Andy Kirkaldy: World Cup looks to be wide open; time for Spain

This is a football column. No, not what we in the USA call football. Those who want to discuss whether the Giants should sign Odell Beckham Jr., whatever the heck Ben Roethlisberger was saying about his contract this weekend, or why the Patriots drafted a running back in the first round should look elsewhere, at least for today.
Because it’s time for the Copa Mundial de Futbol, the Coupe du Monde de Football, the World Cup of Football.  
Wonder strikes — hello, Nacho and Coutinho! Spain’s tiki-taka. England’s inevitable failure. Yellow cards. Drama queens acting like they’ve taken sniper fire after being tripped. National pride resting on the feet and foreheads of fit young men with prodigious amounts of hair product. Fans singing and dancing non-stop for 90 minutes.
I’ve heard all the jokes about paint drying. The lack of action and goals. And yes, the play-acting and time-wasting, melodrama that, yes, we could do with less of and FIFA could easily get rid of by timing its game rather than keeping time a mystery and tacking on vague and unexplained “stoppage time.” Just stop the clock for substitutions and injuries and display the time. At least they have a partial video replay system now. Welcome to the 20th century, FIFA, one more to go.
Anyway, I digress. The larger point is give me face paint and tri-color wigs and flags in the stands and Chicharito full speed on the counterattack with a wing on either flank against two German defenders and the possibility of something amazing about to happen.
So a few days in, what have we learned? Most matches are well officiated. And then there is Brazil-Switzerland, in which the referee allowed the Swiss to treat Brazilian standout Neymar like a piñata, looked the other way when the Swiss pushed off for their tying goal, and then failed to award Brazil a penalty kick after an obvious foul. This official will be working youth matches in Siberia for the next month. Unless he was just following Putin’s orders, always a possibility.
As for picking a winner, those people with Germany in their office pools are probably feeling a little anxious right now after the Mexico upset. On the other hand, Brazil, Argentina and Spain did little better, all tying in their opening matches. Belgium, another betting favorite, looked good, but, well, they’re still Belgium, which has never won a major tournament.
It’s been noted that only eight teams have ever won the World Cup: Brazil (five times), Germany/West Germany and Italy (four apiece), Argentina and Uruguay (two each) and Spain, France and England (one apiece). Only England does not share a land border with at least one of the other countries, but who’s going to quibble with 35 kilometers of the English Channel … oh, sorry, got carried away with the international stuff, 19 miles.
As of Sunday night sports analysis site fivethirtyeight.com put the chances of one of those teams (even with Italy absent) winning again at 68 percent.
So, which? Brazil showed flashes of brilliance, but the Swiss did make the Brazilian midfield look ordinary. Mexico was certainly a little lucky, but offered a way to frustrate the German side through careful defending and quick countering. France barely got past Australia and once again struggled to make its talent mesh.
Argentina looked dangerous, but Messi still doesn’t appear well integrated into the team, and the Argentines, for all their possession, rarely got deep into Iceland’s defense. Uruguay didn’t impress in a 1-0 win vs. an Egypt team playing without its best player. England hasn’t figured out a way to win since 1968 on its own turf.
Spain? There’s an interesting case. Spain’s 3-3 draw with Ronaldo, er, Portugal, was clearly the best of the early matches. The Spaniards have brought new blood, such as Nacho, Diego Costa and the dynamic Isco onto the team that dominated the international scene a decade ago and won the 2010 World Cup.
But Spain also retained some of the key players, such as Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba. It’s an intriguing combination. While the defense at times looked vulnerable vs. Portugal, all three goals were eminently preventable — two unnecessary fouls and a goalkeeper error.
And Spain also looks more assertive on offense. Maybe Spain can make another run. For sure, Spain, along with Brazil, Germany, Messi and Ronaldo will provide the most viewing excitement.
At least if you like this sort of thing. If not, NFL rookies report to their teams between July 19 and 27.

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