IT HAS been a great World Cup so far. That is a statement of the obvious by now, but think back a few days and ask yourself truthfully if you expected anything half as good from the first handful of games.
If you did, you were one of the few.
Up to now, long and soporific experience has taught us that the opening rounds of group stages in any tournament can be dull and tentative. I’ve lost count of the number of Champions League matches, for example, when a decision to watch only the second half has been vindicated as the first 45 minutes have passed by almost without incident.
Before this incarnation, something similar was true of the World Cup. First outings are about ensuring you don’t lose, aren’t they? Get a point and your tournament is up and running: greater adventure can wait for games two and three.
Not this time. Even in yesterday’s opening match in Group E, just as we thought Switzerland and Ecuador were about to settle for the first draw in the tournament, up popped Haris Seferovic to win it for the Swiss.
That made it nine games in a row with a positive outcome. Only one of those nine was settled by a single goal, and in that instance – Mexico’s Group A win over Cameroon on Friday – a couple of other “goals” should arguably have counted.
What is more, those early results have a knock-on effect of ensuring that the second round of matches – rather than just the third, as is often the case – contains some do-or-die encounters. Already, two of those promise to be especially momentous: the meeting of England and Uruguay on Thursday, after both lost their opening games and Spain’s encounter with Chile a day earlier, with the world champions’ presence in the tournament in the balance.
Even before the Spanish lost 5-1 to the Netherlands, there was a groundswell of opinion that, after three major trophies in a row, this would be a tournament too far for Vicente del Bosque’s squad. Nonetheless, the nature of their capitulation was a serious surprise, and an occasion for sadness, too, bearing in mind the sheer joy their play has given us.
Even if Spain do scrape through Group B – and a draw with Chile followed by a win over Australia could be enough – it is hard to see them going much further. That imperious dissection of Italy in the Euro 2012 final was surely the high-water mark of their greatness, and perhaps all that awaits them now is the slow ebbing of their powers.
It will be particularly sad to see Xavi, a man with the apparently effortless ability to complete several hundred passes before breakfast, bid farewell to the global stage. At 34 he still competes with the same assiduous humility, but either the vision to make the killer pass is not as acute as it was, or opponents have learned how to blunt the assassin’s blade.
As for the Dutch, no matter how extraordinarily well they played on Friday night, they still have a long way to go to live down their utterly cynical display in the 2010 World Cup final. Many of us who spent much of the 1970s idolising Johan Cruyff saw that performance four years ago as a complete betrayal of their heritage, and it will take more than the artfully arched back of Robin van Persie to persuade us that they have returned to the true faith. With that charmer Nigel de Jong still in the team, such attempted persuasion may in any case be doomed to failure.
More seriously, it will be interesting to see how long the Dutch can keep up the standard they set against Spain. Their readiness to fall out with each other and everyone else may exemplify the admirably anti-authoritarian streak in their country’s culture, but it’s a major drawback when it comes to sporting success. And in any case, even if they maintain their self-discipline better than ever before, playing at the level they reached on Friday night for the next month will be a pretty tall order.
As we kept on being reminded during that Netherlands-Spain game, the Spanish lost their opening game in 2010 and went on to win. A bit further back, Italy famously drew all three of their group games in 1982, stumbling into the next stage, yet ended up winning the tournament.
In the case of the Italians, reaching the second round had a lot to do with luck and very little to do with a well-judged economising of their energy. But once they had got those early games out of their system they sprang into life, beating Argentina and then Brazil in the second group phase to claim a place in the semi-finals.
Whether the Netherlands can beat two big teams in a row like that remains to be seen. Indeed, while Spain are undeniably a big scalp, subsequent results might suggest that beating them, even by such a big margin, is not so great a deal after all.
I’ve concentrated on the outstanding match of the tournament so far but, equally, all the other games have contained a lot to be enthusiastic about. Take Costa Rica’s comeback from a goal down to defeat Uruguay 3-1, for example.
With little more than five minutes to play, the game was still in the balance, with the Costa Ricans 2-1 ahead. Then they made a substitution, one which illustrated how badly some predictions can go wrong. The substitute in question, Marco Urena, was singled out by one of the many World Cup guides produced by newspapers as his country’s “weakest link”. The poor chap, we were told, had not scored a goal at club level since September 2010 – and we’re talking about a striker here, so no wonder they did not rate him. But at international level, Urena’s record is a lot better, and so it proved, as he scored his country’s third with his first touch.
As Urena struck his low shot, it looked at first as if the spin would take it wide of the far post – and perhaps four years ago, when the unlamented Jabulani was used, it would have done. But with the Brazuca, the spin was true, and Urena’s effort curled just inside the post.
See? In 2014 even the ball is better. And the absence of vuvuzelas is sheer bliss.