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2014 World Cup: Looking back at the best and worst from a month in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO – After 36 days, 12 flights (with two more to go), nine live games in six cities, dozens of hours sitting in traffic and nearly that many pounds of beef, Planet Fútbol is wrapping up its long but eventful stay in Brazil.

But first, here’s a look back at the best and worst of the 20th World Cup – from the most exhilarating, surprising and disappointing moments on the field to the excitement and peculiar challenges off of it that come with covering the planet’s biggest sporting event.

We’ll start with the end:

Best Goal

Every player would love to score a golazo like the one Colombia’s James Rodríguez hit against Uruguay in the round of 16. His chest trap, turn and long-range, left-footed volley represented the perfect combination of technique and audaciousness.

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But Rodríguez’s strike was surpassed with fewer than 10 minutes remaining in the tournament, when German substitute Mario Götze scored the goal every player dreams of. André Schürrle’s run down the left was magnificent, his cross was inch perfect and the finish, somewhat reminiscent of Rodríguez’s, was as clutch as they come. Götze’s goal won a fourth World Cup for Die Mannschaft and was a worthy clincher. It would have been a fantastic strike under any circumstance.

But at that moment and that angle, it became legendary.

Low Point

There was no standout iconic match at this World Cup (from a competitive standpoint, anyway. Germany 7, Brazil 1 will go down as an all-time stunner) and there were some duds once the stakes really rose, despite the late drama brought on by penalty kick shootouts. The biggest letdown of all came on July 4 – henceforth known outside the U.S. as Jogo Bonito’s date of death.

Watching the quarterfinal slugfest between Brazil and Colombia was like enduring the final two minutes of an NBA playoff game for two hours. It featured a grotesque 54 fouls; captain Thiago Silva’s absurd yellow card that got him suspended for the semifinals; the host’s abandonment of its footballing principles; and, ultimately, the Colombian assault on Neymar that sent the country reeling.

Brazil’s World Cup hopes may have ended officially when it imploded against Germany four days later, but what was left of the Seleção’s unique aura vanished in Fortaleza as it hacked its way to a Pyrrhic 2-1 victory.

Best Story

Costa Rica. Drawn against three former world champions, the Ticos emerged as the tournament’s true Cinderella, finishing first in a group that included England, Uruguay and Italy. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was a breakout star, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell showed the rest of the world what CONCACAF already knew and the entire region earned a welcome measure of respect as the Ticos forged their way to the quarterfinals. There, the Dutch needed penalty kicks to advance. It was CONCACAF’s first appearance in the final eight since the USA made it in 2002.

Worst Story

Waste will be this World Cup’s ultimate legacy, at least in Brazil. The contrast between the modern opulence of the stadiums we visited in Manaus, Natal and São Lourenço da Mata (well outside Recife) and the surrounding cities was jarring. Twelve arenas were unnecessary for a tournament that requires a minimum of eight and in a country where the billions could have been spent so much smarter.

Most Compelling Performances Witnessed

Four stand out from the nine games I covered (not counting Pitbull at the opening ceremony):

Luis Suárez vs. England – The Uruguayan marksman was ruthless in dispatching the Three Lions in Sao Paulo. No matter how hard England worked, it was no match for Suárez’s opportunism. He could change the match in an instant. Without him, Uruguay simply was, well, toothless (sorry).

Tim Howard vs. Belgium. There’s not much more to say about Howard’s epic, meme-inspiring, 16-save effort. Cover enough games and the standard for amazement climbs pretty high, but it became pretty clear during the second half that we were seeing something historic. If Howard wasn’t at his best at the same stage in 2010, he certainly made up for it in Salvador. Let the adulation and endorsements roll in.

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Javier Mascherano vs. Netherlands. Lionel Messi may be Argentina’s best player, but Mascherano is its soul, and it was impossible to take your eyes off him during the semifinal against the Dutch. From his controversial return from a first-half head injury to the 90th-minute, game-saving tackle on Arjen Robben, the veteran midfielder was everywhere, willing La Albiceleste to the final.

Germany. The whole team. The conveyor belt of talent manager Joachim Löw could send onto the field was frightening. Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, Die Mannschaft’s best player during the final, missed most of the group stage. The World Cup-winning goal was scored by a substitute and set up by another substitute’s replacement. It was a mesmerizing embarrassment of riches.

Honorable Mention: DeAndre Yedlin vs. Belgium; Oscar vs. Croatia; Ron Vlaar vs. Argentina; and seeing Clint Dempsey become the first American to score in three World Cups.

I Was Right About

Kyle Beckerman. Doubting the Real Salt Lake stalwart’s World Cup prospects had been fashionable for the past couple of years, but all the evidence suggested he’d adapt and eventually thrive when facing a new challenge. He always had. Smart, hard-working and composed, Beckerman was constantly competent and often excellent as the U.S. finished second in Group G. There’s a reason teammates sing his praises. He’s unselfish, alert and puts the team first. His success was no surprise and his absence against Belgium was evident as the U.S. yielded a ton of space and a glut of golden scoring chances

I Was Wrong About

Jermaine Jones. At first, the German-American midfielder appeared more interested in putting a World Cup on his resume than in embracing the U.S. on or off the field. The chemistry seemed wrong and I feared he’d be a liability. Turns out, Jones was anything but. He sought a leadership role and delighted in his American roots, then he tailored his game to fit the national team’s needs. In so doing, he became a media and fan favorite here in Brazil and emerged as one of the U.S.’s outstanding performers. He deferred when necessary, defended with vigor and took advantage of his opportunities going forward. Jones’ goal against Portugal was one of the strikes of the tournament. He was intelligently robust. The doubts have disappeared.

Best U.S. Moment

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​John Brooks’ goal and ‘My God, what have I done?’ celebration against Ghana. We didn’t know much about the 21-year-old defender before the tournament. Born in Berlin, he’d played just four times for the senior U.S. squad and was not cap-tied (technically, he still could have represented Germany) until he relieved an injured Matt Besler in the World Cup opener. That dramatic header and his honest, humble and endearing reaction revealed his commitment to the cause. It was a wonderful introduction.

Worst U.S. Moment

Chris Wondolowski’s miss. He is American soccer’s great rags-to riches-story, and it was impossible not to be happy for Wondo as he forced his way onto the World Cup team precisely because of his ability to get – and then finish -- chances like the one that came his way in the dying seconds of regulation against Belgium. It wasn’t as nearly as simple at it first looked – a charging Thibaut Courtois was forcing Wondolowski to aim for the corner – but the U.S. striker mis-hit the half-volley, plain and simple. A quarterfinal against Argentina and an incredible chapter in that story was on his foot, and then gone, in an agonizing instant.

Best Sign for Jurgen Klinsmann

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The young players performed. The U.S. coach promised that Brooks, Yedlin and Julian Green were ready for prime time, and he was right. When they got their chance, they performed. Green looked a bit timid during the pre-World Cup friendly against Turkey but obviously settled in and scored with his first tournament touch vs. Belgium. Yedlin was fearless and dynamic in his appearances against Portugal and Belgium. Klinsmann started his German revolution in 2004 by looking for young, hungry and skillful players with range. He appears to know it when he sees it and has now identified a few in the U.S.

Worst Sign for Jurgen Klinsmann

The proactive soccer he promised wasn’t on display much during the World Cup. For all the talk about taking the game to the opponent, the U.S. was dominated for significant stretches of its matches against Ghana, Germany and Belgium. If not for qualities that already were present within the team – immense work ethic, great goalkeeping, etc. – the Americans might have left Brazil embarrassed. The U.S. conceded a tournament high (by far) 23.5 shots per game and managed only 11. It’s a testament to the power of Klinsmann’s message that no one seems to mind.

Best FIFA Media Perk

There aren’t many, but we’ll go with the free water bottles handed out by volunteers near most of the stadium media tribunes (it was unavailable at the Maracanã). Considering the lengthy climbs often required to access them, it was a welcome gesture. Honorable mention: The plastic iPhone cases handed out in Natal (more on that below).

Worst FIFA Media Perk

Lamps. There were lamps everywhere. They were placed (likely by the same volunteers) at every single seat in the vast, well-lit stadium media centers. And they crowded each desktop in the tribunes. I think I may have seen only one or two switched on in five weeks. Typically they were just thrown under the table during games to make room for our laptops. It’s painful to think about how much was spent on those lamps.

What I Missed In Brazil

A quick meal. There were so many occasions where I’d have given just about anything to walk up to a counter, order a burrito, hand over $10, shovel it in and get back to work. But Brazil, at least the one in which I traveled, still hasn’t embraced high-end fast food, for lack of a better term. Typically the choice was between junk or a snack (we all played plenty of cochinha roulette) and a full-service restaurant, which inevitably was a production that would at least take two hours. In a Sao Paulo pizzeria, our pies came with a waiter who stood next to our table of four with tongs, waiting to hand over the next slice.

What I Wish I Could Take Home

The fruit. And the fruit juice. At a restaurant in Rio, I tried a pineapple mint juice and a grape cocoa concoction. Both were incredible. I fell for farofa, the savory manioc flour that accompanies the meat, beans and rice. And when a meal finally was over, the server would run my credit card with a hand-held scanner right at the table. Those should be mandatory in the U.S. Although it’ll take forever to sort through all the tiny blue receipts.

Best Venue Visited

Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador. There was no more beautiful setting, on a hill overlooking the Dique do Tororó lake, and no stadium that was easier to work in. The media center was cozy and the tribune had its own entrance and bathrooms. Throw in the city of Salvador, with its picturesque colonial center, and you’ve got the best road trip of the tournament.

Worst Venue Visited

Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. Hard to get to, ugly and inconvenient, the stadium seemed like yet another waste of money in a city that doesn’t lack for places to see soccer (not to mention the harrowing thought that multiple people lost their lives in its construction). The hike through the congested bottleneck at the Itaquera train station then around the stadium and up the hill to the media center tested the patience on a warm day.

Worst Trip

Recife. The pictures of the flooded streets the morning of the USA-Germany game were seen around the world, and maneuvering through them was a scary and sobering reality check. One guy standing waist-deep in water at a gas station stuck his middle fingers up at our FIFA media shuttle as we drove/floated past, and it was impossible to blame him. A $230 million stadium an hour outside of town? Check. Decent drainage (in a city whose beaches are infamous for shark attacks)? Nope. Colleagues waiting on game tickets never got them because the U.S. Soccer staff member who had them wasn’t able to make it. They sat inside a bus outside the gates for nearly 12 hours.

Better than Expected

Air travel. Thanks in large part to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s media program, which arranged logistics while the U.S. remained in the competition, we were able to do our jobs with no significant delays or cancelations. Several of the flights were overnight, which had a physiological knock-on effect, but we all got to where we needed to go. As SI’s Grant Wahl said, it really wasn’t any more of a hassle than flying in the U.S.

Worse than Expected

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We were warned about crime four years ago in South Africa, and it never really materialized. We were warned about crime in Brazil, and we were taken aback. Multiple colleagues had their phones stolen. One was held up at gunpoint in Rio and relieved of his phone and laptop, although someone returned later and dropped his backpack off on the street with passport and camera still inside. Another had his credit card cloned. The bill approached $50,000. I got lucky. I dropped my phone in a taxi on my second night in Sao Paulo but had it returned several hours later by a different driver. It was passed to him for reasons I never figured out. Along the way, someone stole the case. But, they returned what was important. Brazil is a country of gray areas.

Best Memories

  • Brazilians singing the second verse of their national anthem a capella before every kickoff.
  • U.S. fans filling the area around the Arena das Dunas in Natal, turning the opener into a home game.
  • My 15 minutes on the unspoiled beach in Natal.
  • How good Argentina and the Netherlands looked wearing their traditional kits in the semifinal.
  • The camaraderie among U.S. reporters during a taxing group stage.
  • Putting my hand in the Amazon River in Manaus.
  • Debating Arjen Robben.
  • Listening to fireworks and horns sound off around Sao Paulo when Brazil scored.
  • Klinsmann's cheeky decision to send Wondolowski and Aron Jóhannsson to meet the media following Jozy Altidore’s injury.
  • Jermaine Jones’ sense of humor.
  • Michael Bradley’s fortitude.
  • Wearing a Neymar mask.
  • Our tour of Sao Paulo FC’s Estadio Morumbi, which included a mirrored players’ tunnel installed for a Madonna concert.
  • Evenings at Bar do Gomez in Santa Teresa.
  • Seeing a deserving champion lift the World Cup, literally. Four years ago in Johannesburg, the handover was obscured by an overhang.

Brazil got plenty right.