What an opening weekend.
Sepp Herberger, who coached the West Germans to victory in the 1954 World Cup, is best known for his quote, “The ball is round.” A blindingly obvious statement, he meant it can be moved to another part of the field in the blink of an eye — and the game can change in an instant.
After years of preparation and qualification, and with a month of soccer ahead of us, it took Croatia just 10 minutes Thursday to rip up the tournament script and take the lead against host and favorite Brazil.
It was the first own goal ever conceded in the World Cup by Brazil, the only country to have appeared in every tournament since its inception in 1930. Brazil looked like it could lose a competitive home game, which hasn’t happened since a defeat to Peru in 1975.
The Croatians, featuring lesser-known players from lesser-known English clubs, matched their illustrious opponents, who are splattered with Champions League winners from European giants. But at this level, soccer comes down to razor-thin margins: As Croatia pressed for the tying goal, Brazil keeper Julio Cesar made a great save, and the home nation slalomed straight upfield to add a third goal and secure the win.
If that match sent a tremor through the global soccer community, then the Netherlands shook it to the foundations Friday with a spectacular display against Spain. Everyone knew the Dutch were capable of winning — they’re talented and were out for revenge after losing to the Spanish in the championship game four years ago — but no one predicted a shellacking.
The Dutch’s 5-1 victory and their second-half performance — they trailed 1-0 at halftime, remember — was unprecedented against a team that has ruled international soccer for six years.
The opening days of the tournament have been characterized by shocks. The Australians are the lowest-ranked country in the tournament and, within 14 minutes, they were down to Chile 2-0. But as the commentators warned that the Socceroos could collapse in embarrassing fashion, they rallied, got back to 2-1 and took command for long periods. They almost tied it, only letting in a third goal in injury time.
Meanwhile, in the Group of Death … well, that will teach us, right? For the first time, we have three former winners — Italy, England and Uruguay — in the same group. All three are ranked in the top 10. And it was the fourth team — Costa Rica, the rank outsiders who didn’t even warrant a mention when this group was discussed — that has leapt to the top.
Costa Rica’s wonderful attacking performance (despite conceding the opening goal) that was full of poise swept aside the Uruguayans 3-1. Next up for the Central Americans is England, which narrowly lost to Italy 2-1 in an enthralling battle in the energy-sapping heat of the jungle in Manaus.
Elsewhere, the Colombians and French impressed in their 3-0 wins, while Mexico’s 1-0 victory against Cameroon contained my favorite World Cup moment so far: the ESPN commentator’s use of the fabulous oxymoron “slight domination.”
On Monday, all eyes are on Natal as the United States takes on Ghana at 5 p.m. The U.S. team has waited 1,450 days since its last appearance on the World Cup stage. Ghana has eliminated the U.S. from the past two tournaments — but at least we know that can’t happen Monday night.
Statistically, the vast majority of countries that win their first game qualify for the Round of 16. And, if you lose your opener, then it’s highly likely you will be on a plane home after the first round.
But the way this competition has played out in the first few days, it seems that anything — and everything — can happen.