80% (or 0.8)
Of the 10 teams from North, Central, and South America to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, eight advanced to the knockout rounds -- three of four from CONCACAF (Costa Rica, Mexico, and USA) and five of six from CONMEBOL (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay). Can all of the Americas claim home-field advantage?
The success of CONMEBOL was no surprise; a combination of minimal fan travel (comparatively speaking, anyway) and maximum quality was always going to be on their side. But Mexico nearly topped Brazil in Group A, and Costa Rica and the United States survived the two groups of death, Group D and Group G, while England, Italy, Portugal, and Ghana did not.
It is rather foolish to draw lasting conclusions from anything that only happens once every four years. You get ideas, and by the time you get a chance to test your theories (four years from now), most teams have recycled their casts of characters to a large degree. So it's not like we can say with any confidence that this is a sign of improved quality for CONCACAF, or lower quality from any other continent.
Still, it's been a good few weeks for the Americas, it's been a sketchy few weeks for UEFA (six European teams advanced, but seven did not, including three former champions -- Italy, England, and Spain), and it's been an absolutely woeful few weeks for the Asian federation. Teams qualifying from AFC lost nine matches, drew three, and won none. They scored nine goals, allowed 25, and finished 27th (South Korea), 28th (Iran), 29th (Japan), and 30th (Australia). None were expected to do much damage this time around, but they combined to do absolutely nothing.
Meanwhile, Africa almost did quite a bit better. Third-match mistakes were devastating to the cause of both the Ivory Coast and Ghana, two fun teams that just couldn't make plays when they needed to. Ivory Coast was just minutes from advancing before allowing a late penalty to Greece and falling. Ghana allowed an own goal off John Boye's knee early in the Portugal match, then lost because of a 79th-minute Cristiano Ronaldo goal that was teed up so perfectly by goalkeeper Fatau Dauda that Ronaldo almost seemed offended to have to score it. These two teams' absences could minimize the fun in the knockout stage ... but then again, we've still got Colombia and Chile.
Six teams have played in Amazonian jungle city Manaus, then played another match afterward. England and Italy were up first on June 14; Italy survived, 2-1, and both teams proceeded to lose their next match -- Italy was upset by Costa Rica, and England caved late against Uruguay. On June 18, Croatia romped over Cameroon, 4-0; the teams were outscored, 7-2, by Mexico and Brazil, respectively, a few days later. The U.S. and Portugal fought to a sweaty, tense 2-2 draw on June 22; four days later, the U.S. lost to Germany and Portugal survived a mistake-prone Ghana.
Of those six teams, only one won its next match (Portugal), and only one advanced to the Round of 16 (USA). Brazil is large enough to feature quite an array of climates from north to south and east to west. Manaus is, by most accounts, one of the most humid places on earth. And it apparently takes a bit longer to recover after playing there.
(Switzerland, which romped over Honduras in the final Manaus battle, has to go up against Argentina in the Round of 16.)
One of the most important matches in Mexico's soccer history didn't actually involve Mexico. After a mostly feckless round of qualifying that included scoreless home draws against Jamaica, the United States, and Jamaica and a home LOSS to Honduras, plus a road loss to Costa Rica on the final day of qualification matches, El Tri needed to to look to the outside for salvation. A United States win or draw against Panama would mean that, with just two wins in 10 matches, Mexico would finish fourth in CONCACAF's fourth qualifying round and qualify for a playoff against New Zealand. A Panama win over the USMNT in Panama City on October 15, 2013, would mean that Panama would play New Zealand, a single home-and-home away from its first World Cup finals appearance.
When Luis Tejada scored on Brad Guzan in the 83rd minute to give Panama a 2-1 lead, Estadio Rommel Fernández turned into a party.
And in stoppage time, the proceedings fell apart quicker than a house party in a college town when the police show up. The U.S. scored two stoppage time goals, broke Panamanian hearts, and allowed Mexico to survive.
One of the world's better teams in 2011-12, Mexico has again found its form after long struggles. With help from the world's best cheerleader/coach, El Tri survived some bad calls to take down Cameroon, went blow-for-blow with host Brazil in a scoreless draw, and pulled away late against a tired Croatian squad. They enter the knockout stage playing great ball, and while their Round-of-16 opponent, the Netherlands, has looked even better at times (5-1 over Spain), the Oranje looked prone to defensive lapses against Australia. Upset Holland, and they're almost certainly going to be favored over the Costa Rica-Greece winner.
As they were against Brazil, the odds are against Mexico taking down Holland. But the odds were much more dire eight months ago. Fates change very quickly. Just ask Spain. Or Panama.
(And yes, this was basically here so we could once again say "you're welcome" in the most condescending manner possible.)
Only three World Cup teams scored fewer than two goals in group play: Cameroon, Honduras, and Iran. There were five in 2010 (Algeria, France, Honduras again*, North Korea, and Switzerland). Again, too many goals redefines the sport, makes goals feel less miraculous, and becomes counterproductive. But a few more haven't hurt. This has, by many accounts, been one of the most fun World Cups on record. Hopefully that sentiment continues through the knockout rounds.
* Poor Honduras has been outscored 11-1 in the last two World Cups. No wins, five losses, one draw. That probably doesn't make Panama feel any better.
Three of the five teams on the 2010 list, however, have turned things around in a hurry. France won games by 5-2 and 3-0 margins before the late 0-0 dud against Ecuador. Switzerland scored seven goals in France's group. And perhaps most surprisingly, Algeria has turned into a bit of an offensive juggernaut. Well, when it has needed to, anyway.
The Fennec Foxes very nearly came away with a result against Belgium in their first game. They played a compact system, sitting back and hoping to hit their opponents on the break. They were able to draw first blood, but the game was an eventual loss. No matter. Halilhodžić changed things up for the second match, fielding a more attacking side that hit South Korea right from the start. The eventual result was a 4-2 victory, meaning Algeria needed just a draw from their final game with Russia.
And that's exactly what occurred. Halilhodžić could have reverted back to the more defensive side he fielded against Belgium, but waited until the 70th minute, with the score at 1-1, to really tighten things up. With four points, Algeria were out of the group.
Thirty-two years after being on the wrong end of one of soccer's most cynical moments, Algeria have finally advanced to the knockout stage of a World Cup. The odds of the Foxes getting 1982 revenge on Germany are tiny, but this has been a blessed couple of weeks for them regardless. And it came with a fun identity change; after scoring no goals and allowing just two in 2010, Algeria has scored six and allowed five in 2014.
Since World Cup group play began in 1950, only twice in 16 tournaments has the eventual tournament winner finished with a group-stage goal differential worse than plus-3: Spain in 2010 (plus-2) and West Germany in 1954 (minus-2). Spain had the benefit of never actually allowing shots on goal, and West Germany's numbers were skewed by an 8-3 trouncing at the hands of Hungary*. But on 14 of 16 occasions, plus-3 and above has been the signal for potential success. That's a potentially good sign for Colombia (plus-7), Netherlands (plus-7), France (plus-6), Brazil (plus-5), Germany (plus-5), Argentina (plus-3), Belgium (plus-3), Costa Rica (plus-3), Mexico (plus-3), and a bad sign for the other seven teams.
* Hungary had one of the best offensive teams in the sport's history, scoring 17 goals in group play and winning back-to-back 4-2 matches in the knockout rounds before falling 3-2 in the finals to, who else, West Germany.
Life in the present tense is just so damn scary. Before the tournament began, it seemed the most likely scenario for U.S. advancement through Group G involved beating Ghana, tying Portugal, losing to Germany, getting to four points, and hoping Portugal lost to Germany worse than they did. That is, to a letter, exactly what happened. But living through it was, and always is, in no way simple and predictable.
It was "beat Ghana," not "score one of the quickest goals in World Cup history, lose control of the ball for most of the next 80 minutes, allow the tying goal in the 82nd minute, then score the game-winner, off the head of a reserve, four minutes later."
It was "tie Portugal," not "allow a goal in the fifth minute, chase the scoreboard for 60 minutes, score twice in the final 30 minutes to take the lead, then allow the latest group-stage goal in World Cup history, well into the fifth minute of stoppage time."
It was "lose to Germany," not "fend off about six excellent scoring opportunities in the first 15 minutes, stabilize, fall behind in the 55th minute, then watch the scoreboard as Ghana threatens to beat Portugal (thanks to that damned Asamoah Gyan again) before succumbing late on a drastic goal-keeper error."
Even when things go according to plan, nothing is ever simple. But the U.S. did advance, despite shaky play from its best player (Michael Bradley), despite an injury to its best pure striker (Jozy Altidore), despite perhaps its best performer (Jermaine Jones) being one of its most maligned, and despite continued, obtuse, intentional confusion from a chunk of the American public (and its writers) regarding how group play works. Would it help if we called it division play? Conference play?
Because of Portugal's win and the Americans winning the right to play at least one more match, I got to postpone what has become an every-four-years tradition between friends and me (and millions of others from every country, I'm sure).
I still have the spreadsheet I created the evening of the 2010 Ghana loss, which basically listed all of the potential future USMNT members, i.e. the reasons why the next World Cup cycle will end up happier than the current one. (I actually looked for an e-mail exchange with a friend of mine after the 2002 loss to Germany. Yahoo! mail archives evidently don't go back that far.) It is a completely pointless exercise in Wait Till Next (Four) Year(s); the list I made in 2010 had names like Gale Agbossoumonde, Perry Kitchen, Amobi Okugo, Sebastien Lletget, and Tristan Bowen in big, bold, "look out for these guys!" font. (Status: still looking.) It quite obviously did not include names like Julian Green, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, or Aron Johannsson. But it got me through until Jurgen Klinsmann was hired and qualification began. The list I create after the next loss (or four wins!) will be no more accurate and just as helpful.
(And hey, Agbossoumonde and Kitchen are still only 22. Lletget's 21. Maybe the spreadsheet was just ahead of its time. And maybe not.)