2014 World Cup: The Zebras of the Americas

When a soccer match ends in a surprising or unpredictable way, Brazilians often use the popular expression deu zebra or "it was a zebra." The term applies to games where weaker teams beat stronger ones or when key players are outperformed on the field. 

Zebras in the wild. Photograph by Chris Johns for National Geographic. 

Zebras in the wild. Photograph by Chris Johns for National Geographic. 

Like the animal, "zebras" are fairly rare. But in this World Cup, an incredible herd of surprises have come galloping from the Americas to scare off the mighty lions during this group stage. 

In Recife's Arena Pernambuco, Costa Rica defeated the 2006 World Cup champs Italy 1-0. Captain Bryan Ruiz scored in the 44th minute with a header into Gianluigi Buffon's arch. The "Ticos," who are ranked #28 by FIFA, were considered the underdogs in the "group of death." Their fate was later sealed Tuesday in the city of Natal, when Uruguay's celeste eliminated the Italian team from the Cup with a goal by Diego Godin and a bite from Luis Suarez that left its teeth marks in Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder. 

Chiellini shows his injury to the referee (Photo by Reuters)

Chiellini shows his injury to the referee (Photo by Reuters)

Colombia also advanced to the round of sixteen after leading its pack with victories over Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan. The South American team is classifying into the round of sixteen for the first time in 24 years with nine goals in its favor. 

The rarest and most amazing zebra of them all was spotted in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium, when Chile eliminated the current World Cup champ Spain from the tournament with a 2-0 victory. Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz both managed to break down the European team's defensive line surrounding captain Iker Casillas goal post and land two powerful shots into the net. 

Ironically, this happened as the country's King Juan Carlos, an avid hunter who was accused of poaching endangered species, stepped down from the throne. 

Spain's Sergio Busquets on the floor after missing decisive goal opportunity (Photo by Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Spain's Sergio Busquets on the floor after missing decisive goal opportunity (Photo by Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Mexico also guaranteed their spot in the next round with a 3-0 victory over Croatia Monday. This comes after the "tri" were nearly eliminated from participating in the Cup last October. The victory was celebrated with mass celebrations both in Brazil and Mexico. But no one seemed happier than the team's coach, Miguel "El Piojo" Herrera

Mexico coach Miguel "El Piojo" Herrera celebrates goal on sidelines (Photo by Petr David Josek/AP)

Mexico coach Miguel "El Piojo" Herrera celebrates goal on sidelines (Photo by Petr David Josek/AP)

America's lions are the ones that seem a bit more tame so far. Although Brazil and Argentina are both guaranteed spots in the next round, we have yet to see much jogo bonito from either team beyond their star players Neymar and Messi. 

Regardless of where we go from here, this Cup has belonged to the Americas. Fans from all over the region have shown their colorful stripes throughout Brazil's twelve host cities, packing stadiums and Fan Fests with flags and flare. Six Latin American team have already moved on to the Round of 16. Even if our zebras do become extinct by the final, many of these Cinderella teams have made history and played beyond most of the rest of the world's expectations. 

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A version of this blog post was also published by "America's Quarterly" on June 23rd, 2014.