Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The World Cup that refuses to conform: an enthralling first round leaves a football-speaking globe breathless

SUPER SUB: Belgium's Marouane Fellaini scored against Algeria

There’s something wrong with this World Cup. We’re supposed to be in the tentative early stages of the greatest footballing show on earth – and nobody’s paying ANY attention to history.

Traditionally, even in the old days of 16 teams in the finals, the first game of the group phase is a cautious event. Neither side wants to lose for fear of being ruled out of contention after 90 minutes. The first round ended with Russia v South Korea the 16th and final game – and we are confounded.

This has been a World Cup of supersubs coming on to save their nation, come-from-behind triumphs and attack-at-all-costs. It’s NORMAL for side who have gone behind to be content with a point when they snatch an equaliser.

But not in Brazil this time.  Those awful 0-0 draws are few and far between. The 1-0 stale-mate has become a fascinating temptation for the chasing team. The stand-out examples of this exciting footballing revolution were the shocking triumphs registered by the Netherlands and Costa Rica – and even Africa's top-ranked Algeria against fashionable Belgium.

A dodgy penalty saw the Dutch go behind against World Cup holders Spain… and when Robin van Persie produced a stunning lobbed dive-header over Iker Casillas to equalise, you might have thought that was that when we got to half-time at 1-1.

Goal of the tournament? Van Persie's header v Spain
But not this time. The Netherlands, beaten 1-0 by Spain’s tika-taka troops in the 2010 final in Soccer City four years ago, were having none of that “what we have we hold” nonsense.

Van Persie and Aarjen Robben simply continued to torment the Spainful champions. A team that had conceded just three goals in winning their last two major tournaments found themselves 2-1 down. Then three, four, five… and it might have been six.

Casillas took a lot of the blame, he blundered on one cross for the third, came out too early on the fourth. But to blame one man – a goalkeeper accustomed to the bench at Real Madrid too often over the last two seasons – would be churlish.

We had barely got over the shock of that epic 5-1 defeat at Costa Rica were at it. Ranked lower than Bafana Bafana just a year ago, we knew they weren’t a pushover for Uruguay, who required a play-off against Jordan to reach the finals.

But when the former two-time World Cup winners, playing on their own continent, went ahead, everyone assumed Uruguay would be at of the Latin American Samba to the knock-out stages.

But no. With Arsenal’s loan ranger Joel Campbell scoring one and making another, Costa Rica levelled and then stuck it to their highly-rated rivals, seventh in the FIFA world rankings before the tournament.

Their 3-1 win was nearly as surprising as Holland’s triumph over Spain. And it blew the toughest group of the tournament wide open. Italy went on to beat England 2-1 with a typical Mario Balotelli winner – but who is to say who will qualify from Group D?

It’s been breathless. It’s been far too exciting. Far too many goals, especially compared to Spain’s seven-goal bore war in South Africa four years ago.

To add to the drama, Africa’s great hopefuls the Ivory Coast came back from a goal down to beat Japan in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Since then, we’re seen African champions Nigeria held to a disappointing 0-0 draw by Iran (the first of the tournament) while Germany crushed Portugal 4-0 to leave Ghana, beaten 2-1 thanks to a lapse of concentration against the USA, in a very tight spot. It could be worse. Both Nigeria and Iran have a point more than England, beaten 2-1 by Italian Mario Balotelli's towering header.

Not this time: Italy overcame
England 2-1 in Manaus
Barring miracles, Africa could find themselves with only Cote D'Ivoire of the Big Five surviving to the knock-out stages. But there’s still a long way to go, with Brazil and Mexico the only sides to have played twice so far – their 0-0 draw means Cameroon could go out of the tournament if they lose their second game to Croatia.

Gripping stuff. But we cannot ignore the opening game. On the face of it, Brazil 3, Croatia 1 looks like another example of the revolutionary gender: a come-from-behind win which saw Filipe Scolari refusing to accept a point, gunning for all three after the equaliser.

But of course it wasn’t. With protests and stun grenades in the streets, there was a feeling a poor opening result would spark further trouble for FIFA and the host nation. Marcelo’s own goal had given Croatia the lead, Neymar’s low shot levelled just before the break.

But as I had predicted on twitter several times in the build-up, it needed a dodgy Neymar penalty to win it. Fred, who touched the ball just five times on the night, did what he was told. He fell over when he felt a hand on his should. The lightest brush of contact. Dive, dive, dive.

The feckless Japanese referee blew without hesitation. Neymar penalty. 2-1. Croatia went for the equaliser and got it, only for their goal to be disallowed for a questionable foul on Julio Cesar in the Brazilian goal. Okay, the impressive Oscar added a third, but by then the damage was done. And a sour taste was left in the mouth.

I leave it to Croatia coach Niko Kovac to sum it up: "If that's how we start the World Cup, we'd better give it up now and go home. We talk about respect, that wasn't respect, Croatia didn't get any. If that's a penalty, we don't need to play football anymore. Let's play basketball instead, it's a shame."

There was an opportunity for a repeat of that in the late stages of the 0-0 draw against Mexico, fortunately the spot kick wasn’t given. But a point means Brazil will probably not to stumble out early. That would make things far too exciting.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on www.ballz.co.za with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on www.twitter.com/nealcol for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in www.thenewage.co.za.

My second round Kick Off Predictor selections: 
Belgium 2
Algeria 0
Brazil 2
Mexico 1
Russia 2
Korea Republic 0
Australia 0
Netherlands 2
Spain 2
Chile 1
Cameroon 0
Croatia 2
Colombia 1
Ivory Coast 1
Uruguay 0
England 1
Japan 1
Greece 1
Italy 2
Costa Rica 0
Switzerland 1
France 2
Honduras 0
Ecuador 1
Argentina 4
Iran 0
Germany 3
Ghana 1
Nigeria 0
Bosnia and Herzegovina 1

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