The group phase is over, so it's time for an interim appraisal of this World Cup. To me there was one really huge surprise, one which in the end really wasn't so much so. Of course prior to the tournament I had not been expecting defending world champions Germany to crash out in the first round. But after their opening two matches it was no longer surprising, only sad. As deserved as the 2014 title was for Germany, so deserved is it that they have been eliminated.
Germany's team simply wasn't right in Russia
Not a single German player reached his normal form. Most of them had problems to battle with, be it exhaustion, age, injuries, lack of self-confidence. This above all applies to those players who were actually supposed to be team leaders, such as Jerome Boateng, Thomas Müller, Sami Khedira or Mesut Özil. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was the only one who performed to expectations. Otherwise nothing was in order with the team, either in the back or up front. There was no real team spirit, but instead many vulnerabilities and a lot of debate off the field. Given this, no unity and focus on winning the title could evolve like in 2014.
German trainer Joachim Löw put a lot of store in the old proven players and barely brought forth any of the young and fresh talents such as we admired last year at the Confederations Cup. And so Germany lacked freshness, pace, and the surpise element. The fact that four of the last five world champions have crashed out in the group phase certainly has something to do with complacency and insufficient motivation.
Löw is under pressure to rebuild; I'd understand if he walked away
Löw must now ask himself some tough questions as well as come up with a plan and above all the will to build up a new team all over again, especially due to the age issues of some of the players. He has done excellent work in the past, but now he is under real pressure again. I could well understand it if he said, I'll give someone else a chance.
Looking beyond the Germany issue, overall one can see after the group stage that the so-called smaller nations have caught up, that world football has closed ranks even more. For example, Morocco were, to me, better than Iran, Portugal and Spain in all three group matches. This showed the quality of the outsiders who have caught up physically and tactically and in the meantime have many players and trainers with experience in the major international leagues.
For the major nations, this World Cup is a warning that they have to be wide awake from the starting whistle. And it also has been seen that the ball-control style of play of the Spaniards but also the Germans no longer automatically leads to success. You have to change the rhythm of play more often.
Neymar is a wonderful player, but he needs to quit his antics
But having said this, I also believe that the longer the tournament lasts the better the major teams will prevail. I am still expecting some close results, but individual quality will tip the scales. In the groups, the teams that impressed me the most were England, Croatia and Belgium, and to a certain extent Brazil, who possess some very high individual quality. This especially applies to Neymar, and so he shouldn't find it necessary to provoke others, trying to gain penalties or rolling over five or six times on the ground after being fouled. He should stop such antics, which might start to harm him by getting the fans against him and make referees less inclined in the future to so quickly blow the whistle when he is fouled.
As for Argentina, I'm sticking with my previous opinion: This team is only strong if Lionel Messi can come through with a big performance. He succeeds in this with the national team only rarely because things are not so well-oiled as is the case at FC Barcelona. I do not believe that Argentina will get very far because their defence has a lot of coordination issues. I think that France will be the end of the road for Argentina. This is the highlight of the last 16, because it is two former world champions facing each other.
What I think will be exciting is Uruguay against Portugal. I said before the tournament that Uruguay will make it to the semi-finals. With regards to European champions Portugal, I have some major doubts. Till now it has been Cristiano Ronaldo and nothing else. If he has a really good day then they might make the quarter-finals. But I see Uruguay with the edge.
This also applies regarding Spain against the hosts Russia, Brazil against Mexico, Croatia against Denmark and Switzerland versus Sweden, although both the Danes and Swedes are physically very strong and well-organised. Colombia have a strong team, one that I have high regard for similar to Uruguay. Their match against England will certainly be interesting to watch. Japan are the clear outsiders against Belgium. I had actually been expecting either Senegal or Nigeria to reach the round of 16. Both just narrowly failed and in Senegal's case it wasn't from the results on the field but rather the fair-play rule. This is a shame for the Africans.
Maradona is one of the greats; it's sad to see him in his current state
A final word about one major ongoing issue during the group phase, Diego Maradona: He was a gifted player, the best midfielder in football up to the late 1980s. As a footballer he did a great deal of good for the game. But watching him in his current state up in the stands is, for me, one of two sad aspects of this World Cup. The other one? The weak showing and failure of the defending world champions Germany.