A new era is dawning on soccer’s biggest stage. Aging superstars who once reigned supreme in an ever-competitive atmosphere are faltering. The successful teams in this World Cup are not only youthful, but they’re also playing a more direct game, involving quick passes and tirelessly advancing forward.
The Spaniards looked like a dying breed during their three-game existence in the World Cup group stage in which they were outscored 5-1 by the Netherlands and scored a grand total of four goals in three fixtures. Spain relied too heavily on its short passes and waited too long to break teams apart. Younger, more agile teams, like the Netherlands and Chile, were able to capitalize on Spain’s slow-moving offense. They made the Spaniards pay, eliminating them from the World Cup.
Just four years ago, when Spain won the World Cup in South Africa, La Roja boasted a squad with the average age being 26.
Fast forward four years. That same Spanish team is the seventh-oldest team in the 2014 World Cup. While Spain continued their short passing strategy to a certain degree of efficiency — the Spaniards ranked first among 32 teams in group play with 1,703 passes completed, according to fifa.com — younger teams showed more burst and in the end, scored more goals in the group stage.
The Netherlands, who are the eighth-youngest team in this World Cup, leads all teams in the group stage with 10 goals scored despite completing just 73 percent of their passes. Belgium, the second-youngest team in the World Cup, sits comfortably at the top of Group H with six points. Emerging stars like Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard have aided Belgium in advancing to the Round of 16.
Soccer powerhouse Italy suffered an agonizing defeat against Uruguay. Diego Godin’s header prevented the Italians from reaching the knockout stage for the second consecutive World Cup. As Italy failed to meet hefty expectations and wilted away in the Brazilian heat, Costa Rica rose in their place.
Before the 2014 World Cup commenced, many international pundits didn’t believe Costa Rica had the physical and tactical necessities to advance to the Round of 16, even if Arsenal forward Joel Campbell was on the team. These pundits analyzed Costa Rica and scoffed at their chances of making it out of a group that consisted of 2011 Copa America champion, Uruguay; Euro 2012 finalist Italy; and England. But what the pundits couldn’t analyze was the amount of intensity brewing in the hearts of these youthful Costa Rica national team players.
Three games later, Costa Rica sits atop Group D and will advance to the Round of 16. The Costa Ricans, whose average age is 27.60, haven’t relied too heavily on any one attacker to get the job done. In fact, not one player on the Costa Rica national team has scored more than one goal. The team has shown a great deal of balance in their attacking strategy. Costa Rica’s four goals in the group stage were scored by four separate individuals, Campbell being one of them. The average age of Costa Rica’s goal scorers: 24.5.
The United States’ national team looked like a fresh slab of meat to be grilled and consumed going into the “Group of Death.” Without leader Landon Donovan in the ranks was a cause for concern for the US because the Americans seemed to rely on him too heavily to get the job done. By Jürgen Klinsmann leaving Donovan off the US roster, it forced younger players to rise from beneath his shadow and shine on their own. Because of the Americans’ youth and talent, they have fared well against Portugal and Ghana.
The US, a clear underdog by many standards, has surpassed expectations and is now on the brink of advancing to the knockout round. Led by the broken-nosed warrior Clint Dempsey, the Americans appear as though they have what it takes to at least draw with the heavily-favored Germans.
Soccer’s biggest stage is entering a new age, one in which teams that were once the laughing stock of FIFA are now making pundits think twice about criticizing them. Age seems to no longer be a defining factor in winning games. Natural abilities translate better to the pitch than experience in most cases.
The unexpected has occurred at this World Cup, so don’t be shocked if someone other than Neymar, Thomas Muller, Lionel Messi or Robin van Persie proudly hoists the 18-carat gold trophy on July 13.