by Rob Boylan
Well, my Who to Watch players didn't do much of anything in the group stages outside of Messi and Neymar both showing off their ridiculous talents.
Italy's Gianluigi Buffon, my goalie to watch in his swansong, injured himself the night before the first match and never played. Was that the difference between Italy going out and staying in? Probably not. Ballotelli was pretty awful outside of the England match. That's is just how he is. When he's on, he's one of the best players alive. When he's in a pissy mood he's one of the worst.
My defenders to watch (which were rather haphazardly selected I admit), Brazil's Thiago Silva and David Luiz, Spain's Sergio Ramos and Germany's Mats Hummels were a mixed bag. Hummels did well for a fairly ruthless German side, and Ramos didn't embarrass himself in a team that split at the seams. Silva and Luiz, I was picking hometown favorites. I may have picked Luiz for his hair. I'll never tell.
Midfield was a train wreck. Spain's Andres Iniesta became human. Ivory Coast's Yaya Toure received the awful news about the death of his younger brother Ibrahim (his older brother Yaya was with him in Brazil on the bench for the Ivory Coast). Belguim's Eden Hazard had one brilliant moment against Russia, and I don't want to pick on him, but the USA's Michael Bradley pretty much had a nightmare in the group stages with his constant and untimely giveaways. Bradley and Hazard will face each other in the knockout phase on Tuesday (thankfully in Salvador, not in Manaus).
Luis Suarez was probably the most interesting player to watch in the group stage, if only to see him balance his footballing brilliance with his serious and longstanding mental issues. I expected him to whine and dive and score goals, but I didn't expect a third bite victim.
Finally, my overall prediction of a Brazil/Germany final was confounded by the fact that I looked at the brackets wrong and this final can't happen. They can only meet in the semi-finals. I also underestimated just how much a home-continent advantage the teams from the Americas would have over the European teams. This is the first World Cup since I started watching them in 1994 that has taken place in South America.
As far as individual players that actually did stick out, Longwood native Graham Zusi had a pretty good group stage in the midfield for the USA. He came in for a little controversy when Taylor Twellman blasted him for taking his time leaving the pitch during the Portgual match, Twellman's theory being the extra time added to stoppage time by the ref is what Portugal used to score. It's an argument that isn't wholly without merit in general, but to point specifically at Zusi for something that every single player ever in the history of the game has done is a bit stupid. Yes, things would be better if time wasting was eradicated from the game, but it never will be because the risk is very high. There is also the fallacy of the pre-determined outcome. If Zusi ran off the pitch, Portugal might just have scored sooner. It's a fluid game. The whole thing was a real non-issue and it's a shame it came up.
As I said earlier, Messi and Neymar were absolutely fantastic to watch. They both had to be though. There won't be another World Cup in South America in either of their careers (definitely not for Messi, probably not for Neymar)
France's Blaise Matuidi, Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri, Costa Rica's Joel Campbell, Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa, and Germany's Per Mertesacker and Thomas Muller were all outstanding as well.
I'm not going to waste anyone's time guessing at the knockout stages. All in all, though, it's been a tremendously exciting World Cup. Way more goals, way more fluid play, way less diving and cheating than I expected. Easily the best group stage since I've been watching.
And another World Cup, another passage into the group stages for the USA. Hell yes.
Award for the best headline of the group stages goes to HuffPo UK because Jesus Christ couldn't write a better pun: