BOSTON — All 32 teams in World Cup 2010 have now played their first games, the round ending with a bang (or the lack of one) when Switzerland stunned defending European champion Spain 1-0.
Whatever home-field advantage South Africa might have had was squandered Wednesday, as the Bafana Bafana were crushed 3-0 by Uruguay. South Africa is now almost assured of being the first host country not to advance from the first round.
The first set of games of the first round is traditionally a cautious exercise, much like early rounds in a boxing match, with teams reluctant to take too many chances and risk an early knockout blow.
Still, we learned a few things about World Cup 2010 or at least have taken away some distinct impressions. In particular, we learned something about how the U.S. team plays and what it will face in its second match against Slovenia tomorrow.
Goals: They were certainly few and far between in South Africa, as precious as diamonds. At the 2006 World Cup, teams averaged 2.3 goals per game, tying an all-time low. In the 16 openers in South Africa, there was an average of only 1.6 goals per game — and there were just 26 goals scored compared to 39 in the first 16 games of Germany 2006. Only four teams — Germany, Netherlands, South Korea and Brazil — scored as many as two goals and only Germany, with four, scored more than that.
Goalkeepers: The offensive caution demonstrated by most every team meant few keepers were severely tested. There were perhaps three extraordinary performances in goal, by the U.S., Nigerian and Swiss keepers.
By contrast, there were as many amateur-hour blunders in the nets and, as fate always has it, they were all costly. England’s Robert Green memorably let the ball spin off his chest and arm and dribble into the net to gift the Americans. And Paraguay’s keeper whiffed when he went to punch out a corner kick, allowing defending champion Italy to escape with the tie.
Algeria’s keeper was punished even more when he let a soft shot elude him for the only score in a 1-0 loss. None of the offenders used the new, lighter Adidas ball, which everyone — but especially goalkeepers — complained about before the Cup even began, as an excuse.
The Ball: It is difficult for anyone to determine what can be attributed to the newly designed ball and what might be the effect of so many games at altitude as well as fields hardened by the winter chill. Still, some things became clear. If a player didn’t corral a pass, long or short, on first touch, he almost never caught up with the ball. And set plays seemed slightly less dangerous, as free kicks from dead-on tended to soar high over the net and few players demonstrated much control over headers. It is too early to be definitive, but the new ball may be a killjoy by making goals even harder to come by.
The Refs: There is always the fear that, for all the talent and tactics, some officiating blunder will ultimately loom largest. For example, Italy’s 2006 championship run got a boost from the ref when, in the final seconds of a scoreless game with Australia, the ref awarded the Azzurri a penalty kick on a non-foul.
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Through the first 16 games of World Cup 2010, only one, the scoreless tie between Portugal and Ivory Coast, was officiated poorly enough to become a frequent subject of lament by the ESPN crew. And there was only a single penalty kick awarded. Still, there will always be questionable calls and they will often prove to have significant repercussions: a red-card ejection for Australia’s best player, Tim Cahill; a narrow offside that was missed on Slovakia’s goal in its 1-1 tie with New Zealand; a yellow card given an Ivory Coast player when the great Cristiano Ronaldo took one of his patented dives, untouched by the defender. The odds remain that FIFA’s feeble excuses for rejecting all technological assistance will eventually come back to haunt them.
ESPN: Kudos to the ESPN announcing crews for their superb work. They have been smart, informative and, at times, funny, and they haven’t shied from criticizing teams, players and officials that warrant it. Extra credit goes to Host Broadcast Services, which provides the world feed, for muting the vuvuzela horns, making their incessant blare only annoying rather than painful.
Vuvuzelas: Not my instrument of choice. But FIFA did the right thing (did I actually write those words?) by taking no action to ban them. If they do cause communication problems on the field, they cause them for all teams. (And no surprise that the cheeky French, the team that is in South Africa on a blown call and an ethical lapse, complained the loudest.) Moreover, besides the delicate cultural and economic issues that a prohibition might raise, what next? With World Cup 2014 in Brazil, would they consider banning the samba in the stands? Personally I find the samba rhythms of the Brazil’s female fans more distracting than anything else I’ve ever heard or seen at a soccer game.
South Africa: The biggest problems to date — fans having trouble getting in one stadium, the American team caravan stalled by elephants, robberies of some journalists and others — have been but minor glitches. Still, one wishes organizers could have figured out how, for some of the low-demand games with plenty of empty seats visible, to get tickets into the hands of deserving youth teams.
Africa: Most fans are pulling for the home team and other African squads to perform well and to progress far in the tournament. But West Africa and North Africa are a distant piece and South Africa may be the only side from the continent with a true home-field advantage. South Africa did secure a draw against Mexico, but only Ghana among the African teams managed a victory in its first game.
Europe: The soccer world propagates the notion of European soccer superiority. But the European teams have never won a World Cup outside of Europe. (Brazil, by contrast, has won in Chile, Mexico, the United States, Sweden and Japan). South Africa is certainly a long trip for everyone, but didn’t require a time-zone adjustment for the European teams. Still, Europe finished the first round with a performance emblematic of mediocrity: four wins, four losses and five draws.
Four European teams ranking in the world top 10 — Portugal, Italy, England and France — managed ties while number-two ranked Spain lost its opener. Spain will now struggle to advance to the second round and, if it survives, may wind up facing Brazil, a game that many believed they wouldn’t see until the finals.
The United States: The surprising U.S. tie against England obviously boosts the Americans’ chances of reaching the second round of World Cup 2010. Still, the Yanks will likely have to gain at least another tie against Slovenia in their second match tomorrow if they hope to advance in South Africa.
To the uninitiated in World Cup soccer and the past travails of American teams in the competition, little and relatively low-ranked Slovenia (25th to the U.S.’ 14th and England’s 8th) might not appear too much of an obstacle. But Slovenia is just the kind of defensive-minded side that has always given the U.S. fits.
Moreover, historically the American team has lacked consistency. Indeed, it has been pretty consistently inconsistent. In 2002, after it stunned Portugal 3-2 and forged a tie against the host country South Korea, which would go on to the semi-finals, it got whipped by Poland and almost missed the second round. Four years ago, it followed up a tie against Italy, the only blemish on the Italians’ path to the championship, by losing to Ghana, sending it home after the first round.
The Americans were game in their opener and not intimidated by England. But they were hardly outstanding — only goalkeeper Tim Howard and right back Steve Cherundolo got highest marks from me — and the team was lucky to salvage a tie. With first-game nerves now behind everyone, they will likely have to perform better just to gain the same vital one point.
Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to include the result of the South Africa-Uruguay match.