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Costa Rica and Colombia Never Really Had a Chance: A Theory of World Cup Upsets

There's a reason that the four teams left in have played in a combined 21 finals.

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

In the final minute of extra time in the Round of 16 match between Brazil and Chile, Chilean striker Mauricio Pinilla found a bit of space and smacked a rocket off the crossbar. Pinilla would end up immortalizing the moment on his own back by getting a tattoo that says “one centimeter from glory”.

In the final minute of extra time in the Round of 16 match between Switzerland and Argentina, Swiss midfielder Blerim Dzemaili rose above the Argentine defense and connected well on a header that hit the post. Just a couple minutes before, Argentine superstar Angel Di Maria found a bit of space and placed his shot perfectly in the bottom corner, sending the announcers into a frenzy. Dzemaili's near-miss would have sent the match into a penalty shootout. That it did was seen by many evidence that the Pope Francis I, who is from Argentina, provided a little bit of divine intervention for his native country. 

Algeria took Germany to the brink in their Round of 16 clash. Costa Rica forced a penalty shootout against the Dutch, coming very close to pulling off what would’ve probably been the biggest upset in World Cup history.

And yet, in the end, the semifinalists are these: Germany (three World Cup trophies), Brazil (five), Argentina (two), and the Netherlands (a three-time finalist). These four teams have played a combined 21 World Cup finals. None have been particularly convincing throughout the tournament. But all of them are playing with the weight of history on their side.

Gary Lineker famously said, “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” It’s a funny quote but there is also something to the sentiment. Why is it that the usual suspects always seem to prevail as World Cups progress to their final rounds?

Quality undoubtedly has to be a significant factor. In football the difference between a decent player and a world class player is actually quite slim–can be, indeed, a matter of centimeters. Di Maria, a world class player, buries his chance when he gets a bit of space despite having a horrible game in which he gave the ball away an astounding 51 times. Chris Wondolowski, who is a fine MLS player but nowhere near a world-class talent, crumbles under the pressure when his chance comes.

What separates the giants from the upstarts is as much mental as physical. Colombia had been lighting up the tournament with sparkling attacking play and a youthful vigor that captured everyone’s imagination. Brazil, on the other hand, have looked ragged, nervous, and wholly dependent on Neymar’s sparks of inspiration in attack. Yet when the two teams faced off in their quarterfinal match, Colombia looked scared, intimidated and overwhelmed for about the first hour or so. When you look at the five stars embroidered into that iconic yellow shirt, you start to replay all the moments of Brazilian World Cup glory in your head, reminding yourself of your own lesser stature.

This psychological dynamic works in the opposite direction as well: You often see otherwise workaday players raise their level when they play for one of these historic teams. Miroslav Klose’s legend is much greater than his actual ability because he’s been so successful for Germany in World Cup matches, despite a rather pedestrian club career. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie aside, this Dutch team is comprised of a series of no-name youngsters from the Eredivisie, yet they have looked very competitive throughout the tournament.

This World Cup has shown that the gap between the “smaller” teams and the big teams is narrowing. There have been few blowouts and the level of teams like Algeria, Costa Rica, Colombia, and even Bosnia-Herzegovina has been very high. But those teams are still a centimeter away from glory. In this sport, where there are so few goals, it’s that centimeter that separates the good from the truly world class.