Upstart takes on the World (Cup): Day 7

17 June 2010

Written by: Evan Harding

Those who were awake had to have heard it. A horrible sound echoed through the atmosphere at about 2am. But no, it wasn’t the 100km/hr-plus winds rattling windows and rooftops through Victoria, nor was it an earthquake heard all the way from Indonesia, and it certainly wasn’t a few small plastic horns.

It was the sound of millions of hearts breaking simultaneously.

This was supposed to have been the day the World Cup came alive after an opening round that saw the fewest goals of any 32-team World Cup and well below any tournament average. Sure, France and Uruguay had played out a bore draw and the African teams had failed to inspire but it was OK: Spain was about to save the tournament!

Only, it didn’t happen. There indeed was a seismic shock last night, except that it came not from Papua but from Durban. Switzerland allowed the Spanish to dominate possession but defended as if their country’s treasured neutrality, army knives and cheese were on the line. And they did it. They kept Spain scoreless, and by snatching a goal through the very definition of route-one play, left the Moses Mabhida Stadium with a 1-0 victory over the pre-tournament favourites.

To be fair to the Swiss, the result was thoroughly deserved. They had a game plan and stuck to it; they were well-organised, disciplined and most importantly, didn’t allow themselves to be exposed by slick passing and well-timed runs. The Socceroos would do well to take note, or at least they would have done had a defensive mindset still been an option against Ghana.

Nonetheless, this column has consistently cited the underdog factor when suggesting why to cheer for certain teams throughout the tournament, but there was something so, well, impure about the Swiss win. It was a sucker punch to the nether regions of ‘beautiful’ play and a victory for ‘anti-football’ best displayed by José Mourinho’s Internazionale against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League semi-final.

If even the artistry of Spain can’t get through a solid defensive unit like that which Switzerland produced, expect a greater emphasis on defence from the other 31 teams also. Expect even more 4-5-1 (or even 5-4-1) formations, teams getting as many men as they can behind the ball and hoping for that one stroke of luck that will allow them to steal a goal on the break. And if that’s the case, there will be another noise coming from South Africa – a constant buzz that can’t be drowned out. No, that’s not the small plastic horns either. That ‘zzzzz’ is the sound of millions of fans falling asleep.

(Other results from last night: Honduras 0-1 Chile; South Africa 0-3 Uruguay)

MUST-SEE: Each team has played at least one game and what better time to take a stroll through history with this gallery from the UK’s Independent? It’s the winners of the first 18 World Cups and how they did in their opening matches. Never before has a team gone on to lift the trophy after losing in their first match – bad news for those who backed Spain (and that includes a certain someone holding a ‘saver’ after resigning himself to a loss on France).

EYEBROW-RAISER: So after the first round revealed that the European teams, Germany aside, just might be rubbish – here are some stats we may have hastily ignored:

  1. No European team has ever won a World Cup outside Europe. This tournament is in Africa.
  2. The last 12 World Cup winners have alternated between South America and Europe. Italy won in 2006.
  3. Since the FIFA World Player of the Year award began in 1991, it has been won in World Cup years by a player from the winning team. Widely-agreed to be the world’s best is Lionel Messi, from Argentina.


Perhaps that last stat is skewed given World Cup winners are automatically going to be huge chances for the award, but who of the other teams truly lit up their opening match? Perhaps it’s time for another saver on Diego?

REASON TO CHEER AGAINST FRANCE (APART FROM THE OBVIOUS): Raymond Domenech is a clown. His French team was woeful in 2006 until Zinedine Zidane took matters into his own hands. He ended the international career of Robert Pirès because he doesn’t trust scorpios. He responded to France’s humiliating first-round exit at Euro 2008 by proposing to his girlfriend. His negative tactics played a huge part in Les Bleus only just scraping through to the World Cup as a result of the aforementioned obvious.

REASON TO CHEER ON FRANCE (APART FROM THE OBVIOUS): Seriously though, how funny would it be if they won it? Unless you’re Irish, of course. Or English. Or Italian. Or German. Or Algerian. Or Brazilian. Or Diego Maradona. Er…

TONIGHT: Barring a miracle, Les Bleus need at least a draw against Mexico if they are to progress to the second round, following Uruguay’s victory over South Africa. Cue yet another defensive match, Domenech-style. Florent Malouda is expected to start in place of the ladies’ favourite, ‘Lashes’ himself, Yoann Gourcuff, with Franck Ribéry moved to a more central role. Mexico will look to take the attack to the French through the emerging front pair of Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos and will succeed, once, with the French to live to fight another day: France 1-1 Mexico. The opening game should be a cracker, with Maradona all of a sudden showing the willingness to let Messi do as Messi does, while South Korea impressed in their opening fixture. Admittedly, though, that was against a poor Greek side. Although Juan Sebastián Verón is out, Maxi Rodríguez should fill in capably. Argentina 2-0 Korea Republic. At midnight Greece are looking to kickstart their campaign, or at least score their first goal in their fifth World Cup match. They meet Nigeria, who beat Greece in their only other appearance in the tournament, in 1994. But for a defensive lapse early, Nigeria would have escaped with a draw from their opening match. At times they shone and expect them to do so again. Greece 0-1 Nigeria.

Evan Harding is co-producer of The Contenders Daily Bite, a daily World Cup short which can be seen on Tribal Football. A Master of Global Communication student at La Trobe University, he is an upstart editor armed with a month’s supply of coffee and an ill-conceived $50 bet on France at 18-1. Previous World Cup columns can be found here.