World Cup Diary / Super Mario Leaves England Sweating

Three days in, this year's World Cup has been a brilliant run; even the games that sounded underwhelming were lively affairs,

AP

We’re not normally the type for hyperbole, but it’s got to be said: Three days in, this World Cup has been absolutely brilliant. Twelve games, and not a bad one among them. And, unusually, not a single tie (although we wouldn’t be surprised if Switzerland and Ecuador spoil that statistic Sunday evening).

Saturday featured 360 minutes of action, although you may have needed an equal number of espresso shots to witness them all. There will be no few people in Israeli offices this morning looking like extras from “The Walking Dead,” only operating with less brainpower.

Even the games that sounded underwhelming (Colombia vs. Greece, Uruguay vs. Costa Rica, Ivory Coast vs. Japan – the latter at 4 A.M. Israeli time) were lively affairs, with some wonderful goals – check out Wilfred Bony’s diving header for Ivory Coast  – and surprises.

Israelis citing a small population base as a reason for the country’s poor soccer showings should consider Costa Rica, the Central American nation with a population of under five million, yet which stunned Uruguay with a merited 3-1 victory.

There’s an interesting wonk take on soccer’s superpowers at the Washington Post, but best wait till you’re wide awake before reading it.

Pick of the day’s games was England versus Italy, where the Italians claimed a 2-1 victory but England surprised many with their adventurous approach and skilful, pacy forwards (take a bow, Raheem Sterling). As someone who witnessed England’s agonizingly inept performance against Algeria in 2010 (a 0-0 bore in Cape Town), this was a breath of fresh air, defeat or not.

Even the notoriously critical British press – one tabloid famously depicted the England team as vegetables following a Euro 1992 defeat to Sweden (“Swedes 2, Turnips 1”) – was supportive, although Wayne Rooney should probably avoid the dailies after his faltering performance and glaring second-half miss.

Luckily, the Brits found a scapegoat in the pundit performance of ex-international Phil Neville, whose lifeless analyses were savaged on Twitter. Even the police felt moved to comment: "Will be playing recordings of Phil Neville all night to keep the streets all calm and sleepy," tweeted one West Midlands force.

England coach Roy Hodgson had dreaded the heat and humidity of Manaus, and for the final 20 minutes his team were out on their feet. The number of English players cramping up was worrying, while match winner Mario Balotelli even called the “extreme” conditions “too hot.” The United States gets to sample the Amazonian jungle heat next Sunday against Portugal: best think of it as a, ahem, warm-up for Qatar.

In these circumstances, the performance of 35-year-old Italian Andrea Pirlo was even more impressive. The midfield maestro touched the ball 108 times, the most so far in the tournament, but, ironically, it was a move where he didn’t touch it – opting to let the ball roll between his legs for his fellow midfielder Claudio Marchisio to crash a drive home – that defined his class. Jogo bonito (“the beautiful game”) as the Brazilians like to say.

If Israel is looking for inspiration, it need look no further than Bosnia-Herzegovina, which makes its World Cup debut Sunday night with an enticing match against Leo Messi’s Argentina. With a population half the size of Israel’s, B-H is the latest of the former Yugoslav regions to over-perform on the world stage. Israeli coach Eli Guttman, please take notes (oh, and find a forward like Edin Dzeko, who has already scored over 30 international goals).

Then again, Guttman won’t be able to do much if this recent quote from a Maccabi Haifa player is an example of local players’ attitudes: “The worst punishment we could have gotten is the ride to Be’er Sheva, for a game that begins at 8 P.M. and ends at 10. By the time we’re back in Haifa, it will be long after midnight.” Midnight? Lightweights! Some of us were up until 6 A.M. watching games.

Today’s games

Group E
Switzerland vs. Ecuador, 7 P.M.
France vs. Honduras, 10 P.M.

Group F
Argentina vs. Bosnia- Herzegovina, 1 A.M.