High octane beginning

Last Updated 28 June 2014, 16:44 IST

Sparkling shows from Messi and Neymar and a torrent of goals made the first phase of the World Cup an instant hit.

The opening phase of this World Cup ended with Algerians celebrating, and they were hardly the only ones feeling upbeat after a first round to remember. Global soccer and those who run it have taken plenty of well-earned flak in recent years, but this edition of the game’s showcase tournament has so far been a golden ticket to the brand of compelling, attacking futebol that fans worldwide continue to associate, rightly or wrongly, with Brazil.

This is a World Cup in the Americas, and it has looked and sounded that way. The Chileans, Mexicans and Argentines all said that they felt as if they were playing some of their games at home, and the Brazilians, of course, are playing all their games at home.

In total, eight teams from South, North and Central America qualified for the second round, the most at a World Cup, by far, since the Round of 16 was introduced in Mexico in 1986.

Despite concern about Brazil’s organisational capacities, the logistics and infrastructure have worked quite well, even if there has been fluctuation in the quality of the fields, stadium security and sound systems.

Despite worries about the unintended effects of another draining club season, the sport’s biggest stars have done fine impressions of the sport’s biggest stars.

With an average of 2.83 goals per game and no 2010-style complaints about the ball, this World Cup is on track to be the highest-scoring since the tournament in Spain in 1982. And even though Cristiano Ronaldo has faltered by his standards, the names of the top scorers through the first round look familiar.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Brazil’s Neymar and Germany’s Thomas Mueller each have four goals. Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Karim Benzema are part of a bigger group with three, and Robben and van Persie are the biggest threats on a Dutch team that leads the tournament with 10 goals, all of them scored in open play.

Even Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s signature striker, was true to himself: giving a full-range display of his bright and dark sides. He showed grit and predatorial talent in abundance as he bounced back from knee surgery to score both goals in a 2-1 victory over England. He then caused the biggest uproar of the World Cup by biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder.

The social media sphere was much more amused than FIFA, which responded quickly with a nine-match suspension, a fine of 100,000 Swiss francs, or about $112,000, and a four-month ban from all soccer-related activities, including immediate banishment from Uruguay’s national team training camp in Brazil, leaving Suarez in tears.

There were tears elsewhere, too. Yaya and Kolo Toure made the difficult decision to keep playing in Brazil for Ivory Coast after their brother’s death, and Ivory Coast then missed out on the second round because of a last-gasp goal by Greece. Ghana, like too many African teams through the years, bickered internally over power and pay and ended up suspending two of its top players -- Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng -- during the tournament.

England and Italy failed to advance. And then there was the Iberian Peninsula.Portugal’s struggling was no ground-shaking surprise, even with Ronaldo in the line-up, in light of the team’s struggles in qualifying. But Spain’s quick elimination was a genuine shock, as it dropped its opening matches to the Netherlands, 5-1, and Chile, 2-0.

The unraveling of the reigning World Cup and European champions was certainly due, in part, to the cumulative effect of so many big occasions for clubs and country in recent years. The goalkeeper Iker Casillas, 33, and the midfield playmaker Xavi, 34, were no longer the irresistible forces of 2010, and Spain’s celebrated tiki-taka, short-passing style looks to have been superseded by longer-form attacks and counterattacks down the flanks.

But Spain’s troubles were also a product of geography, with Chile surfing the same wave that many teams from this region are riding.

Four teams from the Americas reached the Round of 16 in 2002 and 2006. This time, there are four in just one quarter of the draw, which looks like a mini Copa America, with Brazil facing Chile and Uruguay facing Colombia.

Costa Rica, the second-biggest surprise of this World Cup after Spain’s demise, is still undefeated after beating Italy and Uruguay and tying England to win Group D (for Death, surely).

The only teams from the Americas competing in the Cup that did not reach the second round were Ecuador and Honduras. The Asian confederation’s four representatives -- Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia -- did not win a single game in their visit to Brazil.

But Algeria and Nigeria, which appears to have internal problems of its own, both made the Round of 16 from Africa. So have six teams from Europe, equal to the lowest total ever. Europe also had just six in 2010 in South Africa, although it did end up with the two finalists -- Spain and the Netherlands.

An all-Europe final could happen again, with the Dutch and the Germans in form and on opposite sides of the draw. But history argues against it. Until now, every World Cup staged in the Western Hemisphere has been won by a team from the Western Hemisphere.

At this stage, no player left has won a World Cup. There are only two coaches who won as players: Didier Deschamps of France and Jurgen Klinsmann, the German who leads the United States.

Sixteen other coaches are out, and five already have announced their departures: Carlos Queiroz of Iran, Sabri Lamouchi of Ivory Coast, Luis Fernando Suarez of Honduras, Alberto Zaccheroni of Japan and Cesare Prandelli of Italy. 

Meanwhile, three Argentine coaches are still on a roll as well as the payroll -- Jorge Sampaoli with Chile, Jose Pekerman with Colombia and Alejandro Sabella with Messi and Argentina.

It was that kind of first round for the Americas, and what a far-flung round it was -- staged in 12 cities from Manaus in the Amazon region and Fortaleza in the northeast to Porto Alegre in the far south where, in the chill of the evening or the winter rain, this host city does not quite correspond to the mind’s-eye version of a World Cup in Brazil.

No matter. The flashy, exuberant soccer played here and nearly everywhere else the past two weeks certainly has lived up to the preconception.

(Published 28 June 2014, 16:44 IST)

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