World Cup Diary / Black Stars Shine, but Messi Still the Star Attraction

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Messi, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014.
Argentine striker Lionel Messi celebrates his goal against Iran during their World Cup football match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014. Credit: AFP

A pattern has emerged from the three daily group games at this year’s World Cup. The first game is generally low-key for an hour as the sides grapple with the heat, humidity and expectations. Then, it explodes into life after one team scores. The second game – the main feature – is a rip-roaring or dramatic encounter (think France vs. Switzerland, Uruguay vs. England). And the third game is a bit of an anti-climax after all that has gone before.

Take Saturday’s games as an example. The first game, Argentina vs. Iran, was attack versus defense for the first half, with the Iranians keeping eight or nine men behind the ball at all times, presumably in fear of getting a nosebleed if they ventured too high up the pitch. (Guys, it’s red lines we don’t want you to cross, not those white ones.)

But as the second half progressed, a miracle happened in Belo Horizonte: Iran crossed the halfway line with intent, and went close to scoring three times – each time thwarted by Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Even more amazingly, it did this despite attempting the least number of passes in a game (130) at a World Cup game since 1966. Yes, even less than those England teams that failed to pass muster.

Despite almost everyone in the crowd seemingly wearing an Argentina shirt, there was still plenty of backing for the Iranians from the neutrals in attendance (although whether a Brazilian watching Argentina is neutral is a moot point). It was reminiscent of the way crowds backed the North Koreans in South Africa four years ago. There’s something heartening about these so-called rogue states being adopted by soccer fans, whose love of an underdog trumps politics every time. (Although stories like this make it harder for you to throw your support behind the Iranians.)

Alas, like a eunuch in a massage parlor, there was no happy ending for the Iranians. Leo Messi, who had been anonymous for most of the game, produced a moment of genius in the 91st minute – a curling shot from 25 yards – to give the Argentines an undeserved victory. They may have qualified for the last 16, but so far they have been as convincing as an Anthony Weiner apology. We should probably assume that Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella hands in a team sheet reading “Messi, plus 10 others,” and then asks Pope Francis for back-up help.

Talking of divine things, if there’s a better 45 minutes than the madcap second half of Germany vs. Ghana, we can’t wait to see it. This was one of those games your mind tells you all World Cup matches before 1982 were like: two teams throwing caution to the wind, going for the jugular and any other cliché you care to enlist. Joachim Low – the German coach, who seems to pick his nose almost as much as he picks Bayern Munich players – is apparently under fire in Germany after overseeing three near-misses in successive major finals. The way his defense was run ragged by Ghana, he may well struggle to get the grand prize this time, too.

Top marks to the Black Stars for a gung-ho approach, and for so nearly getting the win their attitude merited. Ghana was unlucky to lose to the United States, and it would have been cruel to see such an enterprising, entertaining side bow out now. Kudos to Ghana’s first goalscorer, Andre Ayew, for his wonderful header and all-round cheerleading skills, and also Miroslav Klose, who equalled Ronaldo’s World Cup scoring record by hitting the German equalizer with his first touch, 112 seconds after entering the pitch. Not bad for a 36-year-old.

There has been an average of 2.9 goals per game so far, and even though Nigeria-Bosnia Herzegovina only contributed one (by Nigeria’s Peter Odemwingie), it could have been more – Bosnia’s Edin Dzeko had eight shots alone, one of which was erroneously disallowed.

Sunday sees the last of the three-games a day routine, and they may have saved the best until last: U.S.A. vs Portugal. A win tonight and the Americans are through, Cristiano Ronaldo is out. The most interesting statistic from this game may well be the number of Americans that tune in. Could a successful tournament be that long-awaited tipping point for U.S. soccer? Some think so.

Let’s reconvene tomorrow to see if the Americans managed a repeat of this classic.