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Five enduring on-field moments from the 2014 World Cup

Written by Will Parchman

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The 2014 World Cup’s been in the ground for more than six months now. Morose thought, and even worse when you consider the vast carpet of days and months and years stretching out to the horizon between now and the next one. But a handful of monumental moments live on in the retelling, and these five deserve a special place on the top shelf of the World Cup’s panoply of memorable moments.

Pirlo’s dummy against England

Andrea Pirlo is the coolest damn dude on the planet. He’s also world soccer’s on-field equivalent of Rico Suave. Pirlo had his wine and cheese moments in Brazil, namely a nearly brilliant free kick that donked the crossbar against England. But the true crucible of his careless brilliance came earlier in that England game when he dummied a cross that led to Claudio Marchisio’s opening salvo.

On Pirlo’s Richter Scale of importance, this one might not seem all that high. But how many players have this kind of brilliant nonchalance at the World Cup? To sense Marchisio’s positioning and use his own reputation as the decoy? The man is an artist, and this was his Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Neymar’s goal against Croatia

Was this really happening? Could Croatia be leading host Brazil a mere 11 minutes into the 2014 World Cup?

Marcelo’s own goal assured neutral observers of at least a modicum of drama during the event’s curtain-raiser in Sao Paulo. For Brazil, it had to feel like a bad joke. Poised on the edge of a blade, Brazil nervously watched the next 18 minutes unfold like a fever dream. Finally, in the 29th minute, Neymar of all people pulled the ripcord and the canopy feathered into life overhead.

Neymar’s goal, which was sawed off the side of his foot, signaled an important moment in Brazil’s modern soccer history. Neymar was given the coveted No. 10 jersey for the World Cup as a 22-year old, a sign that the future of the team largely rested at his neon-encased feet. That he scored Brazil’s first goal (and second, a well-taken penalty in the 71st to win the match) of the 2014 World Cup was an important milestone, to say nothing of the fact that it soothed a nation of frayed nerves. It officially pressed the baton into Neymar’s palm. Whether or not it was the prettiest goal of his career, it was undoubtedly the most important.

Arjen Robben’s dive against Mexico

On some level, soccer is a game of driven narrative. Watch England in a penalty shootout or Brazil’s wispy attackers against a hulking back line or Mario Balotelli in an emotionally volatile situation and you’ll get the idea. The game isn’t a walking script, but it helps backlight proceedings. And Arjen Robben’s dive, which earned the Netherlands the game-winning penalty, was a pre-set screenplay from a soap opera. An amazing soap opera.

Look at this trifecta of narrative: you had Mexico’s late World Cup collapse in a knockout game despite playing well for most of the match, Robben using his prodigious Dark Arts to earn a decisive penalty and notorious hatchetman Rafa Marquez on the other end of the card. If J.J. Abrams had something to do with this, blink twice.

Also, Mexico lost. The cosmic injustice of Mexico advancing beyond the U.S., which so graciously gave Mexico its World Cup spot to begin with, would’ve been too much to bear. Thanks, awful referee. No Era Penal indeed.

Robin Van Persie’s Flying Dutchman header

There were a lot of great goals at the World Cup, James Rodriguez, Tim Cahill and David Luiz’s among them. But van Persie’s absurd flying header was so other than, so blindingly unique and impossibly skillful that it has to be considered one of the best World Cup goals not just of 2014, but of all time.

Credit served, of course, to Daley Blind for the cross, but van Persie seemingly judged this for maximum watchability. The amount of ground the ball still had to cover after it connected with his head meant van Persie needed to generate added torque to the ball’s second flight. With a cross as lengthy as this, most strikers are content to simply snap down a header at all, let alone go horizontal. But van Persie is not most strikers. And this was not most headers.

But why do we really remember this goal? It isn’t simply because of van Persie’s preternatural ability to judge the ball’s flight path, or the brilliant cross, or even the fact that it was a goal at all. It was the aesthetics of it. Van Persie’s arched back and fluid verticality belied the mechanical difficulty of the game itself and pointed toward something decidedly more artistic. If soccer is indeed a game of artistry, of stylish virtuosity, then this goal should hang in a place of prominence in the game’s Louvre.

Rodriguez’s goal, for the record, won the Puskas Award. No.

John Brooks’ winner against Ghana

So the rest of the world might not have Brooks’ workmanlike header to win a group match against Ghana on their list as one of the most memorable moments of the World Cup. But since we’re ‘Mericans, our lens is redder, whiter and bluer than most. And Brooks’ goal was vitally important, if not for the U.S.’s World Cup hopes than simply for perception.

World Cup performances live in a kind of suspended stasis for four years. During the period in between World Cups, your national team is defined by its performance at the last one. For all its pre-2014 success, Spain’s embarrassment in Brazil utterly changed the course of its story. It’s no longer a nation at the height of its power. It is a faltering national team cracking with age and in the midst of a painful transition. And it will be that way for years. Regional tournaments like the Euro and Gold Cup only move the needle so much.

That’s why Brooks’ goal was so seismic for the U.S. In view of a lead that got away against Portugal and a sound 1-0 loss to Germany that was nowhere near that closely contested, Brooks’ snap-down header off a corner with mere minutes left to gift the U.S. a 2-1 win over dangerous Ghana was a crucial stepping stone. If the USMNT is now in a place where knockout qualification is a baseline must, then this goal, which rescued the team’s only three-pointer in Brazil, was the U.S.’s biggest since Landon Donovan’s winner against Algeria.

So instead of sitting on the idea that the U.S. can’t even escape its group, the USMNT trudges toward Russia 2018 having at least held serve in Brazil. We have Brooks’ monumental goal to thank for that.

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