Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil and Croatia: A World Cup bracket full of recent heartbreak


After all of the thrills and unpredictable results which we saw in the group stage of this ongoing World Cup, one side of the knockout bracket managed to feature an interesting collection of teams, all with a potential motivation in common . 

The quartet includes the three runners-up from the most recent men’s World Cups, along with a fourth combatant with an ax to grind from the 2014 installment. If Morocco’s side is increasingly marked by unpredictability, the other half is indeed the bracket of redemption, between four programs looking to overcome recent (or semi-recent) near-misses.

The Netherlands

The heartbreak: 

In 2010 the Netherlands made a bold run to the final, boasting global stars like winger Arjen Robben, defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Wesley Sneijder at his peak, and Robin van Persie from his Arsenal heyday. 

Unfortunately, they ran into a near-unparalleled juggernaut in the final. Spain boasted unbelievable depth and the benefit of chemistry from a squad which had won Euro 2008 and was predominantly selected from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid’s rosters. 

It was among the most ill-tempered finals in men’s World Cup history, with Howard Webb showing 14 yellow cards — with a staggering nine alone to Dutch players. Somehow, Nigel de Jong wasn’t shown red for a horrific challenge which saw him plant his cleat firmly into Xabi Alonso’s sternum. Johnny Heitinga suffered the ignominy of getting sent off in extra time after being shown a second. 

“I think it was good there was no VAR,” he told The Athletic this week. “Otherwise there was some more red cards.”

Less than ten minutes after Heitinga headed to the dressing room, Andres Iniesta was able to get a shot past Maarten Stekelenburg, and the Dutch went home without the title. 

The aftermath: 

While manager Bert van Marwijk stuck around for the next cycle, he was swiftly dismissed following his side’s three defeats in as many matches at Euro 2012. He was succeeded by Louis van Gaal, who had also briefly held the post from 2000-2001. The key players from 2010 returned for the 2014 World Cup, supplemented by up-and-comers like Memphis Depay, Stefan de Vrij and Georginio Wijnaldum. This time, their run ended in the semifinal against Lionel Messi in his prime, settling for a win in the third-place match over hosting Brazil.

As van Persie and Robben aged, the Netherlands lost their way. They failed to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, returning to major tournament action for Euro 2020 but falling in the round of 16. 

The holdovers:

While the entirety of the 2010 runners-up squad is out of the picture, two of the 2014 3rd-place winners are on this current roster in key roles: Depay and Daley Blind. Van Gaal himself returned for a third term at the helm despite undergoing prostate cancer treatment in April.

What they’re saying

“In 2014 we finished third with a squad I would say was of lesser quality. With this group, I would expect more.” – Louis Van Gaal

(Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)


The heartbreak: 

As alluded to in the Dutch’s “aftermath” section, Messi was in blistering form heading into the 2014 World Cup. After winning the Ballon d’Or every year from 2009-2012, he was in the midst of the Messidependencia era of FC Barcelona as they navigated life without Pep Guardiola. 

Similarly, Argentina funneled absolutely everything through their icon as play kicked off in Brazil. His four goals in the group stage helped Argentina to harvest all nine points and set them on a run to the final. Sure enough, the knockouts served as a crash course to pit the world’s best player against Germany, the world’s best team. After a first half goal was whistled offside and Gonzalo Higuain missed a gifted one-on-one with Manuel Neuer, it was Mario Götze who joined the rank of World Cup match-winning scorers rather than Messi.

The aftermath: 

The 2014 World Cup was the first in a series of major tournament letdowns for Messi’s Argentina, followed by Copa America defeats to Chile in 2015 and 2017, after whichMessi briefly retired from Argentina duty before a coaching change and nationwide demonstrations convinced him to continue on for the 2018 World Cup cycle. 

It was hardly a storybook comeback story, as Argentina labored to get out of a middling group before falling to France in 2018. After finishing third in the 2019 Copa America, it seemed as if Argentina would never win a major tournament in the Messi era. That all changed in 2021, of course, as Ángel Di María stepped up with the match’s lone goal to give Argentina a famous 1-0 win over Brazil in a final hosted in Rio de Janeiro. 

The holdovers:

Messi is playing in this tournament, as you’ve likely heard by now. But he’s one of just two holdovers from eight years ago, joined as usual by Angel Di María. Nicolas Otamendi wasn’t involved in 2014, while the two strikers younger than Messi on that runner-up roster (Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero) each retired over the past year. 

What they’re saying

“It’s a pity given all the chances we had in that game. We had the better chances and, well… we’ll regret the chances we had but couldn’t score for the rest of our lives.” – Lionel Messi on the 2014 final.

(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)


The heartbreak: 

Is it fair to call a surprise run to a final and an ensuing defeat “heartbreak?” It’s up for debate with this Croatia side, which finished third in 1998 but had exited in the group stage in all three subsequent World Cup appearances. A round of 16 exit in Euro 2016 gave little reason for further optimism, even with Luka Modric in otherworldly form with Real Madrid and a pair of Ivans (Rakitic and Perisic) capably leading the transition into the final third. Aafter appointing head coach Zlatko Dalić (without a contract unless they qualified for the 32-team field), the players put aside a cycle’s worth of animosity to reach newfound cohesion — and, ultimately, secure a place in Russia. 

They hardly found it easy to book a date with France in the final. Croatia needed all 120 minutes and penalties to get past Denmark and Russia before finally taking care of the result in extra time against England in the semifinal. Perhaps due to their series of advancements on the finest of margins, France entered as a decided favorite. Les Bleus ultimately toppled the tournament dark horse by a 4-2 margin.

The aftermath: 

It wasn’t always convincing, but their silver showing in Russia changed global perceptions of Croatia. Dalić was awarded an extension through 2022, and he’s given no reason to abdicate his post. It was surprising, then, to see them fall in the round of 16 for a second consecutive Euros last summer. They navigated a tricky group in Qatar, finishing second behind fellow quarterfinalist Morocco as Belgium went home early.

The holdovers:

Modric is one of the sport’s truly ageless wonders, still an essential starter for 2021-22 Champions League winning Madrid. While he’s given second-billing status with Croatia, Ivan Perisic is one of just four players to score in the three most recent men’s World Cups, alongside Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Xherdan Shaqiri. In total, nine players from the 2018 side are back for redemption in Qatar, with Andrej Kramarić especially stepping up for the now-retired Mario Mandžukić (though he’s still with the team as an assistant coach under Dalić).

What they’re saying

“Something special was taking place. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, had come Dalic. Now everything was falling into place. People believed in us once again.” – Luka Modric

(Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)


The heartbreak: 

While Croatia (and, to a lesser extent, the 2010 Dutch side) are a stretch to give the “heartbroken” descriptor, there’s no question that applies to Brazil in 2014. 

Heading into their first World Cup on home soil since finishing second in 1950, all focus was on righting that generations-old wrong. Brazil won Group A and bested Chile in a round of 16 shootout, setting up another CONMEBOL showdown with Colombia in the quarterfinal. A 2-1 win hardly felt satisfying as the final whistle blew, as Colombia had taken the heart out of Brazil as Neymar suffered a tournament-ending injury.

An emotional team faced its date with Germany in the semifinalm, and what was supposed to be a de facto title game quickly devolved into chaos, gifting one of the most iconic scorelines in World Cup history and, indeed, the history of organized sports: 7-1.

You’ve surely seen the images, with men, women and children all equally likely to grace the broadcast with tears smearing their impeccably painted green-and-yellow faces. What was supposed to be the party of a lifetime had devolved into a nightmare, an even greater humbling than when Uruguay executed its “Maracanã Smash” to win in 1950.

The aftermath: 

The humiliation kicked off a rare down spell for Brazil, which exited in the Copa America quarterfinal in 2015 before failing to even advance from a group with Ecuador, Peru and Haiti in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, spelling the end of the Dunga era. With Tite appointed as manager afterward, Brazil fell in the quarterfinal to Belgium in the 2018 World Cup. 

The slump was finally busted as Brazil won the 2019 Copa America on home soil, 725 miles south of their 2014 house of horrors in Belo Horizonte. While they lost in 2021 to Argentina, they finished atop CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

The holdovers:

Neymar is arguably in even better form now than he was enjoying in 2014. He’s one of three returning members from that squad, joined by defenders Dani Alves and Thiago Silva (though Alves’ role at this point is as a reserve). 

What they’re saying

“Now he’s in a very good point, a good moment for him to show the real quality and the leadership because he has big, big character and can be a leader that Brazil expects. We’re in a moment that’s going to be very interesting because Messi is in his best moment, Neymar is in his best moment and they are two kings.” – Mauricio Pochettino  on Neymar. 

(Top photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)


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