, they fell apart. Later in stoppage time, Belgian referee De Bleeckere sent off captain Antar Yahia for two yellows. America’s resolve – and defense – held, and they had gone from the brink of elimination to the knockout stages. Not only that, but they finished ahead of England on goal differential to win the group, the first time that happened since the first tournament in 1930.

Group D
Germany, on the other hand, needed no late heroics to make its name known. Unfortunately, Australia was in a tough group, and it was apparent as Germany ran over them four-nil. With the score already 2-0, Tim Cahill was red carded and missed the next match. Australia had fallen back from 2006, and pretty quickly at that.

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(Tim Cahill’s sending off was the icing on a foul-tasting cake for Australia. Photo courtesy of BBC News.) 

Ghana beat Serbia 1-0 in their match, after a late penalty by Asamoah Gyan. Ghana took the early initiative, and would prove to be the only African team to advance in Africa’s first World Cup as host (mild spoilers, sorry).

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(Asamoah Gyan won the match against Serbia with a late penalty. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Australia managed to get back in it against Ghana, as they drew 1-1. Gyan scored another penalty (25′), cancelling out an early strike by Brett Holman. But another Australian star was sent off en route to Gyan’s goal – this time, it was forward Harry Kewell.

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(Referee Roberto Rosetti of Italy shows Harry Kewell a red card. You can also see Asamoah Gyan celebrating behind him. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

In the other match, Germany suffered a shocking 1-0 loss to Serbia. This time, it was Germany’s turn to feel the fury of a red card. And it went to Miroslav Klose, who was shown a second yellow (37′). One minute later, Serbia had their winner. It could have been a 1-1 draw, but something even more surprising happened (at least by their standards). Lukas Podolski missed a penalty, the first German player to do so since 1982. It was a pretty weak one, too, hit right at the keeper. That kept Serbia in it, and suddenly, Germany were on the ropes a little bit without one of their best players.

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(Miroslav Klose – #11 – sees red against Serbia. Photo courtesy of NPR.) 

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(The winner came via Milan Jovanovic. Photo courtesy of New York Times.) 

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(Lukas Podolski became one of the few German players to miss a penalty, which cost them a point. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.) 

Germany rallied to beat Ghana 1-0 with a goal from Mesut Özil, born in Gelsenkirchen with strong Turkish heritage. Australia rallied to win 2-1 against Serbia, with Cahill scoring in his return, and Holman getting the winner in the 73rd minute. Serbia’s Marko Pantelic got one back with six minutes to go, but it wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, Australia’s win wasn’t enough either, as Ghana qualified ahead of them on goal difference.

Group E
Netherlands started their group play with a 2-0 victory over Denmark. A scoreless first half was brought to life early on an own goal by Dan Agger immediately after the re-start. Five minutes from the end, Dirk Kuyt added a second goal of his own. Japan’s Keisuke Honda (39′) beat Japan in their first game. Netherlands-Japan was an exciting game, but a very frustrating one for the Dutch. Wesley Sneijder missed several chances, and Robin van Persie couldn’t get into a rhythm. Japanese midfielder Daisuke Matsui was very good in midfield in the first half, and even had one of their two shots. Finally, Sneijder broke through in the 53rd minute to finish the winner for the Dutch.  Japan had several chances late, one a denied penalty on Yuto Nagamoto, and one that went over the bar from Shinji Okazaki. Barring a loss in their final game, they were through.

(A strategically balanced game ended in a Dutch victory over Japan. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Denmark stayed alive with a 2-1 win, although Cameroon scored first ten minutes in through Samuel Eto’o (10′). The halftime was 1-1 after Nicklas Bendtner equalized (33′).

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(Samuel Eto’o was great as usual for an otherwise not-so-good Cameroon team. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

The Danes broke through for the win in the 61st minute from 2002 World Cup hero Dennis Rommedahl. With that loss, the Cameroonians were the first team to be eliminated. The Japan-Denmark match would decide it all.

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(Dennis Rommedahl – #19 – won the match for Denmark and eliminated Cameroon in the process. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

In said match, Japan scored first off of an amazing Honda free kick, only the second free kick goal of the entire tournament to that point (17′). It was soon two-nil (30′), off of another free kick from Yasuhito Endō, who caught Thomas Sørensen napping, forcing a deflection that bounced in after hitting the post. Denmark got one back (81′) after a rebound, but Japan put one more in six minutes later, off of a beautiful fake and pass from Honda to Okazaki. It was the first time that Denmark had failed to advance past the group stage, and Japan’s first wins away from home soil.

(A beautiful free kick by Keisuke Honda helped lead Japan through. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

(Endō also had a great free kick goal for Japan. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Netherlands prevailed over Cameroon 2-1 in their final game. Van Persie started the scoring (36′) before Eto’o leveled for Cameroon (65′) on a penalty. Finally, the winning goal was scored in the final seven minutes by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Cameroon had lost all three games, while the Dutch won all three to top the group.

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(Samuel Eto’o scored a penalty for Cameroon, but it wasn’t enough. Photo courtesy of FIFA.) 

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(Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored the winner for The Netherlands. Photo courtesy of The Australian.) 

Group F
Italy’s title defense started off very slowly, with a 1-1 draw with Paraguay. And it was Paraguay that scored first, through center back Antolin Alcaraz (39′). Fresh off of his controversial red card four years prior, Daniele De Rossi (63′) scored the equalizer to earn Italy a point. But it was clear that something was wrong with Italy – age was likely a factor, and perhaps the lack of fear was part of it.

Both New Zealand and Slovakia had something to prove in Rustenberg. In their first ever Cup game, Slovakia scored first through Robert Vittek (50′). It looked like the score would hold, until Winston Reid, whose parents were Maoris, hit the goal that tied it three minutes into stoppage time, although he also got a yellow card for excessive celebration. That 1-1 scoreline held and both sides had their first ever points.

(Robert Vittek scored Slovakia’s first World Cup goal. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

(Winston Reid helped New Zealand earn their first ever point. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

When the teams were originally drawn together, ESPN announcer Bob Ley fanned the flames by mentioning the Italy-New Zealand match, to be played in Nelspruit: “Lord knows what that final score’s going to be.” But after only seven minutes, Shane Smeltz (who had assisted Reid’s goal) put New Zealand in the lead!! You’re reading that correctly – the worst team by ranking had the defending champions on the ropes within the first ten minutes. Italy ultimately scored (29′) on a penalty, by Vincenzo Iaquinta, but that scoreline held up and New Zealand had a momentous second point. Many Italian fans were furious. They were still mathematically alive, but had to beat Slovakia to have a real chance.

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(New Zealand’s Shane Smeltz sneaked past the Italian defense and gave New Zealand a shocking result, a 1-1 draw. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.) 

Paraguay managed to beat Slovakia 2-0, with Enrique Vera (27′) and Cristian Riveros (86′) helping them to the cusp of the second round. Slovakia needed a win to stay alive.

And against Italy, they unbelievably got it. Vittek scored twice (25′ and 73′) to give Slovakia a lead in the final twenty minutes. Italy got back from Antonio Di Natale before a third goal from Kamil Kopunek (89′) seemed to put Slovakia through. Italy had several chances before that, one of which hit the post. They got a stoppage time goal from Fabio Quagliarella, but Slovakia held on to win 3-2. The defending champions were out with only two points. Known for their reputation as whiners, many Italian fans actually took the high ground this time. They admitted that this year, their team just wasn’t goo enough.

Elsewhere, Paraguay and New Zealand finished with a scoreless draw. It was a third point for New Zealand. Sadly, it wasn’t quite enough to advance, as Slovakia’s win allowed them to advance in second place with four points. Paraguay won the group with five. Nevertheless, minor spoiler ahead: New Zealand would be the only team in the competition not to lose a match. It’s a weird game, huh?

Group G 
For those that don’t know, a “Group of Death” refers to a group where you have at least three quality teams but only room for two to advance. Portugal opened their match with a scoreless draw against Ivory Coast. Nothing really came of it except for a yellow card for both teams in the 21st minute, one to Guy Demel and one to Cristiano Ronaldo for diving.

Many eyes were on North Korea as they took on Brazil. And while they didn’t have a lot of offensive firepower, they managed to go into halftime scoreless. Brazil eventually scored twice (Maicon 55′, Elano 72′) to win the game, but North Korea got a consolation goal on a nice breakaway by Ji Yun-Nam (89′). Several people were impressed with North Korea, although in hindsight, maybe it said more about the Brazilians and their impending collapse four years later.

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(Ji Yun-Nam gave North Korea their only real highlight that year. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

The next game saw North Korea play Portugal. As a result of their performance against Brazil, the North Korean government was persuaded to broadcast this game live. It was the first sporting event of any kind to earn that distinction. Many fans all over the world tuned in, interested to see what would happen. Portugal wasn’t considered as strong as Brazil at that time, and so, many felt that the North Koreans could earn a draw.

Unfortunately, the result was an unmitigated disaster. To be fair, it didn’t start off that bad for them. Raul Meireles made it 1-0 before the half hour mark, and a plucky Korean defense kept them in the game. But in the end, a bad strategy let them down. Chasing an equalizer, North Korea tried to widen the space, but it allowed more holes to a more technically precise team. Then the roof caved in. Six goals poured in during the second half, including a bizarre one from Cristiano Ronaldo, which deflected off the goalkeeper, hit him in the neck, rolled over to the other side, and miraculously landed at his feet. In the end, six different players scored, and only one player – Tiago – scored twice. While the North Korean media claimed they won 7-0, there was no way to spin this one. They were out in the blink of an eye.

(It only took one half for North Korea to come apart piece by piece. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Brazil put Ivory Coast on the ropes by winning 3-1. Luis Fabiano scored twice, although one of them came from a very deliberate handball – and he did it twice in the same motion. Most announcers missed it, and the referee not only made the same mistake, but seemed to be laughing along with Fabiano. Elano added a third goal before Didier Drogba (79′) added a consolation goal. Two minutes from time, Kaka was sent off for a second yellow, although the Ivorian player undoubtedly took a dive.

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(A missed call led to a red card for star Brazilian player Kaka. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

Ivory Coast managed to win 3-0 over the star-crossed North Koreans, leaving the latter as the worst team in the tournament. Brazil and Portugal played to a scoreless draw, and both teams managed to advance. Ivory Coast didn’t quite earn enough points to advance.

Group H
One of the biggest shocks came in the opening match of this group. Switzerland beat Spain 1-0 on a sliding goal by Gelson Fernandes. Was this the real Spain? Even worse, they had to re-write history – no team had won the Cup after losing their opening match. Chile beat Honduras 1-0 in their opening match.

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(Gelson Fernandes led Switzerland to a shocking upset of Spain, whom many predicted to win the whole thing. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.) 

Unfortunately, Switzerland couldn’t seize the momentum, as Chile beat them 1-0 in the next match, scoring via Mark Gonzalez (75′). The Swiss also had Valon Behrami sent off just past the thirty minute mark. Spain rallied two win 2-0 over Honduras, scoring twice from David Villa. Spain were still in it.

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(David Villa’s two goals kept Spain in it mathematically. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)

Fortunately for La Furia Roja, there was no need to worry. They beat Chile 2-1, with two goals in the first forty minutes helping Spain rally to win the group. Even worse, right after Andres Iniesta scored the winner, Chile’s Marco Estrada was sent off for arguing with the referee. Switzerland and Honduras fought to a scoreless draw, but it wasn’t good enough for either one to advance.

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(Marco Estrada of Chile was sent off in their final match. Photo courtesy of BBC News.) 

Knockout stages 
Round of 16 
Just under 31,000 fans showed up in Port Elizabeth as Uruguay won 2-1 over South Korea. A pair of goals from Luis Suarez (8′,80′) were sandwiched around a South Korea goal from Lee Chung-young (68′). Suarez’s winner was considered one of the best of the tournament, as a free kick deflected around to him, which he curled around the post and in. Uruguay made the quarterfinals for the first time since 1970.

(Suarez’s goal that won the match for Uruguay. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

By contrast, 19 million fans watched the U.S. play Ghana in Rustenberg. It was the most watched soccer game in American history. Unfortunately, the Ghanaians crashed the party, with Kevin-Prince Boateng scoring after only five minutes. Landon Donovan equalized (62′) via penalty, but ultimately, Asamoah Gyan scored three minutes into extra time. In Africa’s first World Cup as host, the only African team remaining was in the quarterfinals.

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(Asamoah Gyan’s goal sent Ghana into the quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of WBUR.)

Next up was Germany versus England in Bloemfontein. Many in England still had the old prejudices against the Germans intact. But for many, this match would finally, finally erase that aura of invincibility once and for all. And Germany also got revenge for a notorious incident. Even after 44 years, it was sweet revenge.

England’s back four was troubled from the start. And David James was better than Robert Green in goal, but he was too impulsive – his nickname was “Calamity James,” after all. Still, James was probably England’s best player that day, although it wasn’t saying much. After several chances, Germany won a goal keep twenty minutes in. According to rules, you can’t be offsides in that situation (which England pundits would hilariously obsess over during the highlights recap). Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer sent the ball in…and it kept carrying into the England half. It bounced twice in front of a rushing Miroslav Klose. As good as Klose was, he wasn’t known for his technical precision. But England’s weak back four allowed him to slip past center backs Matthew Upson and John Terry (with many noticing that they should have switched positions from where they were on the kick), and he one touched it in for a one-nil Germany lead.

(Miroslav Klose’s goal in the early going gave Germany the lead. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Twelve minutes later, Germany won the ball again in the England half. Lukas Podolski won it, and actually got a poor first touch. But he was so wide open it didn’t matter. He pushed it past “Calamity” James and Germany were now up two.

England were able to get back in the match five minutes later. Upson atoned for his earlier mistakes (although he would have a pretty bad game for the rest of it) and headed it past Neuer to get England back in it. They almost had a second one two minutes later, but controversy was right around the corner.

Right after the re-start, England controlled the ball again. Frank Lampard, unable to break through for so long, fired the ball down. Here’s where the Jabulani came into question. The ball hit the crossbar and clearly bounced down behind the line. It should have been a goal, and this time, replays clearly backed it up, but Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda didn’t see anything. To his credit, it was a split second decision, and the topspin of the ball caused it to bounce back into Neuer’s hands. Back on the other end, Germany fired a shot that went just wide. Imagine how furious England fans would have been had that gone in. After seeing replays, broadcaster Mark Lawrenson called out FIFA president Sepp Blatter for not using goal line technology, sitting in the stands that day: “Thanks very much, Sepp Blatter….I hope he’s squirming in his seat, by the way.” Although judging from the video, he seemed to be smugly confirming his own spite. On the one hand, had it counted, Germany would have had to readjust defensively, and perhaps the match would have been different. I highly doubt it, though. Given how poor England had played up to that point, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

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(Replays clearly showed the Lampard shot bounced behind the line. Photo courtesy of http://www.worldsoccertalk.com.)

(Video of the controversial no goal. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Thomas Müller broke English hearts in the second half, scoring twice in four minutes. One came off a counterattack following an England free kick. Once again, Upson was out of position, allowing a long ball to be played. All four Germany goals came off of piss poor (I’m sorry, but I have to say that) defending from England, mistake after mistake after mistake. Germany’s 4-1 win spelled the end of England’s campaign, and got revenge for the missed call in 1966. It was their worst loss ever in a World Cup. As furious as England fans were over the disallowed goal, some later admitted that they were glad to see that Germany scored four, because it proved that many fans were in denial. Some England fans – not all, but some – admitted that they were no longer a world class team. They finally realized that for them, it was all about excuses.

As a result of this match, they finally began to consider goal line technology, which would be implemented in 2014. And Jorge Larrionda is said to have cried out “No!” in horror upon watching the highlights. As a result, some of them forgave him. They never forgave Blatter.

Another controversial goal was coming in the Argentina-Mexico match. This one came from Argentina’s Carlos Tevez, who took the ball in a clearly offside position. There was nobody in front of him. If there was one obvious offside call that everybody could see, it was this one. But Italian referee Roberto Rosetti and assistant Stefano Airoldi both failed to wave it off. Even worse, they showed the replay on the monitor. Rosetti had to see that he had made a huge mistake, but he couldn’t take it back. Argentina added a second from Gonzalo Higuain, who used a bad pass from Mexican defender Ricardo Osorio, who then dribbled around goalkeeper Oscar Perez. As the halftime whistle blew, the two teams began fighting on the touchline. The story I go by is that an Argentinian player was rubbing the Tevez goal in the faces of the Mexico bench.

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(A brief skirmish broke out near the Mexican bench. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.) 

Tevez added a second to make it 3-1, before Javier Hernandez, aka “Chicharito,” (“little pea”) added a consolation goal for Mexico. Argentina advanced to play Germany in the quarterfinals. Tevez admitted that his first goal shouldn’t have counted, and Mexico manager Javier Aguirre admitted Argentina were better, although he also handed in his resignation that same day.

Netherlands beat Slovakia 2-1 in Durban, and Brazil won over Chile 3-0 in Ellis Park. Paraguay made their first quarterfinals ever after a scoreless draw and emerging 5-3 on penalties. It was a pretty dull game throughout, with a few sporadic chances created. Spain beat Portugal 1-0 in the battle of the Iberian Peninsula, winning the game on a goal by Villa (63′), although replays showed it was just a fraction offside. A few early chances were created by Portugal, with Hugo Almeida nearly breaching the Spain defense. A disappointed Cristiano Ronaldo was said to have spat at a camera walking off the pitch in defeat.

Quarterfinals 
Netherlands faced Brazil in the first quarterfinal in Port Elizabeth. Brazil took the early lead on a goal (10′) from Robinho. This was largely due to an injury to back Joris Mathijsen, and a defensive miscommunication left Robinho wide open. But Brazil’s defense was sloppy as well, and eight minutes after the restart, Wesley Sneijder went up for a 50-50 ball with Felipe Melo. The ball landed in the net for an equalizer. Initially credited as an own goal, it was later amended to counting as a goal for Sneijder. Fifteen minutes later, he won the match with a second goal. And for Melo, he was later sent off for blatantly stamping down on Arjen Robben’s legs with his cleats. The Dutch, seen as a slight underdog coming in, made it to the semifinals and Brazil went home.

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(Felipe Melo was sent off for stamping on Arjen Robben. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

Ghana and Uruguay faced off next at Soccer City in Johannesburg. While Uruguay had most of the possession in the first half, it was Ghana who scored first with a goal in first half stoppage time via Sulley Muntari. But ten minutes later, a Forlan free kick leveled the score, and it was even more impressive that it came from 40 yards away. It went high post above the reach of Richard Kingson. Regular time ended one apiece.

(The goal that tied the score. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Late in second extra time, with the match only seconds away from penalties, Ghana won a free kick. They swung it into the box, and Dominic Adiyiah had a header down towards the goal. Luis Suarez reached out and blatantly punched the ball away with his hands. The Portuguese referee didn’t miss the call and sent him off. Asamoah Gyan stepped up to take the penalty for Ghana. They were seconds away from being the first African team to make the semifinals.

So many times, one moment is a microcosm of a broader event. As the anticipation built, the whistle blew. Gyan raced up, took his shot…and could only watched as it hit the crossbar and bounced out. Seeing what happened in the tunnel en route to the locker room, Suarez began excessively celebrating. For many, myself included, it wasn’t the act itself that was infuriating as it was the lack of humility. The whistle blew immediately afterward and penalties loomed.

Gyan was willing to take a penalty again, and this time, he scored to make it 1-1. Unfortunately, Ghana’s luck ran out as Adiyiah and John Mensah had their penalties saved. Sebastian Abreu converted the winning penalty. For the first time since 1970, Uruguay made the semifinals.

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(The Suarez handball that led to a penalty and a red card. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

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(In one of the most heartbreaking moments in World Cup history, Asamoah Gyan unfortunately missed the penalty. Photo courtesy of http://www.buzzghana.com.) 

Even more infuriating for many, Suarez was carried off the field by his teammates. His lack of humility continued in the locker room, claiming that he now had the true “Hand of God” and claimed he made the save of the tournament. Ethical lines over cheating and competitiveness remain divisive to this day. Africa’s last remaining team was out. Even worse, it took a villainous act to do so.

Germany managed to avoid controversy and ran over Argentina 4-0. The one downside is that Müller received a yellow card that meant he would be suspended for the semifinals, after scoring only three minutes in. Klose scored two more goals and the last one came from Arne Friedrich, a defender not known as much of a scorer. In fact, it was his only career goal in 82 caps for Die Mannschaft. But it was a technical master class of play. Maradona was relieved of his duties, and never got a coaching job after that. It was once thought that elite players would be able to translate that into management. But the embarrassing performance by Maradona’s men caused many to reconsider.

Spain and Paraguay was a dull game overall, but did have a few moments. A potential Paraguay goal was ruled out for offside, and Spain was frustrated by Paraguay being able to counter their possession style well. In the second half, Oscar Cardozo of Paraguay won a penalty but had it saved by Iker Casillas. Shortly after, Spain also won a penalty. Xabi Alonso took it and scored, except that referee Carlos Batres of Guatemala ruled it out because he claimed a Spanish player encroached before he blew the whistle. It had to be retaken and it too was saved. Finally, with seven minutes to go, David Villa scored the winner to put Spain into the semifinals for the first time since 1950. But even that was tricky, as it hit both posts before rolling in. It was Paraguay’s best finish ever to that point. Spain were very lucky to make the semifinals, and manager Vicente del Bosque later admitted that Paraguay’s defense frustrated him.

Semifinals 
The first semifinal matched up Uruguay and Netherlands. Another unheralded defender opened the scoring, as Giovanni van Bronckhorst fired a shot off the post and in after only eighteen minutes. It was fired from at least forty yards away, perhaps even fifty.

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(Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s wonder goal opened the scoring for the Dutch. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

Diego Forlán managed to get one back after a goalkeeper error, and the match went into halftime 1-1. But the Dutch put two goals in four minutes (70′ and 73′), one from Sneijder, and one from Arjen Robben. That second goal was crucial, as Maxi Pereira added a second for the Uruguayans in stoppage time. Nevertheless, the Netherlands made their third final overall and first since 1978. In the other semifinal, it would be 1-0 Spain, with Carles Puyol heading in the winner with under 20 minutes to go. Finally in the championship match, many predicted the Spanish to win it. It guaranteed that there would be a first-time champion that year.

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(Carles Puyol headed the winner to send Spain through to the final. Photo courtesy of ESPN FC.) 

Third place game 
Thomas Müller returned from suspension for the third place game, and he opened the scoring 19 minutes in. But shockingly, not only did Uruguay rally through Edinson Cavani (28′), a Forlán goal actually put them in the lead. But ultimately, their defense broke, and five minutes later Marcell Jansen equalized. The winning goal game from Sami Khedira (82′). Nevertheless, Uruguay was praised for its performance.

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(Sami Khedira scored the winner to give Germany third place. Photo courtesy of http://www.goal.com.) 

Final 
Technically, England did make the final that year, as Englishman Howard Webb would be the referee. As hard as he tried, it would quickly get out of control. It was one of the ugliest finals ever.

The Dutch would attempt a new strategy – if they couldn’t contain the possession, they’d hack them off the ball. Ironically, it worked a lot of the time, but they lost a lot of respect in the process, and they didn’t have a reputation for playing dirty. For the record, Spain wasn’t that clean either, but the Dutch were sort of the “other” team in what many thought would be Spain’s coronation.

One of the dirtiest players was Mark van Bommel, midfielder for Bayern Munich. He had gotten away with numerous fouls and had been unpunished. The first time he was booked was in the semifinal, and it was for dissent to the referee. He would get booked in this match as well.

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(Mark van Bommel was probably the dirtiest player in the entire tournament. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Combined, the two teams would accumulate fourteen yellow cards – nine for the Dutch alone. The worst one came midway through the first half, when Xabi Alonso and midfielder Nigel de Jong both went for the ball. Neither one won it, but then de Jong karate kicked Alonso in the sternum. In what should have been a clear red, Webb later admitted his view was obstructed, so de Jong got off with only a yellow.

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(Nigel de Jong committed a reckless foul, but unbelievably wasn’t sent off. Photo courtesy of CNN.) 

The first half ended scoreless, and most fans thought of it as ugly. It seemed like Netherlands couldn’t win on talent, so they were trying to wear the Spanish down with bad fouls. Nevertheless, Arjen Robben almost had the opening goal in the 62nd minute, but at the last second, Casillas got a foot to it diving the wrong way for a clutch save. That miss would haunt Robben for years to come.

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(Iker Casillas’ clutch save on Arjen Robben kept Spain in the game. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.) 

Instead of really writing about the action, I’m trying to get done as fast as I can. That’s how dull the final was this year. The match finished scoreless in regulation and went to extra time. The first extra period was also scoreless. Early in the restart, John Heitinga was sent off for a second yellow, and the Dutch would be one man short for the last ten minutes. Seven minutes later, the Spanish broke through, although in a controversial moment as well.

Netherlands took a free kick that looked like it had deflected off a Spanish player for a corner. But Webb ruled it a goal kick instead, and Casillas put the ball back in for the counterattack. Jesus Navas started a series of intricate passes that Spain was known for. The last one went to Andres Iniesta, who scored at 116 minutes in, the latest goal scored in a final. As a result of what looked like a missed call, another yellow card was shown to Dutch player Joris Mathijsen for arguing with Webb. The Dutch would never get that close again. After decades of falling short, Spain had its first title. The best team had won, but they did it in a way that wasn’t all that likable. As Spain changed into their red jerseys for the medal ceremony, referee Webb was booed by both sets of fans. But that didn’t matter. La Furia Roja and tiki-taka were on top of the world.

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(Andres Iniesta scored the goal that won the final for Spain. Photo courtesy of Guinness World Records.) 

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(After changing jerseys, Spain lifts the World Cup trophy. Photo courtesy of http://www.football2014wc.com.)

Fun Facts
As mentioned, Spain became the first team to win the World Cup after losing their opening match. The Dutch also became the first team to lose three finals without winning.

Additionally, Spain set a record low by scoring only eight goals in seven games. Still, they only allowed two as well.

Andres Iniesta was listed at 5’7″ (1.71 m), and had such an unglamorous look to him that a woman once thought him to be a waiter at a restaurant in Barcelona. Not only that, but he actually fulfilled her order!

Germany-Ghana saw a first of their own: half-brothers Kevin-Prince (Ghana) and Jerome (Germany) became the first siblings to play on opposing sides. Despite being half-brothers, there was a lot of bad blood over the years. Kevin-Prince had reportedly injured Michael Ballack in a friendly, so Ballack didn’t appear in 2010.

Speaking of crucial injuries, England defender Rio Ferdinand was knocked out of action after perennial punching bag Emile Heskey tripped over his knee in a practice session and crushed it.

England’s Frank Lampard also set an unwanted record: most shots in a career without scoring. He shot 40 times over the years, breaking the record of Jay-Jay Okocha of Nigeria.

Speaking of Nigeria, their FA president Goodluck Jonathan (yes, that is his real name) planned to withdraw his team from any games for two years. FIFA intervened, and he relented.

North Korea reportedly played so well against Brazil only because their head coach had a radio transmitter implanted in his ear, receiving direct orders from Kim Jong-il. Also, some of the few fans they had in the stands for them were rumored to be actors from China.

As a result of that disastrous loss, North Korean players were screamed at in the locker room by high-ranking officials for six hours, and then were punished with hard labor on a construction site.

When Iniesta scored his goal, he wore a sleeveless shirt underneath that said “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros” (Dani Jarque always with us), in reference to a Spanish player who had suffered a fatal heart attack on the pitch at age 21 in 2009.

One year before this, the United States had beaten Spain to reach the finals of the Confederations Cup, and lost in a hard-fought final to Brazil. It was the first world final the Americans have played in. They also beat Italy along the way.

Argentina player Sergio Aguero was not only coached by Diego Maradona, but was his son-in-law, having married Maradona’s daughter.

New Zealand were considered such massive underdogs that one of their players, midfielder Andrew Barron, wasn’t even a professional player. By day, he worked as a banker in the capital city of Wellington. He is the only non-professional player ever to play in the World Cup, appearing as a substitute against Italy, and returned to banking exclusively soon after.

Final Thoughts 
The best team in many years had won. After winning in Euro 2012, many thought they would be invincible for years to come. But age started catching up to them, and others began to form plans to beat them.

References and Sources 
FIFA
YouTube
ESPN FC
Wikipedia
Wikimedia Commons
Getty Images.
Dailymotion.
WBUR
NPR
CNN.
BBC News.
Guinness World Records
http://www.worldsoccertalk.com
http://www.buzzghana.com
http://www.stuff.co.nz
http://www.cbc.ca
http://www.football2014wc.com
http://www.goal.com
http://www.worldcupballs.info.
http://www.ussoccer.com
The Australian 
Seattle Times 
New York Times 
Daily Mail 
New York Daily News 
The Telegraph 
Daily Mail 
The Guardian 
Sports Illustrated. 
USA Today. 
World Soccer.
FourFourTwo
World Cup’s 50 Greatest Moments (documentary)
World Cup’s Most Shocking Moments, Vol. 2 (documentary)
England’s Worst Ever Football Team, Vol. 1 (documentary)
England’s Worst Ever Football Team, Vol. 2 (documentary)
The All-Time Biggest Sports Jerks 
(Michael Freeman) 
Soccer Men
 (Simon Kuper)
Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World (Raphael Honigstein)
Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer (George Vecsey)
Soccer’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Clumsy Keepers, Clever Crosses, and Outlandish Oddities 
(John Snyder)
Soccer’s Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves, and Fantastic Free-Kicks 
(Jeff Carlisle)
¡Golazo! The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America 
(Andreas Campomar)
The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet’s Biggest Sports Event 
(David Hirshey, Roger Bennett)
The Mammoth Book of the World Cup 
(Nick Holt)

Lucky seventh

Western cultures often have seven as a lucky number. In MLB, it was the jersey number of Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. And while the Stanley Cup is perhaps the best trophy, the World Series has the best tradition with seventh games. At least that’s what the argument says.

Surprisingly, in the one hundred fifteen years of the World Series (including the two years it wasn’t played), we haven’t even had forty seventh games. This is number thirty-nine, so we’re close. Although the American League has a significant advantage overall in championships, the National League surprisingly has the edge in seventh games. In other words, the longer a series goes, the more you tend to favor the NL. The Astros are playing in their first World Series seventh game, looking for their first championship ever. The Dodgers are going for their seventh overall and first since 1988. It’s the first time since 1970 that both teams came into the Series with at least 100 wins. And it’s the first tie in fifteen years we’ve had consecutive years with a seventh game. It took nine years to get one (2002-11), and since 2011, this is the fourth overall. I think it shows the magic of baseball. The NBA and Stanley Cup Finals don’t have as many, and so many of them are duds.

Last year, Chicago broke their drought in a legendary Game 7. Hopefully, we’ll get another one tonight. In many ways, it’s only fair. I won’t be able to watch as closely tonight, because I have an early day tomorrow, but hopefully I can as much as I can.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts.” Here we go….

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.