world cup

A Good Day for España, and a Bad One for Dear Leader

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, Spain’s return, and a tough day for Dear Leader.

Same story, different ending. Spain against Honduras featured more of what we saw in Spain’s last game: La Furia Roja controlling possession to such a degree that you started to feel bad for the opponent. Of course, last time Spain lost the ball just often enough to lose 1–0 to Switzerland, so there was no need to feel badly for the Swiss in the end. This time it was different, as David Villa broke the team’s scoring drought early in the game with the best goal of the tournament so far. He took possession out on the left wing, dribbled past two defenders, made a burst into the box, then cut back to torch a third defender. Then he veered right and began to slide, but shot the ball into the upper corner as he was falling to the ground. Villa struck again shortly after halftime and would have had a hat trick had he not completely choked a penalty kick, shooting the ball wide when he had an entire half of a goal open. Spain’s 2–0 victory was the first game in Group H that did not finish 1–0.

The Spanish are a great side to watch — they’re so efficient and creative on the ball — but sometimes their superior skill can actually be frustrating. Such was the case late in this game when everyone but the Spanish seemed to know that another goal would be a huge asset in a group that could finish in a three-way tie (which means that one team with six points won’t move on). For the final twenty minutes, La Roja truly toyed with Honduras, gathering around the outside of the penalty box for minutes at a time as if they were waiting for someone to deliver them a round of drinks. Often, a crew of attackers would make one, two, even three passes too many past the point at which any other players would have fired on goal.

“It’s almost self-indulgent, really, the buildup,” said announcer Martin Tyler as he watched the Spaniards dick around outside (and inside) the box.

Here’s hoping Dear Leader’s cable was out. I think most people expected Portugal to beat the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, as the team’s coach has asked reporters to refer to North Korea, but I thought this game would at least be competitive. After all, the Koreans more than held their own against Brazil, which rolled over Ivory Coast yesterday, and again looks like the favorite. And though this sounds impossible if all you’ve seen is the score, the Koreans actually did get off to a decent start. They even had some chances to score.

I feel like every time I watch this team I learn something fascinating that may or may not be true. So mysterious are the North Koreans that the announcers could well just make things up and we’d have no choice but to believe them. In their first match, I was told that North Koreans can’t own refrigerators. This game’s “fact” was that Jong Tae-Sae, the team’s talented striker, actually had a choice of citizenship, and chose the North over both the South and Japan. Somehow, that one seems even more unlikely.

I change the subject because the match went completely sideways soon after Jong Tae-Sae blew one of those few early chances. And I’m sure by now you’ve seen the score: Portugal 7; people who must buy fresh food daily, lest it spoil on their shelves 0.

I’ve read a few stories in which writers claimed to feel conflicted when watching the North Koreans play. If you don’t have a horse in the race, it’s natural to pull for the underdog, but what if that underdog is your nation’s sworn enemy? For the Portugal match, they wore white, which had the added effect of making them appear far less communist-y. They looked more Swiss than anything.

The last time the North Koreans qualified for the World Cup was 1966, and they pulled off a miracle, upsetting Italy en route to the quarterfinals, where they met Portugal and took a 3–0 lead before melting down and giving up five straight goals.

This was a little like that, only without the three-goal lead. After a slow start played in the sort of cold, soaking rain that only northern Europeans would find comforting, the Portuguese woke up from their two-game snooze in the 29th minute and then made like the rain, pouring it on from there. By the 82nd minute, it seemed like every Portuguese attacker had scored except for the one who was supposed to score the most. But then even Cristiano Ronaldo got in on the act, scoring a nifty goal that was only accidentally spectacular. A defender tackled the ball, which bounced up onto Ronaldo’s back, and then his neck, before falling nicely onto his foot, at which point Ronaldo knocked it in and then laughed at his own dumb luck.

Barring a miracle, Portugal is through to the knockout round. Brazil has clinched and even if Portugal and the Ivory Coast finish with identical 1–1–1 records, a likely outcome at this point, the Elephants would have to make up a nine-goal differential. It’s a lot to ask.

In which the Swiss continue to defend as if they actually took sides. If Switzerland were ever to decide to abandon its neutrality, the national soccer team would provide an excellent motivational tool for its army. So stout is the Swiss defense that the team set a record in yesterday’s match versus Chile for the most consecutive World Cup minutes played without surrendering a goal. In the 67th minute, Switzerland passed Italy, having maintained a zero in its opponents’ column on the scoreboard for 551 straight minutes. And despite losing a man to a questionable red card early, the Swiss held the line against a relentless attack from the Chileans, who are fast becoming my favorite team to watch. (Behrami Valon could have been sent off for his terrible hairdo, but the “elbow” he threw was a yellow at best; the red card was also Switzerland’s first ever at a World Cup, which I guess isn’t so surprising when you think about it.)

For many of the 90 minutes, the Chileans were charging at the Swiss defense and were led again by dynamic young Alexis Sanchez, who, if he could only finish, would be a near lock for the all-tournament team. Finishing, really, is the only thing the Chileans can’t seem to do well, and with a goalie as good as Diego Benaglio, it was a struggle yet again for the team in red. That is, until the scoreless streak was finally broken in the 48th minute, when Sanchez drilled one home and then ran into the corner and commenced a celebration that continued for an awkwardly long time after everyone else on the field was aware the goal had been waved off on an offside.

Up a man and on what was essentially a 60-minute power play, the Chileans were bound to break through eventually. But again and again the Swiss held the line — including at least three or four times on what seemed to be certain goals — until finally, in the 74th minute, the siege ended. Mark Gonzalez, a Chilean born in South Africa, of all places, headed down a beautiful chipped cross, and the ball narrowly missed the leg of a Swiss defender and bounced into the net. Streak over.

If the Chileans could only finish like the Brazilians, they’d have ten goals already. I already can’t wait to see them play Spain.

I hope you enjoyed the extra sleep. Wait: Isn’t everyone structuring his/her days around soccer? Perhaps not. Anyway, today is the first day without a 7:30 a.m. game; the final round of the group stage requires games in the same group to be played simultaneously, so that the result of one game does not influence the performance of a team in another. It’s also the day we say good-bye to South Africa, which is a bummer for the locals, and France, a team of guys who probably are not excited to return home for an extended torture session. Mexico-Uruguay should be good fun, and Nigeria needs to pummel South Korea to have a shot. And then tomorrow things get even better. (USA! USA!)

A Good Day for España, and a Bad One for Dear Leader