By Erik Kirschbaum
Substitutes have been lighting up the scoreboards at the World Cup with dazzling performances that have sparked their teams back to life and secured wins or draws that have made their coaches look like geniuses.
When Germany fell 2-1 behind to Ghana late in the second half of their Group G match, Miroslav Klose came off the bench to equalise with his first touch less than two minutes later.
Klose’s goal not only saved his team from humiliating defeat but it was also the striker’s 15th World Cup goal, putting him level with Brazil’s Ronaldo atop the all-time scorers list.
An unusual accomplishment for a bench warmer? Not at this World Cup.
There are several theories as to why there have been so many goals scored by substitutes at the finals in Brazil.
The record-breaking 24th goal was scored on Tuesday and 18 percent of the total 133 goals scored after the last group stage match on Thursday were by substitues.
The previous World Cup record for goals scored by players off the bench was 23 in 2006 – or 16 percent of 147 goals.
By comparison, in 2010 in South Africa 15 of the 145 goals (10 percent) were scored by substitutes.
Some coaches have talked openly about the need to have 14 top players – not just the starting XI – primed and ready for action in this tournament in part due to the tropical heat.
Germany have used some of their best players off the bench in Klose, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
“With temperatures over 30 degrees and the high humidity, substitutes have special importance here and we need to use all three to bring new energy and impulses for the team – and not just replace someone,” said Germany coach Joachim Loew.
“It’s simply impossible to go all out for 90 minutes in these conditions, and using all three substitutes is a good way to really hurt your opponent,” said Loew. “I’m glad I’ve got so many good players. It can be a big advantage here.”
Brazil’s heat and humidity has taken a toll in particular on the defence and the heavy legs open up space for late chances.
On top of that, using all three substitutes strategically is becoming a part of smart modern soccer.
“I tend to focus just as much on those that aren’t playing,” said Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, whose team came from a goal down to beat Algeria 2-1 – with both goals scored in the final half hour by substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens.
“We have a very good backroom with very good substitutes.”
Wilmots pulled another rabbit out of the hat when he sent Divock Origi into a scoreless match against Russia and the teenager’s goal sent Belgium through to the second round.
“The substitutions paid off,” Wilmots said. “I took risks to win the match and it worked. Once again we snatched a win.”
Both goals in Russia’s 1-1 draw with South Korea were scored by substitutes. After Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev inexplicably fumbled a shot from Lee Keun-ho, Russia’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov saved the day with a late equaliser.
Netherlands got both their late goals in the 2-0 victory over Chile from substitutes – Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay, who now has two goals off the bench after scoring the winner in the 3-2 victory over Australia.
Humble Depay has an ideal attitude for coach Louis van Gaal.
“With incredible players like (Arjen) Robben and (Robin) van Persie, it is logical that I sit on the bench,” he said.
Van Gaal first tried to downplay his role in sending in the right player at the right time: “That’s luck,” he said.
But he added it was also his strategy.
“We analysed that Chile gives away more space in the last 15 minutes so if you field a creative football player you have a chance to cash in,” he said.
Substitutes gave the United States heart flutters and then heartbreak. John Brooks scored in the 86th minute to give the Americans a 2-1 win over Ghana but Portugal substitute Silvestre Varela scored a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw.
However, sometimes substitutions backfire.
Greece won a dramatic match against Ivory Coast by 2-1 when Giorgos Samaras scored a penalty in stoppage time after he was tripped by Ivory Coast substitute Giovanni Sio – a defeat that sent the Ivorians home and Greece into the second round.