World Cup Diary / What’s Portuguese for 'Dodgy Ref?’

Israelis would have felt at home watching the proceedings of the games' first day.

AFP

The World Cup began in lively fashion Thursday night with a series of firsts: First-ever Brazilian own goal at a World Cup tournament; debut appearance of the vanishing spray that demarcates 10 yards for a free kick near the penalty area (we loved the moment when the referee sprayed over a Croatian player’s boots); first entertaining opening match since, well, about 1930.

The Brazilian side that beat Croatia 3-1 looked like a work-in-progress – much like the Sao Paolo stadium itself ($400 million really doesn’t get you a lot these days). And when an average Spurs player (Paulinho) and a guy (Gustavo) looking like a member of ‘70s crooners The Commodores is your idea of a winning midfield, you’re clearly headed back to the drawing board.

Previous entries:
JUNE 12: Stars, Stars of David - but no Samba in Brazil

Israelis would have felt at home watching proceedings. For starters, there was that unfinished stadium, with the humungous temporary stand behind a goal (quite a week for temporary stands, what with this one and the Iraqi army’s in Mosul).

Then there was the dodgy Croatian goalkeeping, with goalkeeper Pletikosa culpable for at least two of the three Brazilian goals. Seriously, there are Israeli free-diving champions who have completed dives in less time.

Sadly, Pletikosa’s reaction speeds brought back painful memories of Israeli keeper Ariel Harush’s much-derided recent performance against Mexico. But his ineptitude was eclipsed by that of Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura, who gave the softest of penalties to help the home side to three points. One day, FIFA may see sense and pick the best referees from around the world, no matter what continent they’re from. Then again, we are talking about the federation that opted for a summer World Cup in Qatar, so probably not.

Quote of the day came from Croatia coach Niko Kovac: “If that’s a penalty, we don’t need to play football anymore. Let’s play basketball instead. It’s a shame.” It would be an even bigger shame for 5’ 8” Croatian midfielder Luka Modrić, the best player on the pitch last night but definitely not on Euroleague champs’ Maccabi Tel Aviv’s radar.

The tournament starts in earnest today, with lots of Israelis set to attend the Spain vs. Netherlands game. Proof that Israel is a soccer nation can be found in the fact that Israelis bought more World Cup tickets than any other nation (in relation to population size, anyway).

Tonight’s match in Salvador was the most popular for ticket-buying Israelis, so look out for lots of them in the crowd. (How will you know they’re Israeli? Easy: They’ll be the ones next to a pile of sunflower seeds the height of Luka Modrić.)

Spain and the Netherlands were finalists four years ago, of course, but let’s hope tonight’s game is a better demonstration of the beautiful game than Johannesburg in 2010. Indeed, this is pretty much the only thing people remember from that game:

A lot of people seem to be dismissing Spain’s chances, so tonight gives us our first chance to see if their “tika taka” style of play is soooo 2013. Then again, they lost their first group game in 2010 (1-0 against Switzerland), and things turned out OK, as we recall. We’re putting our money on them to win 2-1. After all, as they say in Sao Paolo, class is permanent, but form and stands are temporary.

Today’s games:

Group A:
Mexico Vs. Cameroon 7 P.M. (Israel time)

Group B:
Spain Vs. Netherlands 10 P.M.
Chile Vs. Australia 1 A.M.