Our Man in South Africa
For the love of Bill Simmons, this World Cup is headed toward an Argentina-Brazil final
With the second round of group stage matches finished, we know as little about each team's World Cup chances as we did when it all started — perhaps even less.
After a slow round of opening matches that averaged only 1.56 goals per game and hardly a memorable individual performance, every group is up for grabs and only Cameroon has been mathematically eliminated — with all 32 teams only having one group play game remaining.
A week into the tournament, conservative tactics, injured superstars and an excessively aerodynamic ball were the cause of criticism and concern. Now only three out of eight group favorites lead their group, and the outright favorite — European champion, Spain — is still seeking its first points of any kind against Honduras.
The only Europeans with six points are the Dutch, while other perennial contenders Italy, England, Spain, France, Germany and Portugal are facing elimination. While some of these teams will still likely make it through their groups, the idea that more than one of them will not would have been almost unthinkable a week ago.
Meanwhile, South American teams are all in contention and have had much reason to celebrate (not that they need a reason).
Twenty-five thousand Mexicans, outnumbering their French counterparts 5 to 1, flocked to the northeastern town of Polokwane with mariachi bands and wrestling masks to ensure the 2-0 upset and leave the French team in complete disarray. Uruguay crushed Bafana Bafana's dreams and took the air out of the host country with an emphatic 3-0 domination in Pretoria.
Paraguay, the unlikely top finisher in the South American qualifiers, began its World Cup run with 1-1 draw over defending champion Italy. The Italians are still winless after an embarrassing 1-1 draw to New Zealand. Chile is still untested, but has been tapped by many to be the second out of group H. The question now is, "Who will be the first?"
By far the biggest surprise of the tournament came last Wednesday when an expectedly organized Swiss side resisted a relentless Spanish attack and effectively counter-attacked to ensure a unlikely three points. The two usual giants, Argentina and Brazil, both have six points and look on course to meet in the final.
Sadly, African teams haven't had the same luck. The "African World Cup" had promised to bring the skill and class of the continent to the forefront of international football, and most experts had at least one African side in their final eight — some even picked Ghana or Ivory Coast to make the semifinals. But these airy expectations have been met by the grim reality of the actual state of African football — great individual performances, but lack of organized team play.
Unless Ghana can pull of an unlikely upset of Germany or Algeria can send the Yanks home, there will almost certainly be no African team in the round of 16.
No matter how your team is doing, you have to agree that the World Cup has been as exciting and unpredictable as any in recent memory. The per-game goal average for the second round of matches was 2.31, and there have been no lack of close finishes and memorable upsets.
The recent turn of events is exactly what FIFA needs to captivate fickle and goal-thirsty American audiences. While everyone enjoys seeing high scores, most long-time observers recognize that the score line is no way to judge a match, and that a nil-nil draw can be as exciting as a 3-3 game.
Watching the first 10 days of the tournament, I am reminded of an ESPN article written during the last World Cup by the sports giant's Page 2 star Bill Simmons — it suggested soccer was the ideal sport to watch while working, because every time you hear "goal!" you can turn around and watch the replay. Unfortunately, like many Americans and most casual observers, Simmons was missing the point.
Gerardo Chapa is the producer of 20/10, a documentary about the 2010 World Cup. The movie's descriptor reads: "For a month this summer, for 90 minutes at a time, an inexplicable phenomenon will unite people of all ages, creeds and colors. Every four years, beggars and kings, whites and blacks, women and men gather to indulge in the revelry of this sensation. For the first time ever, the catalyst for this fever will take place in Africa."
Chapa is on the ground in South Africa as the world's biggest sport event grips the globe. He's writing a first-person account, exclusive to CultureMap.