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World Cup 2014: The "Zebras" of the Americas

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

Like the animal, "zebras" are fairly rare. But in this World Cup, an incredible herd of surprises have come galloping in 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. Costa Rican captain Bryan Ruiz scored in the 44th minute with a header into Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon's arch. The ticos,who are ranked #28 in the world by FIFA, were considered underdogs in a "Group of Death" that also includes Uruguay and the now-eliminated England—but they lead the group and have secured a spot in the second round.

Colombia is also leading its pack, with victories over Greece and the Ivory Coast. Its next match against Japan shouldn't influence Colombia’s position, since the cafeteros  have already scored five goals during the tournament. 

The rarest and most amazing zebra of them all was spotted in Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã stadium, when Chile eliminated defending World Cup champ Spain from the tournament with a 2-0 victory last Wednesday. Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas and midfielder Charles Aranguiz both managed to break down the European team's defensive line, surrounding Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas’ goal post and landing two powerful shots into the net. 

Ironically, this happened just after Spain’s King Juan Carlos—an avid hunter—stepped down from the throne

America's lions are the ones that seem a bit more tame so far. Although Brazil and Argentina continue to hold strong standings in their individual groups, we have yet to see the stellar performances expected from Neymar da Silva and Lionel Messi's teams.  

Today is Mexico’s chance to secure its spot in the round of sixteen with a victory or tie against Croatia. Brazil's canarinhos also play Cameroon—and should classify, as long as a rare African zebra does not suddenly emerge.

Regardless of where we go from here, this has been America's Cup. Throughout Brazil's twelve host cities, fans from all over the region have shown their colorful stripes, packing stadiums with flags, costumes and chants. Even if our zebras do become extinct by the final, many of these Cinderella teams have made history and played beyond most of the world's expectations.

*Flora Charner is an AQ contributing blogger and a multimedia journalist based in Rio de Janeiro and New York.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: 2014 World Cup, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica

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