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First 16 games in South Africa show few goals and a quirky new ball.
Vuvuzelas: Not my instrument of choice. But FIFA did the right thing (did I actually write those words?) by taking no action to ban them. If they do cause communication problems on the field, they cause them for all teams. (And no surprise that the cheeky French, the team that is in South Africa on a blown call and an ethical lapse, complained the loudest.) Moreover, besides the delicate cultural and economic issues that a prohibition might raise, what next? With World Cup 2014 in Brazil, would they consider banning the samba in the stands? Personally I find the samba rhythms of the Brazil’s female fans more distracting than anything else I’ve ever heard or seen at a soccer game.
South Africa: The biggest problems to date — fans having trouble getting in one stadium, the American team caravan stalled by elephants, robberies of some journalists and others — have been but minor glitches. Still, one wishes organizers could have figured out how, for some of the low-demand games with plenty of empty seats visible, to get tickets into the hands of deserving youth teams.
Africa: Most fans are pulling for the home team and other African squads to perform well and to progress far in the tournament. But West Africa and North Africa are a distant piece and South Africa may be the only side from the continent with a true home-field advantage. South Africa did secure a draw against Mexico, but only Ghana among the African teams managed a victory in its first game.
Europe: The soccer world propagates the notion of European soccer superiority. But the European teams have never won a World Cup outside of Europe. (Brazil, by contrast, has won in Chile, Mexico, the United States, Sweden and Japan). South Africa is certainly a long trip for everyone, but didn’t require a time-zone adjustment for the European teams. Still, Europe finished the first round with a performance emblematic of mediocrity: four wins, four losses and five draws.
Four European teams ranking in the world top 10 — Portugal, Italy, England and France — managed ties while number-two ranked Spain lost its opener. Spain will now struggle to advance to the second round and, if it survives, may wind up facing Brazil, a game that many believed they wouldn’t see until the finals.
The United States: The surprising U.S. tie against England obviously boosts the Americans’ chances of reaching the second round of World Cup 2010. Still, the Yanks will likely have to gain at least another tie against Slovenia in their second match tomorrow if they hope to advance in South Africa.
To the uninitiated in World Cup soccer and the past travails of American teams in the competition, little and relatively low-ranked Slovenia (25th to the U.S.’ 14th and England’s 8th) might not appear too much of an obstacle. But Slovenia is just the kind of defensive-minded side that has always given the U.S. fits.
Moreover, historically the American team has lacked consistency. Indeed, it has been pretty consistently inconsistent. In 2002, after it stunned Portugal 3-2 and forged a tie against the host country South Korea, which would go on to the semi-finals, it got whipped by Poland and almost missed the second round. Four years ago, it followed up a tie against Italy, the only blemish on the Italians’ path to the championship, by losing to Ghana, sending it home after the first round.
The Americans were game in their opener and not intimidated by England. But they were hardly outstanding — only goalkeeper Tim Howard and right back Steve Cherundolo got highest marks from me — and the team was lucky to salvage a tie. With first-game nerves now behind everyone, they will likely have to perform better just to gain the same vital one point.
Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to include the result of the South Africa-Uruguay match.