Want to know the great thing about the World Cup? History doesn't matter. When you're staring down the goalkeeper with the ball at your feet, your reputation can't help you. Your nationality means nothing. You might as well be naked. In that moment you reveal something raw and true. "You're reacting instinctively," says Landon Donovan, the U.S.'s alltime leading goal scorer. "And as good as a goalie is, a perfect shot always beats the best goalies."
On a patch of grass in a teeming stadium at the bottom of Africa last Friday, Donovan had just such an encounter. As he advanced upon a Slovene goalkeeper named Samir Handanovic, Donovan could have passed the ball. That's what he had done in a similar instance at World Cup 2006, when the U.S. needed its best player to score against Ghana to avoid elimination. This time, though, Donovan wound up and fired from close range at an acute angle, up toward the goalkeeper's head. The shot's force surprised the 6'5" Handanovic, who flinched as though he'd heard a shotgun blast, and the ball might still be in a low orbit had it not been contained by the roof of the Slovenian net.
It was a classic World Cup highlight, the kind that laid bare the psyches of two men before a global audience, and it kick-started a furious U.S. comeback from a 2--0 halftime deficit. The 2--2 tie at Johannesburg's Ellis Park, marred only by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly's unexplained decision to disallow the game-winning U.S. goal, put the Americans in position to advance to the round of 16 with a victory against Algeria on Wednesday. Of course, Donovan's Dare-Ya Discovery wasn't the only truth-telling moment in the opening stages of World Cup 2010, a tournament that unveiled a slew of fresh talents and stories while teaching us new things (good and bad) about familiar faces.
Who knew, after all, that New Zealand, ranked 78th in the world, had the fortitude to match reigning champion Italy blow for blow in a 1--1 draw just five days after Kiwi forward Winston Reid, 21, provided the greatest moment in the nation's soccer history by scoring on a gorgeous header in injury time to tie Slovakia? Who knew that Switzerland, the home of watchmakers and normally dour soccer teams, would pull off the first major upset, a 1--0 thriller against European champion Spain? And who knew that England, a pretournament favorite to reach the semifinals, would turn in back-to-back uninspired performances in ties against the U.S. and Algeria? "Nice to see your own fans booing you—that's what loyal support is," snapped England star Wayne Rooney after the Algeria game, a sign that the pressure of the World Cup can get to even the most seasoned players. (He later apologized.)
June 27, 2010
Other big names struggled too. France sent home forward Nicolas Anelka after he profanely insulted coach Raymond Domenech, who was already beleaguered following a tie with Uruguay and a 2--0 loss to Mexico. Likewise, Spain's star-studded lineup failed to shed its tag of World Cup choker, dominating possession against the Swiss but missing numerous chances. And while Germany was electric in its opening 4--0 rout of Australia, it came back to earth with a thud after top scorer Mirsoslav Klose got sent off for two foolish first-half yellow cards in a 1--0 loss to Serbia.
Still, several familiar figures backed up their résumés and even showed us new things in the process. Maicon, Brazil's relentless right back, scored the goal of the first week, barreling forward against North Korea and hitting an impossibly angled strike from the touchline. Controversial Argentina manager Diego Maradona revealed he might be able to coach after all, drawing two dominant games out of Lionel Messi, the world's best player. And even a solid-but-unspectacular veteran like U.S. right back Steve Cherundolo displayed a new side, not just on the field (where he was one of the team's best players) but also inside the camp (where he came up with the idea of having the U.S. players put their hands over their teammates' shoulders during the national anthem). "We feel like brothers," says goalkeeper Tim Howard, "and we wanted to bring that sense of brotherhood out."
One of the most exciting aspects of any World Cup is the emergence of young talent, and South Africa is no different. Chilean right winger Alexis Sànchez, 21, terrorized Honduras and Switzerland in 1--0 victories with his explosive attacks and nimble footwork. German midfielder Mesut √ñzil, 21, looked to be his team's most dangerous player. And Mexican forward Javier (Chicharito) Hernàndez, 22, struck the game-winner in the defeat of France to show the world why Manchester United recently bought him from Chivas de Guadalajara for $10 million. By week's end several trends were starting to emerge.
Scoring was rising. In the openers for each of the 32 teams, there was a historic paucity of goals: only 25, or 12 fewer than the lowest total to that point of any World Cup in the 32-team era (beginning in 1998). Pundits floated a number of explanations: increased parity, conservative tactics, high altitude and the new ball, which appeared difficult for free-kick experts to bend into the net. But the U.S.'s five-goal shootout with Slovenia was part of a scoring uptick: Teams produced 42 goals in the second block of 16 games, more than the same stretches in 2006 and 2002, suggesting that perhaps the cool Southern Hemisphere winter was providing an ideal atmosphere for attacking soccer.
South America was surging. The continent's five teams were a combined 8-2-0 through the first two group-stage games, easily the best showing of any confederation. Brazil had been Brazil, winning its first two matches in the tournament's hardest group, while Argentina had started tapping its vast talent resources in victories against Nigeria and South Korea. But the big surprises were Uruguay, which tied France and blew out host South Africa 3--0; Paraguay, which tied reigning World Cup champion Italy and beat Slovakia to stand atop Group F; and Chile, which played some of the Cup's most entertaining soccer under coach Marcelo Bielsa of Argentina. As a result, all five South American teams were in good position to reach the second round.
Africa was struggling. The expected home-continent advantage never materialized: In Africa's first World Cup its teams had won only once in 12 games through Monday (Ghana's 1--0 victory against Serbia). South Africa looked to be the first host nation ever to fail to advance from the group stage, while the continent's highest-ranked team, Cameroon, was the first country to be eliminated. Nor did it help that the most egregious refereeing decision was made by Mali's Coulibaly, whose call prevented the U.S. from pulling off one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in World Cup history. "I think it's a good goal," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said on Saturday after watching replays of Maurice Edu's disallowed strike, which came after the usual free-kick scrum in the penalty box. "The only things that clearly could be called would be penalty kicks for us."
Yet Bradley could still feel good about a couple of things: The U.S. had a shot at advancing, and he got to celebrate Father's Day with his son, 22-year-old midfielder Michael, who was one of the revelations of the World Cup. Not only did the younger Bradley choke the passing lanes and start the U.S. attack for 90 minutes against both England and Slovenia, but he also revealed a big-game scoring touch, hitting the equalizer late against Slovenia on a gorgeous volley. As Michael said afterward, "At halftime down 2--0, you know you've got no choice but to push the game, push the tempo and just fight like bastards to get back into it."
Fight like bastards. Every team needs players who can do that. Every four years, the World Cup proves it.