All 32 World Cup 2014 teams have now played at least one game, setting the tone for a tournament not without its surprises—most notably Spain’s tumble from greatness (with Chile completing what the Netherlands started) and with Uruguay and Portugal on the verge of joining Spain in early exits. But for every disappointment (looking at you, San Iker) the tournament has included players who have excelled beyond expectations, and are helping to drive the narrative of what’s feeling like a very wide-open and fast-moving World Cup. Here are our surprise player picks for each group through the first game (and, in the case of Group A and B, a little bit more).
Group A: Guillermo Ochoa, goalkeeper, Mexico
To be fair, there’s a larger body of work to judge Ochoa by, as he’s registered clean sheets against both Cameroon and Brazil to put Mexico in good position to advance out of group. Against Cameroon, Ochoa saved a late-game diving header from forward Benjamin Moukandjo to seal the victory; on Tuesday, he faced an even more potent barrage of close-range shots and not only lived, but became he most talked about player in the World Cup. When transfer talk heats up post-World Cup, expect the currently unemployed (!) Ochoa’s name to be prominent.
Group B: Mark Bresciano, midfielder, Australia
Though Group B’s biggest overall surprise was how Netherlands so handily dismantled Spain, the 34-year-old Bresciano was one of the most-involved, best players for a Socceroos squad that hung tough against Chile despite losing 3-1. While Bresciano had an early exit in Wednesday’s heartbreaking loss against the Netherlands, he epitomized the heart and guile of the Aussies—who showed a lot more than their fellow 0-2-0 counterparts.
Group C: Serge Aurier, defender, Ivory Coast
The Toulouse right back, who very well may play in the Premier League, auditioned well in an entertaining match against Japan, assisting twice by making ambitious runs and audacious crosses to Wilfred Bony, who’s building his reputation at Swansea, and Gervinho, who’s reviving his at Roma.
Group D: Joel Campbell, forward, Costa Rica
With a timely goal and an even more timely assist, Campbell helped the Ticos shock Uruguay, making Arsenal fans momentarily wonder if the striker they need can merely be called back from his loan to Olympiakos, and making World Cup fans revisit Costa Rica’s chances, even with England and Italy standing between them and advancement.
Group E: Haris Seferovic, forward, Switzerland
Coming on as a second-half sub, the Swiss striker provided the most dramatic moment of a World Cup filled with the good kind of drama. His near-post last-second goal, running onto the end of a cross to finish a full-field counter-attack, was worthy of any World Cup highlight reel—even this one. Though a case could be made for Valon Behrami for starting the break and taking it to midfield, it was Seferovic who likely toe-poked the Swiss into the Round of 16.
Group F: Mehrdad Pooladi, defender, Iran
Though Iran vs. Nigeria is being widely regarded as the tournament’s most boring game to date, Pooladi cleared a late goal attempt off the line with his head, and anchored a defense that held a frustrated Nigerian attack scoreless to the crowd’s chagrin—though Nigeria did their part to hold themselves scoreless, to be fair.
Group G: John Brooks, defender, USA
The obvious choice here—21 years old, his fifth international cap coming in the Americans’ World Cup opener as a half-time sub for an injured Matt Besler—and he not only manages to help anchor a back line absorbing so much Ghanaian pressure, he scores the winning goal with a corner-kick header in the 86th minute, and then stops a certain equalizer on defense mere minutes later. That’s not just surprising; that’s storybook. And US fans reacted accordingly.
Group H: Dries Mertens, winger, Belgium
Another of the World Cup’s subs who have scored, Mertens helped Belgium avoid a disastrous result against perhaps-too-lightly-regarded Algeria, and completed the revival of a swooning Red Devils’ offense that couldn’t bridge the gap between starter striker Romelu Lukaku and his midfielders.