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Diary: Kickin ' it with Brazil's next superstars

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
Read

Diary: The U.S. are in like Clint

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
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Diary: Feeling Spain's pain in Salvador

David Hirshey Jun 15, 2014
Read
Jun 27, 2014

What we've learned so far

Watch all the moments that took our breath away in the opening round of the FIFA World Cup.

What a World Cup it's been. Eye-popping goals, comical defending, nerve-shredding drama, mind-boggling acts of stupidity, ludicrous collusion theories, a joyous, vibrant atmosphere and, of course, no vuvuzelas.

But more than anything else, it's been gloriously unpredictable. Adios Spain! Ciao, Italy! Hello, USA and Costa Rica! The only totally predictable thing was that England would underwhelm.

Oh, yeah -- and that Luis Suarez would bite someone.

Their kits may resemble popsicles, but the Americans' red, white and blue has taken the World Cup by storm.

1. It's All About The Red, White And Blue

It was the worst group since Ace of Base. It included a three-time World Cup champion, Germany; FIFA's currently anointed best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo; and Ghana, a side that had bounced the U.S. out two times running and was loudly confident about three-peating.

In the cartoonishly awful heat and humidity of Brazil, the U.S. had to survive all of that as well as Jozy Altidore's shredded hamstring, Clint Dempsey's broken nose, Geoff Cameron's shanked clearance, Michael Bradley's stoppage-time dithering and more giveaways than you'd find at a closeout sale.

United StatesUnited States
GermanyGermany
0
1
FT
Match 45
Game Details

Nobody among the hundreds of raucous, U.S. jersey-wearing fans packed into the Mudville 9 Saloon in downtown Manhattan on Thursday expected the Americans to beat or even tie Germany and book a date in the round of 16. That would require luck, outside help, and 90 more minutes of the Klinsmann-ic brio that the U.S. coach has preached to the squad -- if you stay organized, keep your composure, fight hard and run to the end, you'll have a chance.

"I don't care how we get to the next round," said Dave LaRocca, a former standout soccer player at Middlebury, leaning against the bar. "If we have to go in the back door, pass through the kitchen, squeeze past the bathrooms, that's fine with me. It's still a great accomplishment."

The bar was a giant keg of foaming flop sweat, all heads on a swivel watching the U.S. game on a multitude of screens while checking out the TV in the corner where Ghana and Portugal fought for their Group G lives.

"A little whiplash," said ex-Fordham star Leah Loguidice, twisting her neck muscles to see both games, " is a small price to pay for going through."

Finally, it came -- a gift from the heavens that left eardrums bruised.

Not in the U.S. game, where the Americans were dangling by a thread that a certain Uruguayan's incisors would make short work of -- but in the 80th minute at the Estadio Nacional where the Ghana goalie, Fatau Dauda, desperately palmed the ball away from his line only for it to rebound directly to Cristiano Ronaldo.

Portugal's talisman, although seemingly preoccupied as if studying himself in a hand-mirror, took a brief break from his self-adoration to lash the ball back into the net for his first and only goal of the World Cup. It made the score 2-1 in favor of Portugal and the bar erupted with delirious chants of "Ronaldo! Ronaldo!" as if he were America's savior and not just the petulant superstar who had finally converted one of his 87 chances in the tournament, albeit one that sent Ghana home to join their bizarrely expelled teammates.

Obrigado, Cristiano! But when all was said and done, the Americans had a lot more to thank than just Ronaldo.

There was his teammate Pepe, whose red card in the first game against Germany essentially sealed Portugal's doom. And there were Ghana's Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince-Boateng, whose Nicolas Anelka impressions before the final game caused serious turmoil in the Black Stars' camp and weakened the team against Portugal.

But there was also plenty of gratitude to be spread around the Americans, most notably U.S. keeper Tim Howard and center-back Omar Gonzalez. The former has been consistently reliable throughout the tournament, making several gutsy world-class saves and he did it again against Germany while the latter, whose tendency to commit defensive howlers had caused his stock to go from American soccer pinup to World Cup benchwarmer, anchored the back line with muscular authority.

Most importantly, there was Jurgen Klinsmann, who convinced his plucky underdogs that they could compete with the world's more skilled, high-quality opponents, not necessarily as individuals but as a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now Belgium awaits and I'm even willing to make a personal sacrifice if it helps the Red, White, and Blue. Hold the Stella, bartender.

France look good, dangerous and strong. More worrying for opponents is that they look happy.
With all the troublemakers out of the way, France have been among the most enjoyable teams to watch.

2. It's All About The Red, White And Blue, Part Two

Sorry America, but in Brazil, those colors are still best represented by Holland and France. The French are looking like their previous world championship selves and the Dutch just might be ready to drop kick the "Best Team Never" label that has plagued them like so much moldy gouda.

Of course, no European side has ever won a World Cup on South American soil and it's probably unlikely to happen in the will-sapping heat and humidity of Brazil. And yet, based on the admittedly small sample size of just three games, these two continental behemoths could conceivably exorcise the ghost of Diego Maradona. That is, assuming they don't revert to type -- sulking, moaning, mutinous egomaniacs with a mother lode of talent and the occasional flying cleat to the chest.

NetherlandsNetherlands
MexicoMexico
2
1
FT
Match 51
Game Details

The Netherlands, the finest soccer country yet to win the World Cup, the fabled avatars of Total Football in the '70s and the personification of Total Self-Destruction ever since, are the Brazil of Rancor and Strife.

France may not have the Dutch's long tradition of internecine squabbling but Les Bleus can lay claim to the most spectacular meltdown of all time -- essentially a sit-down strike before their final group stage game in South Africa over the French Football Association's decision to send home the convivial Anelka simply for his crude questioning of the astrological acumen of manager Raymond Domenech.

What a difference four years -- and Venus rising over Uranus -- make.

While the players and coaches of France and the Dutch aren't exactly throwing slumber parties at communal "Game of Thrones" viewings, they're at least no longer poking each other in the eye or publicly trading venomous barbs. Granted, there was the last World Cup final where the Dutch tried in vain to intimidate Spain with their physical and cynical play, but those bruising tactics have given way to a more fluid style under the current manager, Louis van Gaal.

His counterpart, Didier Deschamps, the former captain of Les Bleus' 1998 World Cup-winning side who replaced Domenech, weeded out the troublemakers from the French camp (I'm looking at you Samir Nasri and your hysterical girlfriend) and may have gotten lucky when Frank "It's all about moi" Ribery was lost to injury just before the tournament. Without their Grand Fromage stinking up the dressing room, the French have developed a rare camaraderie that even has the volatile Patrice Evra singing Kumbaya.

The result is that both the Oranje and France have played perhaps the most swashbuckling soccer in the tournament's opening round, with Arjen Robben and Karim Benzema in the attacking form of their lives.

It would be nice to imagine Jose Mourinho, who coached both Robben and Benzema at Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively, watching them shine in Brazil and tearing out his perfectly tousled silvery locks over his treatment of the two stars. Might he regret saying of the former, "Karim's playing because I have got nothing else," or wish he had held onto Robben during his first stint at Stamford Bridge? Are you serious?

But one thing is clear: If France and the Netherlands can marshal their inner-harmony for two more weeks, they just might change the course of World Cup history.

Roy Hodgson promised England would look to the future, then played old boys Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

3. England Fooled Us Again!

For the past 48 years, a gaggle of robust, dogged men, buoyed by swelling Churchillian rhetoric -- OK, raving tabloid hysteria -- has been carrying the delusional hopes of soccer's founding nation to one World Cup after another, looking to restore its pride of place. We've seen this movie's denouement so frequently that you'd think by now we'd remember the tattoo inked on all the players -- the one of a fork sticking out of the backs of The Three Lions.

But no. We have the selective amnesia of a Manchester United supporter.

But this time felt different. For once, the English fans had no hyberbolic fantasy that England would make a deep run. In fact, they had no expectations at all. Their avuncular manager Roy Hodgson admitted as much when upon accepting the job, he said, "I have my sights fixed firmly on the future."

Alas, for those who did watch the current version of "Nightmare On Brazil Street," their foolhardiness was rewarded with two defeats, one 0-0 draw, a total of two goals scored and Frank Lampard ending the tournament partnering Steven Gerrard in the midfield. The whole thing was enough to put Luis Suarez off his appetite.

England managed to stay relevant for a whopping five days before being ushered into the FIFA Departure Lounge with one game left to play. On the bright side, they had finally realized their dream of being compared to a world champion -- Spain, who were sent packing even earlier than Hodgson's men.

So what happened? As always, England underperformed, albeit at a slightly faster, more electric pace than years past, thanks to jet-heeled tyros like Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, and Ross Barkley. Unfortunately, they were unable to overcome clueless defending, a stodgy midfield, and the inability to kick a ball in the general vicinity of goal.

Or, to paraphrase the former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright, "No one stepped up to the mantelpiece."

Still, you've got to give the English credit. Even at a World Cup where there was no hope, they managed to disappoint.

David Hirshey

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."