RIO DE JANEIRO – After 32 days of competition, Germany was hands down the best of the 32 teams and a fitting World Cup champion, and as the confetti rained down after Sunday's 1-0 extra-time victory over Argentina, coach Joachim Loew finally stood with his national team legacy intact and a decade-long mission complete after returning German football to the top of the sport.
Brazil fans joined the celebration at Maracana Stadium, too. Their national nightmare – rival Argentina raising the trophy on the most sacred of Brazilian soccer grounds – had been averted, and they let their South American adversaries to the southwest know about their satisfaction with full-throated songs of derision.
But when it comes to the World Cup, there is never a bigger winner than FIFA.
In the end, soccer's governing body got everything it wanted – beautiful new stadiums, surprisingly efficient transportation, high-scoring matches, record TV ratings and a perpetual stream of images of fans having the time of their lives plastered all over social media. An even more significant victory was the muting of the protests that overshadowed last year's Confederations Cup. They were nowhere to be seen, at least not within view of the international media's cameras, as the focus remained squarely on the football much to the delight of FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Brazil president Dilma Rousseff.
But after traveling around the country and seeing the situation up close, it was clear that the outspoken proponents of improved services and functioning infrastructure were the biggest losers. Whether it was roads in desperate need of maintenance outside Natal or the abject poverty not far from Arena de Sao Paulo, you could understand why people here would gather and scream at the top of their lungs about $500 million spent on Maracana's second renovation in seven years or the $300 million used to build a world-class soccer stadium in Manaus, an Amazonian jungle city with no top-tier soccer team and little use for a 40,000-seat venue requiring millions more to maintain.
Yes, in many ways the 2014 World Cup can be considered a success. But it can also be regarded as a failure – a failure to recognize and prioritize what matters most.
As for the events on the pitch, here is how the big-picture win-loss column stacked up.
Winner: James Rodriguez
No player stands to cash in more on the World Cup than the 23-year-old Colombian, the tournament's breakthrough star with the cover boy good looks. It's just a matter of time before the Golden Boot winner as the tournament's top scorer (six goals) makes the big-money move from French club Monaco to Spanish power and European champion Real Madrid. Rodriguez was so good that another famous James (LeBron) had to share the sports spotlight.
Loser: Lionel Messi
The Golden Ball winner as the tournament's top player did everything he could to lead Argentina to the World Cup final. But he fell short in willing his country to its third world title, and for that indiscretion he will continue to be regarded just a notch below Argentine legend Diego Maradona.
The 27-year-old Messi may not get another chance to escape Maradona's shadow and add the one thing missing from a glorious résumé already befitting of all-time great status. But life, and soccer, is not fair that way.
Loser: Luiz Felipe Scolari
He has already paid with his job for the debacle that quickly became Brazil's World Cup. Unfortunately for Scolari, he will not be remembered for leading the Seleçao to the 2002 world title anymore. Forever etched in his legacy will be the score line of 7-1, the humiliating semifinal defeat to Germany, now known as the worst day in the lives of Scolari and his countrymen.
The Barcelona star is the only member of the Brazil team who leaves the tournament with his reputation not only intact but also somewhat bolstered. A fractured vertebrae sidelined him before the fateful game against the Germans and the nation sympathized with him for the pain he endured after getting kneed in the back by Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga.
Loser: Cristiano Ronaldo
Remember him? The reigning World Player of the Year battled a nagging left knee injury in the final months of his club season with Real Madrid and he never looked comfortable in Brazil. That didn't lessen the burden of having to carry a Portugal side out of the Group of Death. He kept those hopes alive with one moment of brilliance against the United States but it only delayed the inevitable for the Portuguese, who were eliminated despite winning their group finale against Ghana.
For Ronaldo, 29, this was likely his last chance at World Cup glory.
Winner: Luis Suarez
Had he kept his cool against Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, only the soccer world would've known about his unsavory habit against defenders who frustrate him. But no, Suarez could not help himself and now the whole planet knows about his penchant for munching on opponents. While The Bite Ridiculed Around the World earned him a four-month ban from FIFA, it did not stop his dream move to Barcelona. So yes kids, crime does pay.
Winner: DeAndre Yedlin
Tim Howard was anointed the new American hero after his defensive display for the ages against Belgium, but no U.S. player stands to benefit more from the World Cup than the 21-year-old defender. His electrifying performances off the bench caught the eye of clubs in Europe, namely AS Roma in Italy and Liverpool in England, and it's looking more and more like Seattle Sounders FC will cash in on Yedlin's skyrocketing stock. He will get a significant pay raise as well from his current $92,000 MLS salary.
Loser: Paris-Saint Germain
The French league champions bought Brazil defender David Luiz from Chelsea for 50 million pounds ($85 million) and signed him to a five-year contract. PSG had better kept the receipt. Luiz was at the center of Brazil's 7-1 semifinal rout by Germany, failing to mark Thomas Mueller on the first goal and looking increasingly lost while the Germans added four more goals in a six-minute span. Luiz had one more mishap that led to a goal in the third-place game loss to the Netherlands to cap a perfectly disastrous defensive showing for a well-paid central defender.
Winner: Miguel Herrera
There was no bigger miracle worker than Herrera, who righted the sinking ship that was the Mexico national team during World Cup qualifying and inspired El Tri to a remarkable run that fell just minutes away from the quarterfinals. Herrera's sideline celebrations made him an instant Internet hit and his calls-it-as-he-sees-it attitude made for plenty of good quotes for a media corps resolved to not having any coach or player say anything remotely interesting.
How quickly the mighty can fall. Before Germany blitzed Brazil for seven goals, the Spanish's 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands on the tournament's second day was its most surprising result. But perhaps we should've seen the signs.
Like Italy in 2010, Spain brought an aging group to defend a World Cup title but sadly discovered it had rode its veteran core one tournament too long. Maybe La Roja's decline began last year at the Confederations Cup final, when they got pummeled by a Brazil team that we know now wasn't worthy of the pre-tournament favorite hype.
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football has rarely been taken seriously by the sport's world powers, but now maybe they will after three of four representatives – Mexico, Costa Rica and the U.S. – reached the round of 16. The Americans got through the Group of Death before pushing Belgium to the brink in extra time. Most impressive was Costa Rica winning Group D over former World Cup winners Uruguay, Italy and England and taking the Netherlands to a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.
Loser: Concussion awareness
Alvaro Pereira's head injury that knocked him unconscious and the ill-advised decision to let him play shined the much-needed spotlight on FIFA's lack of urgency and understanding about proper concussion protocols. The sight of dazed players being examined and then allowed to return minutes later became a sad running joke. FIFA has four years to get serious about concussions and ensure responsible practices are in place by Russia 2018.
Winner: Major League Soccer
The question "Can MLS prepare players for the World Cup?" was answered with a resounding yes. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Kyle Beckerman all played integral parts in the U.S. advancing to the knockout stage, New York Red Bulls star Tim Cahill scored the second-best goal of the tournament with his rocket volley against the Dutch and Toronto FC goalkeeper Julio Cesar came up big twice in Brazil's penalty shootout win over Chile. If MLS is ever to get the American sporting public to pay attention to its rapidly improving league, now's the time.
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- Luiz Felipe Scolari