World Cup recap: Brazil struggles, England and Belgium impress


Officials attend a ceremony to celebrate the beginning of a 1,000-day countdown until the start of the 2018 World Cup in September 2015. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

By Trent Leonard | Senior Staff Writer

Since the FIFA World Cup kicked off in Russia June 14, there have been a number of surprising and exciting results — as expected from such a high-stakes global competition. Between upsets, underachieving squads and tournament favorites, here’s a recap of the most pertinent storylines of the World Cup thus far.

Brazil came into the tournament as the favorites with a 19 percent chance to win it all, per statistics powerhouse After all, the Brazilians possess a lineup full of top-end players in their prime such as Neymar, Paulinho and Coutinho — and the team will be especially hungry after suffering an embarrassing 7-1 defeat to Germany in their home country to finish fourth in the 2014 World Cup.

But Brazil looked shaky in its World Cup opener this year versus Switzerland, settling for a 1-1 draw — the first time since 1978 that the Brazilians failed to win their opening match at the World Cup. Brazil corrected course with a 2-0 win over Costa Rica in its next match, but the team needs to look sharper down the stretch if it wants to live up to its pre-tournament hype.

After Brazil, no team faces higher World Cup expectations than Germany. The Germans came into Russia as the defending 2014 champions, and no team has made more finals appearances in the history of the World Cup. Like Brazil, Germany has struggled so far in this tournament, suffering a 1-0 upset to Mexico before narrowly escaping Sweden 2-1, thanks to Toni Kroos’ 94th-minute heroics.

It’s possible that Germany has lost its edge since its 2014 championship — or maybe the team is simply sleepwalking through its group and saving its best effort for elimination play. With Germany’s track record of success, the latter is more likely — the Germans remain a nightmare matchup for any opponent.

Among the more pleasant surprises of the tournament are Croatia and Uruguay. Neither team is known as an international powerhouse, yet each stormed through its group undefeated.

Croatia’s 3-0 drubbing of defending runner-up Argentina stands as one of the highlights of the tournament so far. The Croatians, despite going up against one of the most dominant players in the world, Lionel Messi, controlled the game from start to finish. This match showed two things —  that Croatia has emerged as a truly dangerous team, and that Argentina may be in line for significant disappointment, as also evidenced by a 1-1 draw to Iceland.

In the wake of early underachievement from the likes of Brazil, Germany and Argentina, two nations have emerged as the most impressive through group play — England and Belgium.

Both clubs have terrorized the lesser competition of Group G, with England beating Tunisia and Panama 2-1 and 6-1, respectively, and Belgium recording scores of 5-2 and 3-0 over the same teams. The two clubs are now tied for the group stage lead with eight goals each, convincing to vault Belgium to first and England to second in its World Cup power rankings.

The potential is there for Belgium and England to be serious contenders. Starpower, chemistry, the motivation to be world champions after decades of drought — each team checks all these boxes. Belgium and England face off for group bragging rights on Thursday — and don’t be surprised if the winner of that game makes an appearance in the finals.

Predictions and power teams aside, the World Cup has also provided its fair share of shenanigans and side shows. One such case emerged from Sweden’s opening group matchup versus South Korea. According to Reuters, the Swedish team sent a scout to observe a Korean training session taking place at the team’s practice facility in Austria earlier this month. The spy was kicked out after being discovered by the Koreans.

Undeterred, the Swedish scout journeyed up a nearby mountain where he convinced a family to let him use their home as a vantage point for his espionage. As a countermeasure, Korean coach Shin Tae-yong told his players to switch jerseys so that the overlooking Swedish adversary would be unable to tell which player was which.

“They might know a few of our players but it is very difficult for Westerners to distinguish between Asians and that’s why we did that,” Shin said.

But when it came time to play, the Swedes ultimately got the last laugh with a 1-0 victory.

Group H has been a bizarre story on its own, with the standings completely flipped from what most expected entering the tournament. Colombia and Poland were initially the assumed top two teams of the group — which also consists of Senegal and Japan — with giving them a 69 and 55 percent chance, respectively, to move onto the round of 16.

Instead, Senegal majorly upset Poland, 2-1, thanks to a decisive own goal by Poland’s Thiago Cionek, while Japan became the first Asian team to beat a South American opponent in World Cup history when Colombia’s Carlos Moreno committed a fatal penalty — an intentional handball in the penalty box — to earn a red card just three minutes into the game, giving Japan a one-man advantage which they used to pull off the 2-1 upset.

Because of those unlikely results, Japan sits atop the group with Senegal in second. Poland is eliminated from group-of-16 contention, while Colombia will face Senegal in a must-win game on Thursday.

The group phase will conclude with Thursday’s games, highlighted by Colombia-Senegal at 10:00 a.m. EST and England-Belgium at 2:00 p.m. EST. Play will subside on Friday before picking back up on Saturday, when the final 16 teams begin elimination competition.

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