Chile 1-0 Honduras
Switzerland 1-0 Spain
Uruguay 3-0 South Africa
We’ve made it through the first round of Group play today and the biggest upset was saved for last. Which got me thinking; every time a European supporter opens his or her big mouth to dismiss the football played in rest of the world (save Brazil), I now have a reason to put a smile on my face. While it is true that UEFA hosts the world’s best professional leagues, leagues that attract the best players from the six inhabitable continents to the various mega clubs that populate Europe, there has always been a disconnect between the quality of the domestic leagues and the quality of the international teams. Just look at England and Spain, arguably the best two domestic leagues in the world and two nations who hold only one World Cup between them (England, in 1966). When I hear the condescending arguments about how England, Spain, Germany and Italy should walk it over most of the teams in the World Cup, I simply say that the world is a big place and there are a lot of great teams out there, teams who can do the job on the day and take the big boys down.
And now, I have timely information to back me up; I can point to this year’s first round of The World Cup as proof in my pudding. Of the big four nations of European club football (england, Germany, Italy and Spain), only one team, Germany, walked out of the first round with a win. 1 win, 2 draws, and 1 loss against USA, Paraguay, Switzerland and (poor) Australia. Throw in Portugal you say? 1-3-1. What about dark horse Serbia? 1-3-2. Surely Slovakia will... 1-4-2. The Netherlands? Yes, we have a winner... against Denmark. 2-4-3. France! 2-5-3. Greece! 2-5-4. Little ol’ Slovenia? Hey, looky there, 3-5-4. The giants of Switzerland? Let’s save our surprises for later...
Meanwhile, teams from the rest of the world have played bright, entertaining football, salvaging an otherwise difficult first round; South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ivory Coast and Ghana have all been outstanding entertainers, with South Africa, Uruguay, Paraguay and Switzerland offering tight, organized counterattacking sides that may end up doing significant damage in the later games of the Group stages. South America is 3-2-0 in the Tournament, which should come as no surprise, really. Nothing more to say except that, club football aside, on the international stage, the European clubs seem to be doing a brilliant job of bringing in the best players from the around the world, and all of those sexy names on paper-- Lampard, Henry, Pirlo, Ribery, Torres, Villa, Xavi-- have been in tough, competitive encounters and come out looking like they have a lot of peers ready to battle them to the end.
Even more proof? Chile, who walked onto the pitch bright and early on Wednesday morning and played a very entertaining style of football to take down Honduras 1-0. It could have been much, much worse; Chile owned the ball in this match, using both wings to park the ball at the edges of the penalty area and bring in wave after wave of attack to Honduras, who played a single striker, Carlos Pavon in order to help control the midfield. It didn’t work at all, with Chilean players making smart, deft touches and really well timed runs all game long. Of the myriad of chances that fell to Chile, it was actually a decent piece of defending that did Honduras in; In the 34th minute, Mauricio Isla slipped in a cross from the right wing which Honduran defender Sergio Mendoza cut out, unfortunately right into the side of Chile’s Jean Beausejour, who bundled it into goal. Chile’s attack was relentless, and only a world class save from Honduran goal keeper Noel Valladares on a free header from Wilson Ponce, who dove in two feet from goal only to see his shot pushed away. Utilizing Isla and Jorge Valvida to spring attacks, Chile were a great team to watch and while Honduras struggled, they showed some real determination to keep this a one goal affair.
Save Of The Tournament: Valladares Saves From Ponce (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
With Chile sitting atop Group H, Spain and Switzerland took to the pitch and wouldn’t you know it, Spain pulled a Confederations Cup stunner out of the hat, falling 1-0 to Switzerland, a team they had never lost against in 18 previous tries. For all of the hype, hype that I know is true and which I firmly believe in, Spain looked absolutely mortal today, passing the life out of the ball, but rarely threatening the Swiss goal with any true menace. David Villa was starved for service as the incredibly overrated Sergio Ramos once again failed to deliver any threat from the deep right back position. Xavi and Xabi Alonso sprayed the ball around the park, constantly poking and prodding the periphery of the Swiss defense, but they never seemed to be able to penetrate the middle with the proper ball; even a well-weighted through ball from Xavi to Villa ended up in the hands of the brilliant Swiss keeper Diego Benaglio, who pwned Spain on the night. After Benaglio sent a goal kick down field which ended up at the feet of Swiss striker Eren Derdiyok, who rounded Casillas and turned head over heels; as Derdiyok did a cartwheel, his studs found the side of Gerard Pique's face allowing the ball to slide off of him and onto the feet of Gelson Fernandes, who tucked it away from the sliding feet of a scrambling Casillas. It was a Keystone Kops moment, with the Spain back line looking an absolute shambles, but it was 1-0 to Switzerland and they never looked back.
The Spanish Rearguard
This was a devastating, unexpected result for Spain; with Switzerland and Chile holding 3 points each at the top of the table, and Switzerland not having conceded a goal in 5 consecutive World Cup games (!!), Spain will need to win both of its remaining games to stay alive. The pressure is on, the chronic underachievers once again showing the world what they aren't made of. You want daunting? No team that has lost their first game has ever won The World Cup. Only 8% of the teams that lose their first game have advanced to the knock out stages. Serious, serious issues for Spain.
Fernandes Scores (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
And Round One came to an end with the huge upset. Pick of the litter in the opening round? Has to be Germany, who looked devastating against Australia and who should walk it from here. Worst? Gotta be Greece, who looked bereft of ideas, pace and a game plan in their 2-0 humbling at the hands of South Korea. Best surprise? Ghana, who overcame injuries to their star players to beat a tough Serbian team on a penalty and become a favorite to qualify from Group B. Biggest disappointment? Oh, that Spain, hands down. They have it all to do now. Can they get it together and make their way into the second round? If they fail to win the Group, they're likely looking at a round of 16 match against Brazil which, wow, that's really early in the Tournament for that game. The Swiss have blown the whole thing wide open. Spain?
Round two kicked off with the hosts South Africa kicking off against Uruguay in Group A. Today was Youth Day in South Africa, a day commemorating the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, when black South African school children protested the primacy of the Afrikaans language in school instruction. They were brutally gunned down on June 17 as the police attacked the students, killing hundreds. While the day is steeped in the memory, June 16 2010 was a day to forget for fans of the South Africa soccer team as they fell 3-0 to an inspired Uruguay. Diego Forlan, who has broken my Liverpool-loving heart on more than one occasion and who I mentioned as an absolute killer in my Group A preview, did it again today, bagging a brace against the Bafana Bafana, including a penalty kick in the final fifteen minutes that saw South African goalie Itumeleng Khune slide in on striker Luis Suarez and clipping his left foot, which somehow sent Suarez flying through the air and landed Khune a red card. If Suarez's simulation (to be fair, it was a penalty, but he made a huge meal of it) was an act of deception, there was no mistaking Forlan's mastery on the night; Uruguay's Number 10 was in command from all over the pitch, laying off great passes, making dangerous runs and even scoring a deflected bomb from a good 30 yards out. When substitute Álvaro Pereira tapped in a header in stoppage time, the Uruguayan players went wild, rubbing it in a little bit and sending the remaining South African supporters, heads in hands, into the cold night. It was the first Group stage loss for a World Cup host since the USA lost to Romania in 1994 and it was a painful way to end a painful day in the history of the nation. Still, if I were referee Massimo Busacca, I'd be staying in my hotel room for the next few days; despite the penalty being awarded and the necessity of the Khune red card, it will remain an infamous decision in South African footballing history, one that the hosts will struggle to overcome in their final game against France, but one they must if they hope to advance into the knock out stages. I can only imagine the empty seats once they're gone.
Go Diego, Go: Forlan Strikes (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Tomorrow promises fireworks, with Argentina battling South Korea in a real corker, followed by a France vs. Mexico match up that should help decide Group A. It looks like Uruguay has the goods, but we'll see what tomorrow holds...
Up Next: Day Seven