The World Cup is only a week old and already it’s been packed with soccer shocks and surprises.
Wednesday, Spain, rated the best team on the planet by FIFA, crashed out of the competition when they lost 2-0 to Chile just five days after beginning their defense of the title. They had already been thrashed 5-1 by The Netherlands in the biggest defeat ever suffered by a reigning champion. The Spanish let in just two goals in the whole of the 2010 tournament — they conceded five in 36 minutes in their opening game! It is not so much a case of Spain’s crown slipping off; it’s more like the crown leapt to its death while stabbing itself repeatedly with a big knife on the way down.
The form book has been turned upside down this week, and the tone was set just 10 minutes in when Brazil, the hosts and favorites, fell behind to the first own-goal they have ever conceded in the finals. We saw the USA fly out of the blocks with one of the quickest goals in the tournament’s history, and Switzerland snatch a last-gasp winner with a strike in the final seconds of injury time. The Australians, the lowest-ranked country to qualify and better known for their love of cricket and rugby, were unlucky not to earn ties against the Dutch and Chileans.
The dark horse Belgium, studded with players from the cream of European clubs, almost slipped up against Algeria. For 70 minutes they huffed and puffed as they trailed 1-0 to the Desert Foxes, and eventually it was substitute Marouane Fellaini, labelled a waste of money after his disastrous $40million transfer to Manchester United a year ago, who made the vital breakthrough as the Europeans won 2-1.
In the opening round of matches at the last World Cup we had a total of 25 goals – this time we’ve practically doubled that as 49 shots have hit the back of the net. We’ve suffered just two goalless ties: in Iran, flag-waving supporters clogged the streets to celebrate their bore fest against Nigeria, while fanatical fans in Brazil were in tears that they had not scored against Mexico. The inventive Central Americans have been one of the surprises after a qualifying campaign that was so disaster strewn they were forced into a playoff with New Zealand just to get here.
Holland’s dismantling of Spain was a soccer master class, while equally spectacular and stunning was Costa Rica’s thrilling 3-1 triumph over Uruguay. In top-level soccer the first goal is usually decisive, but in both these contests the winning nation had initially fallen behind. In the whole of the 2010 tournament, just three teams who conceded the first goal went on to win. This year it happened four times in just the first eight games!
Meanwhile the Colombians, French and Germans all looked good both defensively and up front as they strolled to victories whilst keeping clean sheets, but Argentina - a moment of Messi magic aside - flattered to deceive before eventually overcoming a determined Bosnia.
Two innovations have been introduced at these finals. Goal-line technology (a beep sounding when the whole of the ball crosses the line) was used for the first time in history on day four in the France v Honduras match. The spray-can of disappearing form, used by referees to ensure that the wall retreats 10 yards from a free kick, is also on a global stage for the first time. In the Belgium v Algerian contest the Mexican referee seemed to be struggling with it, and rather than draw out a line along the grass, he frequently deposited a mound like a he was dolloping out Reddi-wip on an ice-cream sundae.
But to mix my sporting metaphors, it’s a marathon not a sprint. I was at the 1982 World Cup when Italy failed to win a game in the group phase, and only edged out Cameroon to qualify for the next stage because they had scored more goals as they had an identical goal difference. But they then defeated Brazil, Argentina, Belgium and West Germany to lift the title.
Four years later and an outrageously talented Danish team won every match in a tough section with West Germany, Scotland and Uruguay (whom they crushed 6-1), but then they were hammered 5-1 by Spain in the last 16. Spain in turn lost its opening game to Switzerland in 2010, but still went on to lift the title.
A good start is important at the tournament and a win can kick-off a successful campaign. But it’s not critical, and sometimes it is teams who stumble and bumble their way to the knockout rounds that grow in confidence and cohesiveness at the important business end of this soccer showpiece.
So it’s going to be a Japan v Iran World Cup Final. You read it here first.