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World Cup Week 1: Swiss stun Spain

First 16 games in South Africa show few goals and a quirky new ball.

Switzerland scores in World Cup match
Switzerland's Gelson Fernandes, second right, celebrates after scoring against Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas, left, in the 2010 World Cup Group H match at Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban June 16, 2010. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

BOSTON — All 32 teams in World Cup 2010 have now played their first games, the round ending with a bang (or the lack of one) when Switzerland stunned defending European champion Spain 1-0.

Whatever home-field advantage South Africa might have had was squandered Wednesday, as the Bafana Bafana were crushed 3-0 by Uruguay. South Africa is now almost assured of being the first host country not to advance from the first round.

The first set of games of the first round is traditionally a cautious exercise, much like early rounds in a boxing match, with teams reluctant to take too many chances and risk an early knockout blow.

Still, we learned a few things about World Cup 2010 or at least have taken away some distinct impressions. In particular, we learned something about how the U.S. team plays and what it will face in its second match against Slovenia tomorrow.

Goals: They were certainly few and far between in South Africa, as precious as diamonds. At the 2006 World Cup, teams averaged 2.3 goals per game, tying an all-time low. In the 16 openers in South Africa, there was an average of only 1.6 goals per game — and there were just 26 goals scored compared to 39 in the first 16 games of Germany 2006. Only four teams — Germany, Netherlands, South Korea and Brazil — scored as many as two goals and only Germany, with four, scored more than that.

Goalkeepers: The offensive caution demonstrated by most every team meant few keepers were severely tested. There were perhaps three extraordinary performances in goal, by the U.S., Nigerian and Swiss keepers.

By contrast, there were as many amateur-hour blunders in the nets and, as fate always has it, they were all costly. England’s Robert Green memorably let the ball spin off his chest and arm and dribble into the net to gift the Americans. And Paraguay’s keeper whiffed when he went to punch out a corner kick, allowing defending champion Italy to escape with the tie.

Algeria’s keeper was punished even more when he let a soft shot elude him for the only score in a 1-0 loss. None of the offenders used the new, lighter Adidas ball, which everyone — but especially goalkeepers — complained about before the Cup even began, as an excuse.

The Ball: It is difficult for anyone to determine what can be attributed to the newly designed ball and what might be the effect of so many games at altitude as well as fields hardened by the winter chill. Still, some things became clear. If a player didn’t corral a pass, long or short, on first touch, he almost never caught up with the ball. And set plays seemed slightly less dangerous, as free kicks from dead-on tended to soar high over the net and few players demonstrated much control over headers. It is too early to be definitive, but the new ball may be a killjoy by making goals even harder to come by.

The Refs: There is always the fear that, for all the talent and tactics, some officiating blunder will ultimately loom largest. For example, Italy’s 2006 championship run got a boost from the ref when, in the final seconds of a scoreless game with Australia, the ref awarded the Azzurri a penalty kick on a non-foul.

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Through the first 16 games of World Cup 2010, only one, the scoreless tie between Portugal and Ivory Coast, was officiated poorly enough to become a frequent subject of lament by the ESPN crew. And there was only a single penalty kick awarded. Still, there will always be questionable calls and they will often prove to have significant repercussions: a red-card ejection for Australia’s best player, Tim Cahill; a narrow offside that was missed on Slovakia’s goal in its 1-1 tie with New Zealand; a yellow card given an Ivory Coast player when the great Cristiano Ronaldo took one of his patented dives, untouched by the defender. The odds remain that FIFA’s feeble excuses for rejecting all technological assistance will eventually come back to haunt them.

ESPN: Kudos to the ESPN announcing crews for their superb work. They have been smart, informative and, at times, funny, and they haven’t shied from criticizing teams, players and officials that warrant it. Extra credit goes to Host Broadcast Services, which provides the world feed, for muting the vuvuzela horns, making their incessant blare only annoying rather than painful.

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