Where are the favourites? The anticipated storylines for this World Cup have so far been almost aggressively enigmatic. After the first two rounds, we all want to try and project further forwards, taking in these early results and extrapolating. But the nature of the results has made this a near impossibility. For many of the favoured nations, strong starts have given way to lacklustre performances, or the other way around. Minnows have defied expectations and already qualified for the second round. The general air of the World Cup in Brazil so far is one of polarities; rip-roaring goal-fests one day, meek stalemates the next.
Though the intuitive feeling was that Spain wouldn’t dominate this major tournament like they did the last three, theirs has been a whiplash-inducing decline. No one predicted the wreckage that has been their World Cup defence. Brazil and Argentina were probably the two biggest contenders going into the Cup, yet, though still to lose, neither team has played convincingly in their first two matches. Argentina has been bailed out by genius-moments from Lionel Messi (anomalous moments even, as Messi had been having quiet matches before his decisive actions in both games). Brazil have already exposed their potentially damaging reliance on Neymar to do the same. He equalised against Croatia to get their World Cup campaign started, but then a subdued performance in the next match meant Brazil were unable to score against Mexico.
Turning to the European teams that were expected to challenge for the Cup, the Germans started out very well indeed, destroying Portugal 4-0 in their opening match. But then their form waned against Ghana, only managing a 2-2 draw thanks to the now goal record-equalling (and agelessly predatory) Miroslav Klose. Similarly, Holland put Spain to the sword in their opening match, playing exactly like a side who could sweep this tournament, all swashbuckle and swagger. But then they also suffered a bout of second-game syndrome when they were given an almighty scare by the Socceroos. Italy, dripping with perennial tournament canniness, showed their class by confidently closing out what could have been a much tighter opening match against England, winning 2-1. But they picked up the next-game sniffles as well, tiredly submitting to the irrepressible Costa Ricans, 1-0.
And speaking of the Costa Ricans, who saw them qualifying earliest from that group? Uruguay, the dark horse for many, was overcome, and then Italy and that was that, the England match now a dead rubber. The Costa Ricans only won one of their lead-in friendlies, hardly the most confidence-boosting preparation. Yet they have set the World Cup ablaze, playing with as much relish and hunger as a hungry man eating relish. Colombia were all but written off in a lot of people’s minds when Radamel Falcao was ruled out of the tournament with a heartbreaking knee injury. Their talisman was not only their best player, but their best source of goals. Yet they’ve effortlessly qualified for second round, steamrolling Greece and overpowering (no easy feat) the Ivory Coast.
Of the world forces, only France has excelled consecutively. In an insanely easy group (Group E for Easy, even) they have thrashed Honduras and Switzerland, putting up 3-goal winning margins in both. If there’s a team that could use a morale-boosting, tranquil group stage, it’s France. We all know what can happen when they’re all down in the mouth, sacré bleu! Actually, “Vive la revolution!” may be the more appropriate phrase. Still, irrespective of their history of infighting and self-destruction, the French are going about the business of fulfilling expectations by winning Group E and racking up the goals in the process.
The competition is still in its infancy, of course; Brazil not looking like the champions-elect right now doesn’t mean much in the long run. Yet the sense is that, thanks to Spain’s demise, the World Cup is as open as it has been for a long time, with a number of teams with the potential to win it (and lose it). Nothing is guaranteed in football at the best of times, and this topsy-turvy World Cup has bemused and beguiled us, and so we’ll all just sit, breathless and naïve to the spectacles that await us in the latter stages.