SALVADOR, Brazil – The best that Portugal could say about the way its first World Cup match transpired Monday is at least it was not raining. There were no severed limbs. Everyone kept their pants on. At least no one died.
Portugal took the field against Germany and remained competitive for a handful of minutes. The Portuguese lost one starter, center back rock Pepe, to a red card, played much of the game and the entire second half a man down, had another starter carted off on a stretcher, took and missed 14 shots and allowed four goals.
So much for the Capital of Happiness, the nickname for the city where this game was played.
“This is the moment where we'll find out who we are,” said Paulo Bento, the Portugal manager.
Yes, Germany gave Portugal the worst case of the Mondays, and while it was difficult to ascertain just how good the Germans are compared to how overrated the Portuguese might be, two things seemed obvious, even to those who had never seen a soccer match. One, Germany is every bit the tournament favorite it has been projected. And two, those who tabbed Portugal as too reliant on star forward Cristiano Ronaldo should have put down bets.
Portugal may share a language with the host country, but it did not prove Monday that it could share any sort of championship expectations with the likes of Germany and Brazil. The Germans controlled the pace and controlled both ends. They camped out in front of Portugal’s goal. Thomas Muller recorded a hat trick, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer a shutout.
In victory, in dominance, Germany cemented itself as the most elite team in what is generally regarded as the most elite World Cup group. A Twitter sample provided the answer to this question: If G is the Group of Death, Germany is … the executioner … Keyser Soze … and the Grim Reaper (the answer given a few dozen times).
Muller tried to play down that sentiment afterward. It would be difficult to find anybody on this planet or any other one who believed him.
"Let’s not do as if we're some sort of overwhelming power,” he told reporters. “Portugal played very well.”
The question afterward centered less on whether Germany would advance to the knockout stage and more on whether Portugal can recover. The United States and Ghana, also in Group G, are scheduled to play Monday night, and whoever wins that game will take the early lead for the group’s second slot into the rounds that matter.
The way that Portugal lost – the fashion, sure, but also at least one player for its next contest, maybe two – surely bolstered the hopes of other Group G’s other teams, the United States, its next opponent, in particular. The red card to Pepe, the best Portuguese defender, for an egregious headbutt mere steps from an official. He will not play against the United States as a result. Meanwhile, marauding left back Fabio Coentrao was the player taken off the field on a stretcher, carried by four men as he buried his head in his hands. That’s two defensive starters potentially out against the Americans.
The German onslaught started early, with an open shot on goal that just missed wide. Soon afterward, Muller notched his first goal in the 11th minute on a penalty kick.
The way the locals built the top of Arena Fonte Nova here, with openings on the top level and above, bathed the field in sunlight and relative darkness, divided roughly in half. That is where Germany did its first-half scoring, in the shade.
What had been billed as a contrast in styles – Germany’s efficient, methodical attack against Portugal’s creative flair – unfolded only halfway as predicted. The Germans looked like the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, so controlled, robotic almost. They made so few mistakes. They took 13 shots and made almost one-third of them.
The second score came on a corner kick, which Mats Hummels knocked past Portugal’s hapless netminder Rui Patricio in the first half. Muller scored again before halftime and yet again in the second half, inspiring an international run on bad Muller Time puns.
Portugal had its scoring chances. A few, anyway, that missed. That was the difference Monday. Germany had more opportunities, and it actually converted quite a few of them. Well, that and an abundance of talent and an enviable roster and experience, all the stuff that placed Germany among the favorites from the outset.
In the second half, Portugal attacked the field’s shaded end, an appropriate metaphor for its darkened World Cup chances. The Portuguese are not knocked out of the knockout round, not yet, not with Germany yet to play against Ghana and the United States (although the Americans could gain an advantage should the Germans have nothing left to play for by that game). But Portugal’s hope to extend its World Cup run into July now appears a whole lot more slim.
The horn sounded. Portugal players slumped off the field, defeated, embarrassed. Germany’s players lingered but hardly celebrated, not with so much more to go. Then one of the most anticipated games early into this World Cup ended with an anticlimactic handshake.
By then, there was one more bright spot for Portugal – it won’t have to play Germany again.