I watched the last two group-stage matches (Spain vs. Chile and Honduras vs. Switzerland) with a motley group of fans at Boomer Jack’s on West 7th, including a Madrid native wearing his Spain jersey in support of his country, a African-accented man who said he was rooting for Ghana tomorrow, and a Mexican businessman who wanted to see Honduras make a good showing. (Generous of him: I doubt there are too many Hondurans who want to see Mexico’s team do well.) Despite our widely varied backgrounds, we all found a common rooting interest, namely hatred of the Swiss and the boring, boring soccer that they play. We were all happy, then, to see Honduras hold Switzerland to a 0-0 draw, thus ensuring that Spain and Chile survive to the next round. Even though the thunderstorm this afternoon knocked out TV reception for 20 minutes in the first half (cue mutterings of “mierda” from my fellow fans), it was great to talk about the sport with fellow fans.
The bracket for the knockout stages is now set. I already ran through my thoughts on USA vs. Ghana in my last post, so let’s review the other seven matchups.
England vs. Germany
France and Italy are already done, and now another one of soccer’s superpowers is going to fall here. England struggled in what was supposed to be an easy group, while the Germans won theirs even with a ticky-tack red card keeping them from beating Serbia. That would seem to favor the Germans, but we all know that neither history nor group-stage performances guarantee anything in the World Cup’s knockout rounds. Scary as the Germans were against Australia in their opener, their performances since then have been merely decent. Plus, the Germans may be missing some key guys. We’ll see who these teams start and how they line up, but you won’t want to miss this headlining matchup in the Round of 16.
Netherlands vs. Slovakia
The Dutch have stolen a page from the Germans and won all their games without playing particularly well. Since they usually play fantastically in the group stages but then flame out later, maybe this is a good sign. The Slovaks performed beautifully in their win over Italy, but their defense still looked antsy in the game’s riveting latter stages. The Dutch haven’t quite found their offensive rhythm yet — will Arjen Robben returning from injury make the difference? If De Oranje’s offense continues to sputter, the pressure might do them in.
Argentina vs. Mexico
Everybody’s scared of big, bad Argentina, but I foresee matchup problems here. Argentina’s group-stage opponents were all either afraid to attack them (Greece and South Korea) or didn’t know how (Nigeria). Mexico won’t be afraid, and Argentina’s defense looks dodgy in the wide areas of the pitch, with converted central defender Gabriel Heinze and converted winger Jonas Gutierrez playing as fullbacks. The wide areas are exactly where Mexico likes to attack, and they will try to run at those guys. If Mexico gets their game on and Argentina still wins, I will be mightily impressed.
Brazil vs. Chile
This is one reason why I love the World Cup. Neighboring countries going at each other with everything to play for — what’s not to like? There won’t be any mystery here: Chile and Brazil played each other twice in World Cup qualifying (with Chile losing both games), and they’ll know exactly what to expect, with Brazil being industrious counterattackers and Chile lining up with that unorthodox attack formation of theirs. Chile will be missing two players for this game due to yellow or red cards, which isn’t how you want to face Brazil. I’m pulling for the underdogs here, but this might very well be the end for the Chileans.
Spain vs. Portugal
The “neighboring countries” thing goes here as well, though these teams haven’t played each other competitively in a while. Many of the Portuguese stars play in the Spanish league, so everybody knows each other pretty well. Major bragging rights are on the line, and either a pre-tournament favorite (Spain) or an intriguing dark horse (Portugal) goes down. This game could well get chippy the way the Portugal-Brazil game got, but it’s Spain who plays the most attractive soccer in the world with their passing and control. It’s how Brazil used to play; no wonder Spain have become a second favorite team to most people in the world.
Paraguay vs. Japan
Uruguay vs. South Korea
This is another reason why I love the World Cup: When do Paraguay and Japan compete against each other for any reason? The same goes for Uruguay and South Korea. The Latin teams have better finishers, the Asian teams are grittier, though I still say the Koreans are more versatile than the Japanese. Everybody’s got something to prove: Paraguay and Uruguay want to escape the massive shadow cast by Brazil and Argentina, while their opponents are carrying the banner for Asian soccer. It’s impossible to predict what’ll happen in either of these games.
The possibility for South American teams in all four semifinal slots is in play. Also, the two Asian teams could both make the semis, which would knock the soccer establishment on its ear even more effectively than having the two North American teams (USA and Mexico) make the semis. Of all the superpowers, Spain seems to have the easiest route to the final four, but we all know there are no easy games from now on.
I don’t want to leave without mentioning the unbeatable New Zealanders. I and many more knowledgeable soccer experts figured the All Whites would struggle to score a goal at this tournament, never mind gaining any points in the standings. Instead, they tied all three of their games and became only the fourth team in history to be eliminated from the World Cup without losing a single game. (Had Landon Donovan not scored that late goal against Algeria, USA would have suffered that same fate. Soccer newcomers may find it strange that a team can be knocked out without losing, but the system is designed to reward teams that win rather than settle for draws.) The Kiwis may be leaving the big soccer party, but they do so with their heads held high.