World Cup 2014: Land of Giants

I hate penalty kicks.

Most people think they’re exciting. Five players from each side trying to put five shots past the other team’s goalkeeper, while he tries to block as many as he can — the team that scores the most goals wins.

Still, I hate penalty kicks.

It’s because they’re not definitive. Just because five players from a given team can score more penalty kicks against another team’s goalkeeper, that doesn’t mean they’re the better team, not even on that day. Blocking a penalty kick is extremely difficult for a goalkeeper of even Memo Ochoa’s caliber.

And if penalty kicks are a definitive way of settling a football match, then why doesn’t it feel that way?

Costa Rica played 120 solid minutes against Holland on Saturday, the tide turning back and forth seemingly every 15 minutes. Both sides were evenly matched. The ticos appeared to have the antidote for a thus-far venomous Netherlands team.

Having predicted an easy win for the Flying Dutchmen (Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben are the deadliest duo in this year’s tournament), I was surprised to see how well Costa Rica neutralized my pick to win the 2014 World Cup, even outshining them at times.

Both sides were kept scoreless after 120-plus minutes, and in the end, the match was decided by penalty kicks. Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen rejected a shot from Bryan Ruiz. Ergo, Netherlands is the better team.

With that, the last of Latin America’s three Cinderella teams (the first two were Chile and Colombia) has taken their final bow. The Oranje go on to face Messi and the gang on Wednesday, while boring Germany will face equally-boring (and Neymar-less) Brazil on Tuesday.

I think we all agree that the best we can hope for now is a Brazil-Argentina final. A win for either side would be huge deal for Latin America.

Brazil needs to win the World Cup because they’re the host nation, because they’ve spent more on stadiums than any nation in history, and because if they don’t win, an already aggravated Brazilian public will likely set fire to the streets.

Argentina has to win because their new captain just might be the greatest player ever to kick a football, and he needs at least one World Cup championship to solidify his status as such. If he doesn’t, he’ll just be another Lebron James: great, but not the greatest.

I still believe this is the Netherlands’s year to hoist the cup for the first time. (Their having played in a World Cup final three times and never winning is the current record.) Germany’s the other strong team, but I don’t think they have the speed and inventiveness that the Dutch have.

No matter happens from here on, Costa Ricans can hold their heads up high knowing they have a world-class team, a team that went toe to toe with giants and took them to their limits.

[Photo: Tsutomu Takasu via Wikimedia Commons]