In the Naked City of the World Cup's first round, there were 32 stories. There were several stories of dramatic merit, like the Slovenian Tragedy, the disaster epic that was France, and the commedia dell'arte farce of Italy (in which Buffon, so well-named for his role, inexplicably comes out of the play midway through the first act). The high-wire circus trapeze act Italy often provides in the first round ended this time with the Wallendas falling and just missing the net.
With the possible influence of parochial sentiments, though, nothing beat the melodrama--in three acts with an epilogue--of the USA. It's a saga awaiting its Homer, which should be written in rhyming couplets full of allusions--to Beowulf maybe, long-suffering Job, or the Iliad (Landon Donovan strides forward, without his shield and armor, to face the Algerian Hector--or maybe more geographically relevant, their Aeneas). Mostly, though, it would be some mythic Batman or Superman story, overcoming his nemesis--with Fate as the cruel Joker or as Lex Luthor, the weird ball as some sort of anti-kryptonite (power comes from having it near)--our hero(es) somehow escaping from certain doom in each episode to triumph just before the final commercial and credits.
The USA's rise against adversity in all three games--whether self-generated, through allowing cheap early goals, or through being denied gratification through the referee's ruling out legitimate goals--made for high drama and seat edge-sitting in all their encounters.
Fortune Favors the Brave
In my World Cup preview, I noted that there would be a certain opening, all the way to the semifinals, for some fortunate team that was not among the top-rated coming into the tournament. In this "top-left" quarter of the draw, I suggested that the Fortunate One could be England, France, or Germany. Well, France blew its chance quite spectacularly, England got nosed out on goal difference (largely due to their failure to break through and score against Algeria) and Germany--well, they did their part by losing to Serbia, but the Serbs failed to clinch first when they lost their last game to Australia. As a result, England and Germany are in the tough "top-right" bracket, for which Argentina should be the clear favorite to advance to the final four.
Instead, it is the USA which finds itself in the favored position--but, I should immediately point out, so do Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea. None of them should be written off--if the first round has taught us anything, it is that there are no easy games, no easy teams this year. The Americans need to win against two moderate-level teams, overachievers like they, to get to the semis and a real tough matchup for which they should be overmatched (in order of probability, Brazil, Netherlands, Chile, or the unlikely Slovaks).
One Game Changes Everything--Almost
In the first round, a single game can change the outlook for the rest of the tournament, but it depends on the timing. The big surprise which could've affected everything to come was in the first set of games, when Switzerland surprised Spain, 1-0. The result was a bit of a fluke, in that Spain dominated posession, had most of the shots, but couldn't score, while the Swiss managed the winning goal in practically their only offensive threat.
Spain was set up to finish second and switch over to the dangerous "lower-left" bracket, with a round of 16 game against Brazil. The Spanish might even possibly have missed out entirely from the top two spots (one likely possibility, largely overlooked, was if the Swiss beat Honduras by a couple of goals, and the Spanish got nose out on goal difference by both Chile and Switzerland). In the end, though, Switzerland couldn't overcome its torpor, and Spain edged Chile (helped by a dubious early red card on a Chilean) and took its place at the top.
Of the five first-round games I identified as critical, four were on target: US-Slovenia, Spain-Chile, Portugal-Ivory Coast (the Portuguese showed their cautious nature, while the Ivorians missed their best chance to advance), and Germany-Serbia (which should've decided their group for Serbia, again, except for their failure to handle the Aussies). Greece-Nigeria was not critical in determining the second-place to Argentina--both teams failing to advance--because of South Korea's key 2-0 win over Greece in its first game.
In the end, though, results were not too surprising: France and Italy looked to disappoint; the only surprise was how completely (against weak groups). Five out of eight favorites won their groups, the exceptions being France, Italy, and England. The Africans had great challenges, and it is not surprising how few got through (though I didn't get the identity right). South America's success was expected, though it was surprising how complete it was (even the weaker qualifiers, like Paraguay and Uruguay, were undefeated).
The further West the team (starting from the Urals, roughly), the better the first-round result. The exceptions to this rule were Slovakia, in the positive sense, and Honduras and North Korea, in the negative one.
I make excuses without apology for being a tad late--we drove 800 miles yesterday, and there's barely time to catch your breat between the first round and the second. For the record--and you'll have to trust me on this one--my pre-match prediction for Uruguay-South Korea would've been: "a tougher match for Uruguay than their fluffy first-round group--possibly a first goal allowed--but they advance".
Here are pithy, one-sentence previews for all the 15 remaining games:
US-Ghana: another tense encounter--the Ghanaians are tough, strong, and more dangerous offensively than they have shown--and another nail-biting success for the USA, 1-0.
Argentina-Mexico: Mexico will lose bravely, let's say 3-1.
England-Germany: Great second-round match: I'll go with the ascendant team (England's best game was its most recent, Germany's was its first), in extra time, or possibly even in penalty kicks, a shock for everyone based on historical performance--1-1 in regular time.
Netherlands-Slovakia: The Dutch catch a break with Italy's flameout, and have a fairly easy opponent, which they might just make harder than they should--1-0.
Paraguay--Japan: My biggest miss was underrating the Asians' chances, so I will try to make up by calling an upset here (any loss by a South American team to a non-S.A. is an upset, at this point)--2-1.
Brazil-Chile: The best match of this round (a shocker loss by Brazil is by no means impossible, and here, at least, a South American team must lose) though the Chileans will be missing some players due to the card-happy ref of their last game--2-1 Brazil.
Spain-Portugal: This Iberian Showdown is sure to disappoint, as Portugal will attempt to negate Spain's huge offensive potential with ugly negativity--0-0 in regular time, Spain finally logs a cheap win when the ref calls a penalty in extra time.
US-Uruguay: My heart says "USA" but my brain says Uruguay will win out, 1-0.
Argentina-England: Malvinas Grudge Cage Rematch, on terms more favorable to the Argentines, 2-1. Some Englishman gets a crucial red card (I'd bet on Rooney).
Netherlands-Brazil: Best match of the entire tournament; I'll be among those disappointed by the outcome but encouraged by the quality, Brail 3-2.
Spain-Japan: What, no South American? I have no clue what to expect--Spain 1-0?
I'm sticking with my preview prediction of Argentina-Brazil. Argentina over Spain, 3-1, in a wild one, and Brazil over Uruguay, 1-0, in a boring one.
Who cares? Uruguay is more likely to care than Spain, 3-2.
I'm a bit shaky here, but I like Argentina to win it all. I'd feel better about this prediction if Chile, Netherlands, or Brazil's Cinderella semifinal opponent would do me a favor and take them out, but I don't feel "lucky" about that. Messi finally scores a goal himself, and it's the Cup winner, 2-1.
In his excitement and exhibitionist zeal, Maradona drops trow, and gets a coach's yellow card banishment for Argentina's next game (by which time, he will be long gone).