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World Cup 2014: Highlights, lowlights and surprises

SoccerBrazilFIFA World CupHighway and Road TransportationHistoryPope Francis
Memorable World Cup moments include Tim Howard's saves, Costa Rica's punch and Luis Suarez's bite
Contrary to expectations, Brazil was weak on the pitch but put on a good tournament

Thirty-one days, 64 games, 12 cities, 171 goals and one bizarre assault, with Uruguay's Luis Suarez biting an Italian opponent. This World Cup had it all.

Brazil, the host country, proved to be better at party planning than at soccer (who would have guessed that two months ago?), U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard stopped more shots than Kevlar and Argentine superstar Lionel Messi once again came up short, while Germany once again came out on top. So before we leave Brazil, here's a look back at 10 memorable moments, in no particular order:

Suarez leaves his mark

Suarez already had the nickname "The Cannibal" before this World Cup.While playing for club teams in Europe he was suspended twice for biting opponents, yet he did it again in the final game of group play in Brazil, sinking his teeth into the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. Uruguay won the game to advance to the knockout phase, but it did so without Suarez, who received the longest suspension for an on-field incident in World Cup history: a four-month ban from all soccer activities. And Spanish club Barcelona, which signed Suarez to a five-year deal last week, included a clause in the contract that will fine Suarez up to $5 million if he can't keep his teeth to himself.

Brazil and the boo birds

The Brazilian government will have spent more than $13 billion on this World Cup, by the time all the accounting is done.

But the Brazilian team, the betting favorite to win the tournament, didn't even get a bronze medal. The last time the country played host to a World Cup, in 1950, its national team lost the final at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium. So this time around the national team was told second place just wouldn't do -- and the players complied, finishing fourth.

Brazil gave up 10 goals in its final two losses, including seven in a six-goal loss to Germany in the most one-sided semifinal in World Cup history. Brazil followed that with a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third-place game. Along the way Brazil fans, who had their hearts broken, watched their star player, 22-year-old striker Neymar, have his back broken on a rough challenge from Colombia's Juan Zuniga. Luckily for Neymar, that spared him from having to participate in the two embarrassing losses. But Neymar wasn't the only one who made an early exit here. ...

Early exits

Former World Cup champions Spain, Italy and England all flew back to Europe after the first round. Spain, the first defending champion to be eliminated in its second game, left no doubt about its incompetence, losing its first two games by a combined score of 7-1. And England, which hadn't bowed out in the group stage since 1958, didn't win a game here, stumbling into just one point with a scoreless tie with Costa Rica.

FIFA discovers America – and Costa Rica

Costa Rica had made it out of the first round just once in its history, and in Brazil it came without a hopeof reaching the quarterfinals. But the Central Americans won their group, beating former world champions Uruguay, Italy and England, then eliminated Greece on penalty kicks before falling in the quarterfinals in a penalty-kick shootout with the Netherlands. That last game will go into the record books as a draw, though, meaning Costa Rica was unbeaten in this World Cup.

This was a good tournament for CONCACAF, the regional federation of teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean. With Mexico and the U.S. also making the second round, only South America saw a higher percentage of its team advance out of group play. And for that you can thank Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who gave up just two goals in five games. And while we're on the subject of great CONCACAF keepers. ...

Howard's saves

U.S. goalie Tim Howard turned in a performance for the ages in his team's overtime loss to Belgium, making 16 saves, the most in a World Cup game since FIFA began tracking the statistic. Unfortunately for Howard, two of Belgium's 38 shots slipped past him and his U.S. teammates could answer with just one goal, sending the Americans home one game into the knockout phase for the second consecutive World Cup. Still Juergen Klinsmann's U.S. team made a good impression, beating Ghana, settling for a tie in its second game when Portugal scored in the final minute, then holding Germany to just a goal.

World Cup fever?

More than 200,000 World Cup tickets were sold in the U.S., more than in any country outside Brazil. And American fans created a stir wherever they went, filling stadiums from Manaus, in the Amazon, to Salvador, the former colonial capital on Brazil's Atlantic Coast. "It almost felt like a home game," U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "Being far away and having all those fans there for us was just an amazing feeling."

Back home, World Cup games shattered and re-shattered ratings record on English- and Spanish-language TV -- and those ratings didn't include the hundreds of thousands of people who filled stadiums, parks and other venues to watch U.S. games at viewing parties. "FIFA is definitely amazed by the interest this World Cup had — and has — in the U.S.," said Jérôme Valcke, secretary general for soccer's global governing body.

Emerging stars

Colombia had a group of great young players, led by James (pronounced Hah-mez) Rodriguez, the 23-year-old wunderkind, as his team reached the quarterfinals for the first time in its history. Rodriguez's six goals in five games earned him the Golden Boot as the World Cup's top scorer, but best of all, Rodriguez wasn't afraid to show his joy — and sorrow — during the tournament, celebrating his goals, then breaking into tears when Colombia was eliminated in a loss to Brazil. Although he's a year younger than Rodriguez, Brazil's Neymar wasn't really a revelation here since he was well-known before the World Cup began. But it was surprising how quickly Brazil faded after Neymar was sidelined by a fractured vertebra. The national team netted just one goal after Neymar went out. ...

Gooooooolllllllllll!

And speaking of goals there were a lot of goals — a record-tying 171, in fact, in this tournament. They came both early (Clint Dempsey scored 30 seconds into the U.S. opener with Ghana) and late (Algeria Abdelmoumene Djabou scored 121 minutes into his team's loss to Germany). Five players even netted goals against their own team, including Brazil's Marcelo, who scored the first goal of the tournament for his Croatian opponents.

Brazil 2014: Inviting and gracious

While Brazil was surprisingly bad on the soccer field, the tournament was surprisingly good. Construction delays, an overwhelmed transportation system, street protests and a tournament schedule that situated games in a dozen far-flung locations were supposed to cripple this World Cup. But aside from a few minor problems, the tournament went off without a hitch. Air travel was quick and efficient. The stadiums were attractive and clean if devoid of personality. And the Brazilians were inviting and gracious hosts to more than 700,000 foreign visitors in June alone, hailing from 186 nations. The Brazilians were also protective, with approximately 170,000 security personnel fanning out across the continent-sized country. But through it all, Brazilians kept the faith.

Pope versus Pope

For soccer fans, Sunday's final between Argentina and Germany was a battle between Europe's top team meeting the best of South America. But inside the Catholic Church, it was an internecine rivalry between the reigning Pope Francis, a devout fan of Argentine club San Lorenzo, and his German-born predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who is believed to support Bayern Munich.

This was a first for both the church and the sport, because the last time there were two living popes, the inaugural World Cup was still 634 years away. The Jesuit Post made light of the holy war, tweeting out a cartoon of the popes watching the game together with the tag, "This is sooo happening in Rome on Sunday."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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