SOCCER

The joy of the World Cup

 

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

Henry Kissinger was wrong to dismiss Chile as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” On Wednesday, the South American nation was a scalpel that excised the soul of Spain.

As a lifelong soccer fan, Kissinger doubtless understands what I mean: A particularly delightful and surprising World Cup tournament — the world’s greatest sporting event — is in full swing.

Who would have imagined that the Chilean upstarts could so thoroughly embarrass mighty Spain, the defending World Cup champions? The score was 2-0, but the match wasn’t nearly that close.

Midway through the opening round, the whole tournament has been a fiesta of the unanticipated. Favorites are looking shaky, dark horses are rising and the United States is undefeated. After just one match, but still.

Most surprising of all, Americans are watching. Monday’s contest in which the U.S. squad defeated archrival Ghana 2-1 was watched by 15.9 million viewers on ESPN and Univision. That’s the second-highest viewership ever for a World Cup match — a 2010 contest against England had 17.1 million viewers — and the upcoming USA-Portugal match on Sunday could set a new record.

Almost as unexpected is that Spain is out. Done. Finito. The loss to Chile followed a brutal 5-1 drubbing by the Netherlands. Never before has a defending champion been eliminated so quickly — but that’s not why Spain’s defeat is such an important milestone.

What this means is that Spain’s distinctive style of play, which has been enormously influential throughout the sport, may have had its day. Spain plays a game of possession, keeping the ball for long stretches through a series of lightning-quick passes that require great skill and precision — a style that came to be known as tiki taka. When you see them at their best, you understand why the onomatopoeic name fits.

Against the Dutch and the Chileans, though, tiki taka looked slow and purposeless. Spain’s opponents attacked more directly, relying on speed and power.

The overwhelming favorite this year was, and I suppose remains, the tournament’s host country. But Brazil, the only team to have won the quadrennial World Cup five times, has looked — how shall I put this? — not unbeatable.

Brazil defeated plucky Croatia 3-1 last Thursday in the tournament’s opening match, but showed little of the brilliance and creativity that its fans expect to see. The team showed even less of its traditional jogo bonito — “beautiful game” — style of play in laboring to a scoreless tie with Mexico on Tuesday.

By the way, my strongly held opinion is that Americans should never refer to a 0-0 tie as “nil-nil,” which is what a British broadcaster would say. We are not British broadcasters. If we are going to become soccer fans, we need to develop an American lexicon for the game. Never say “nil.” Say “nothing-nothing” or “three-zip” or “four-zero.” And continue to call it soccer. In this country, the word “football” is taken.

Now that we’ve taken care of how Americans should talk about soccer, the next question is how we should play it. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a legendary German star, has said his goal is to have his players develop a distinctive national style. The rest of the tournament will show how much progress he has made.

Against Ghana, the team that eliminated the United States in the last two World Cups, Klinsmann’s squad showed plenty of grit and determination. If the Americans are to go any further, the emergence of other defining attributes — extraordinary speed, dazzling skill, tactical brilliance, whatever — would be helpful.

Klinsmann said beforehand that he candidly did not believe the U.S. squad could win this World Cup. In such an unscripted tournament, who knows? My own view has been that when young Michael Jordans begin choosing to spend their afternoons at soccer fields rather than basketball courts, the United States will become a great power in the world’s favorite sport.

In the meantime, Germany was awe-inspiring in its opening match. Brazil may find its rhythm. Argentina would love to ruin its rival’s big party. Italy looked surprisingly good. The Dutch could finally win.

And watch out for Chile.

© 2014, Washington

Post Writers Group

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
OBAMA

    EXCLUSIVE

    Michelle Obama: We can end veteran homelessness

    At the beginning of June, 85 mayors, governors and county officials from across the country — and across the political spectrum — signed on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness. Today, we’re announcing that in the two months since then, 87 more state and local leaders have pledged that they will end homelessness among veterans in their communities by the end of 2015.

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">POVERTY:</span> GOP Rep. Paul Ryan has offered a new plan for using federal anti-poverty funds.

    In My Opinion

    Leonard Pitts: Give Paul Ryan credit for his ideas on poverty

    Cover your eyes and hide the kids: A Republican is talking poverty.

  •  
DOCKERY

    MEDICAID EXPANSION

    Medicaid expansion should be a no-brainer

    The Florida Medical Association, the politically powerful lobbying organization that represents the state’s doctors, recently approved a resolution endorsing Medicaid expansion for Florida’s low-income uninsured.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category