I love it when the designated patsies at these international tournaments decide to go off script and show up to play. The North Koreans were widely assumed to be headed for oblivion in Group G, but there they were making Brazil labor mightily. New Zealand did even better, as Winston Reid’s last-gasp goal salvaged a 1-1 draw against Slovakia for what was supposedly the World Cup’s weakest team. Lightly regarded Japan recorded a win over Cameroon, which occasioned a mild, “How did that happen?” among observers. The big shock was the Swiss at long last doing something interesting at the World Cup with their 1-0 win over Spain. I watched that game with a couple of Spain fans, and they were mightily pissed. You would be, too, if your team fired 24 shots on goal and still came up empty. This is how little margin of error there is: Spain is now in some trouble. The prohibitive favorites leading up to this tournament must now win both its remaining games against Honduras and Chile. Which they still should do. However, if they have another game where they can’t find the net like this, the opponent won’t even have to score to put mighty Spain on the brink of early elimination.
England’s press went predictably simian excrement over the draw with USA, but they’re in a calmer mood now that they see soccer’s other superpowers struggling. Not only is Spain in trouble, but France is practically out (more on that later). Netherlands and Brazil netted unconvincing wins. Only Germany was truly impressive in their first outing.
After some concern over the lack of goals scored during everybody’s first game, things have picked up. Uruguay banged in three goals against the host country, and then Argentina managed four against South Korea. Huh Jung-moo, the coach of the latter team, went with an overly defensive lineup instead of attacking Argentina, and his team wound up paying the price. Now, with the chaos in Group A, Argentina may have a greased rail to the quarterfinals. Then again, neither Uruguay nor Mexico (the teams most likely to advance out of Group A and face Argentina in the round of 16) will be afraid of them. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if one of those teams decides to test Argentina’s defense.
Also, Nigeria lost to Greece after an incredibly stupid red card drawn by Nigerian central midfielder Sani Kaita, who shoved and tried to kick Greece’s Vassilios Torosidis during an exchange on the sideline. Torosidis didn’t do much physically to incite Kaita, but I wonder if he said something. The Greek left back may have exaggerated the damage from Kaita’s actions, but there’s no excuse for Kaita losing his temper like that in the first place. Kaita’s ejection left the Nigerians down a man for the rest of the game, and the Greeks seized the initiative, with coach Otto Rehhagel removing a central defender for a striker. The Greeks wound up winning 2-1, and could have easily scored more. At last, we’ve found the key to the Greek offense: Having an opposing player thrown out. It was a terrific game, with the Greeks laying siege to the Super Eagles’ goal and the Nigerians creating a few chances on the break with their speed. The Nigerians aren’t officially eliminated yet, but they need a miracle in the last game.
Let’s spare a thought for our neighbors to the south, as Mexico records a historic 2-0 victory over France. It’s their first-ever victory over the French, unless you count the Battle of Puebla. It’s also their first-ever victory at the World Cup over any of the sport’s established superpowers. Mexico well deserved it, too, surviving a few scares in the early going to spend most of the game creating good scoring chances and playing attractive soccer. Let’s see if El Tricolor can put together a run here.
Meanwhile, the French are a disgrace. There’s been a black cloud hanging over the team for months now, and everybody but the coach seems to see it. If Franck Ribéry’s morals charge wasn’t bad enough, the reports of locker-room dissension and the warmup game loss to lowly China were signs of something seriously wrong. Now a team with some of the best offensive players around has failed to score any goals so far, and their loss to Mexico isn’t as shocking as their lack of fight. Their players were smiling and joking on the sidelines in the latter stages of the loss yesterday, as their World Cup campaign is falling apart around them. We can’t say au revoir fast enough to les Bleus.
France’s loss was also bad news for South Africa. The host country is usually given a kind draw at these tournaments, because FIFA wants them to do well. That’s why no host country has ever failed to advance out of the group stages, not even USA in 1994, probably the weakest World Cup host team ever until this year. Sadly, the Bafana Bafana are in a bad place after their loss to Uruguay. Three things need to happen in order for them to get through their group. They need to beat France, which is eminently possible given the home field advantage and how bad a time the French are having. Someone needs to win the Uruguay-Mexico game, rather than having the game come out in a draw. And the margins of victory in the two games need to add up to a lot. Of course, Uruguay and Mexico could play for the tie, knowing that that’s all they need to assure qualifying for the next stage. That probably won’t happen, though, because these two teams have met a few times in the last few years and have developed a strong dislike for each other, and also because neither team will want to face Argentina in the round of 16. There’s still some drama left to be played out here.
Spain’s fans are blaming the goalkeeper’s girlfriend for the country’s loss to Switzerland, but even weirder news is filtering out of North Korea’s camp. Their coach made headlines by claiming that the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, is giving him coaching advice during the games via invisible mobile phones invented by Kim Jong-il himself. Wow! I couldn’t have made that up if I tried. The team may be outside their country, but their handlers are keeping them secluded from the soccer party beyond their training camp. Oh, and FIFA is beaming a video feed into North Korea in hopes that it might educate the population about what it’s like in South Africa. No word on whether it’s working, though the games are shown on considerable tape delay, with notably neutral commentary on how South Korea’s team is doing. North Korea and South Korea had to play qualifying matches against each other to get to this tournament, but Kim Jong-il and company didn’t want the south’s flag displayed in their country, so they voluntarily gave up their home game against South Korea, holding it in China instead.
ESPN insists on referring to the country as Ivory Coast, following the lead of its sister network, ABC-TV. The same goes for the BBC and the New York Times, as the English-speaking world used that name widely for many years. This despite the fact that the Ivorian government asked in 1998 to be known as Côte d’Ivoire, reflecting their history as a French colony. Whatever their name, they may be Africa’s best hope for some team putting together a run, with the home team and Nigeria flailing, Cameroon riven by locker-room disputes, and Algeria having little hope in the first place.
A few more notes on the USA-England match: Someone re-created a highlight reel in Legos. And this analysis of the game makes a persuasive case that USA coach Bob Bradley won the tactical battle with Fabio Capello in that game. The list of coaches who have outsmarted Capello is very short. I haven’t been one of Bradley’s biggest fans during his time in charge of USA, but we’ll all have to remember this in the future when assessing Bradley a manager. I’ll have more after Friday morning’s USA-Slovenia game.