Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, a look back at a shocking upset, and the best day of the Cup so far..
España, no! Here's a fact that won't go over big at your local tapas bar tonight: No team has ever won the World Cup after losing its opening match. That's not great news for Spain, the top-ranked team on Earth, winners of 45 of its previous 48 games, including a world-record 35 in a row leading up to last summer's loss to Team USA, and twelve straight heading into the World Cup against Switzerland. So dominant is this current generation of Spaniards that Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal midfielder who is expected to fetch up to $50 million during this summer's European transfer season, doesn't even start for his national team.
Cue ominous music.
The Switzerland team that Spain drew in its opening match hadn't surrendered a goal in its last four World Cup matches. It was a disciplined but unexciting bunch that specialized in the bend-but-don't-break strategy we saw deployed by Kim Jong-Il's loyal legions just this past Tuesday. And from the first toot of the vuvuzelas, Spain did what Spain does: It controlled the ball with an intricate dance of passes directed by its dueling midfield stage directors, Xavi and Iniesta (both of whom also star for Barcelona). Every opponent is the Washington Generals to Spain's Globetrotters — a bunch of guys chasing the ball around hoping eventually somebody will miss it and give you a chance or two.
The Swiss played gamely along — a willing ball of string batted around by a bunch of well-organized cats. They sat back, gave ground and then, just before Spain could get a good shot off, they closed down the lane, or deflected the pass, or pushed the play out wide where it was far less threatening. Also, their goalie Diego Benaglio kicked ass.
Defense is a great strategy for equalizing unequal teams, but it's certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Not that the Swiss care. Their official national stance, after all, is neutrality. A 0–0 tie would seem to be the ideal result, and that's exactly how the score stood at halftime.
Spain kept at it in the second half, testing the Swiss defense over and over, to no avail. They push forward so furiously — they are the Red Fury, after all — that at times ten of the eleven men will be in the attack, and their defenders must run 100 miles a game, attacking and then defending. The one problem with that strategy is the counterattack, as the U.S. showed last summer.
You can see where this is going. A long goal kick led to a quick charge, and, in the 51st minute, Switzerland scored. Fittingly, the goal was ugly — if you converted the film to black and white, sped it up, and added some piano music, it would look like a snippet of Keystone Cops involving a scrum of dudes, a ball bouncing off backs and shins, a foot to the face and in the end, a Swiss player standing in the right place to take advantage of what soccer people call a garbage goal. But you know what? They all count.
Ahead 1–0, the Swiss went back to holding the fort. Passes went inside, outside, and in between the Spaniards fired away. Fernando Torres, the great striker, came off the bench and joined the attack. Xabi Alonso hit the crossbar so hard that it nearly knocked over the goal. Like a swarm of red bees, they just buzzed around the box, and yet they couldn't score. They didn't score. And they lost. Despite controlling the ball for 70 percent of the game, despite outshooting the Swiss 25 to 9, despite taking twelve corners to Switzerland's three. It was a total domination in every way but one: the score.
And now the Spaniards have to beat Chile.
And beating Chile will not be easy. It was suggested by some of the always friendly commenters recently that I don't understand soccer enough to appreciate the beauty of a 1–0 game. Might I gently suggest that this ignores the fact that I was talking about low-scoring games involving Slovenia, France, and Italy – games that had all of the appeal of a Pirates-Royals double-header – and not, say, low-scoring games like Argentina-Nigeria (which was awesome) or Chile versus Honduras (which was also awesome).
Man, the Chileans are fun to watch. The core of this team finished third in the 2007 under-20 World Cup, and now older and complemented with a cluster of experienced players, finished second in South American qualifying, scoring 32 goals in the process (just one fewer than Brazil). They are quick, talented, and entertaining as hell, and this was without their star forward, Humberto Suazo, who scored more goals than anyone else in South American qualifying.
No matter — they still had Alexis Sanchez. The 21-year-old Sanchez is currently on the roster for Holland's Ajax club but looked so good in this game that I'd put him right at the top of the list of players likely to be purchased by top European clubs after the World Cup is over. He was everywhere and did everything. Except score, that is. The Chileans — like the Argentinians, the Spaniards, and the Ivorians — could certainly improve their finishing.
Looking forward, Spain versus Chile could be one of the most exciting games of the first round, both because the two teams play fun, attacking soccer, and because Spain basically has to win that game. That means it'll push forward, opening its defense to counterattacks from a team designed to do just that. Expect fireworks. Woo hoo!
A game that has no winners. It's hard to feel good about South Africa versus Uruguay, unless you're from Uruguay. The local favorite now has the ignominious claim of being the first-ever host nation to go winless in its first two games. Of course, one of those wasn't a loss — it was an impressive tie versus heavily favored Mexico in the opener — but still, Bafana Bafana is going to have to beat France, and hope Mexico fails to win a game, to advance. That's a tall order.
The game was so-so, but it was so-so at an enjoyable pace, featuring more non-threatening play performed while sprinting than any I've seen yet. Whole stretches involved a Uruguayan collecting a sloppy South African pass and sprinting 50 yards, only to lose the ball ... and off the South African track team would go, sprinting to the other side of the field, where the ball would be passed harmlessly away. It was often as if the teams were running suicides at some sloppy track meet.
In the end, it was the Diego Forlan show. Uruguay's star striker, a bust at Manchester United but now one of the best players in the Spanish La Liga at Atletico Madrid (he led La Liga in goals this year), opened the scoring with a distant blast in the 23rd minute, a nice strike that got an assist from a deflection that appeared to change the trajectory of the shot from one of those rising-to-orbit Jabulani jobs to a wildly dipping ball that fell just under the crossbar. Luck may get an assist on Forlan's shot, but Young Michael Bolton certainly earned it; he was everywhere in this game — ranging back to collect the ball and start the attack, making runs into the box, easily beating two or three men off the dribble.
He's great and Uruguay deserved to win, but I don't feel great about it. Viva Bafana Bafana.
And lastly, Cristiano Ronaldo — please shut up. Look at what Portugal's pretty boy said to reporters yesterday after the match:
"Referees should protect the more skillful players when they are getting fouled by the opposition."
If this were a player who weren't famous for whining, and diving, someone might actually take him seriously. But Ronaldo went on:
"One of their players fouled me in the first half and I got a yellow card for it. I don't understand it. When it is three against one, as it was with their players against me, it is not fair to book me. Sometimes it is difficult for me when referees give fouls because they think I dive."
You know why they think that, asshole? Because you do.