Sports

World Cup: Messi Magic, the Group(s) of Death, and Dutch Confidence

Argentina
Argentina's Lionel Messi (10) scrambles to get back to the ball against Bosnia defenders Emir Spahic (4) and Sead Kolasinac (5) during their group F World Cup soccer match at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, June 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
— image credit: Photo for: Messi scores and lifts Argentina 2-1 over Bosnia

Most people figured Chile would make it out of Group B, and either Spain or the Netherlands would follow. Why not both? Well, it wouldn't be symmetrical enough. Chile are a trendy South American pick, and you had to think one of the other two Europeans would go stale – either the Dutch because they failed to advance at Euro 2012 with largely the same key players as they have now, or the Spanish because they've been the best team in the world for six years, and they've gotta fall eventually.

But most of us thought Spain would be the team to go through. (I did.) And none of us thought Holland would explode for five goals – three of them highlight of the night-worthy tallies – and flat-out embarrass Spain in the process. (At least, well, I don't think anyone predicted that score line.)

But that's what confidence does for you.

There was a moment in the match, right after Robin van Persie's diving header tied the game at 1-1 – just before the half – where you could see everyone in Oranje look at each other and go, "Oh, um, so we can do this."

It was a confidence that didn't exist in that World Cup final in 2010, when the Dutch abandoned their skill and instead resorted to kicking their opponents in the chest, and it didn't exist in 2012. But once the flood gate opened, there was no stopping Arjen Robben or van Persie or Wesley Sneijder, who seems like a whole new clutch man now that his hair has magically returned.

The Best

It's sort of ridiculous that we can't just enjoy how great players like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – or Zlatan Ibrahimovic – are, as if there has to be just one great one. Every goal Messi scores is weighed against the season Ronaldo just had. Every win for either team puts the pressure on the other guy to do the same, and do it better.

Sure, it's only pushed each of these all-time talents to eclipse their past accomplishments. Soccer wins. Your TV wins.

On Sunday, with Argentina lethargically ahead 1-0 over a passionate-playing Bosnia & Herzegovina team, Messi did what Messi has done so often. He went from 0 to 100 and shredded the offensive zone playing give-and-go around pylons-by-comparison, before he perfectly placed a left-footer off the left post and in.

2-0 Argentina. They'd go on to win 2-1.

Your move, Ronaldo.

Hopefully the other guy was watching, and he'll take his envy out this morning when Portugal plays Germany (9:00 a.m. on CBC).

France Should Be Your Favourite Team...

They're just so unlikeable, aren't they?

I don't mean that in a traditionally discriminatory way. But start with the way this tournament divides Europe into its post-War lines, with the World Cup ironically uniting everyone under one game while it also pushes each nationality further behind its own borders. Then, add their mutiny in 2010, and mix in that bizarre head-butt from 2006 and that hand ball in 2009. In the last eight years, the French have been a PR disaster.

No kind of fan can relate to them or love them – they're not all cute and orange like the Dutch, they weren't a team like the Spanish, they're not as perennially competitive like the Germans, and they don't have our pity like the English do.

But you watch their first game – a 3-0 throttling of humble Honduras – and suddenly you're forgetting all that stuff above. Even without Franck Ribery, the French are a deep, efficient team. They expelled their own drama and they've turned the page from 2010, and they were rewarded with a group where their biggest challenge is either Ecuador or Switzerland.

Since 1998, France has either been in the final of a World Cup or they've crashed out in humiliating fashion. But this team looks much more fit for the former than the latter.

The Groups of Death

By about 4:30 p.m. today, we'll have a very good idea of who's fit to survive the Group of Death, after Portugal, Germany, Ghana, and the United States divide their turf and make their first impressions.

Germany is expect to beat Portugal, but if Ronaldo can will his club to a win – in a country that has to feel like home, just a little bit – it will put every other team on its heels. The United States should beat Ghana and Ghana could very well beat the United States, but neither can sleepwalk through their opener, even if they win.

These teams don't have the luxury that Argentina has in Group F. If the U.S. or Ghana – or Portugal, for that matter – show any kind of weakness, the heavyweights will smell blood and they'll pounce.

(*A win by Portugal today would also prove they're more than just a one-man team, because they'll need to have contributions from all 11 guys to beat a stacked team like Germany. The Portuguese took some major steps in 2012, when they were the only team that truly challenged Spain down the stretch and lost in the semifinal. But if Portugal loses, it will be same-old, same-old from Ronaldo's team and it would be pretty ho-hum from the Germans, who always look indestructible early on.)

We saw largely the same thing on Saturday, in the tournament's other group of death – Group D with Uruguay, Costa Rica, Italy, and England.

The English played a strong game in defeat, but the Italians are built around their back-end and – even though it wasn't pretty – the Azzurri won in the exact fashion they wanted to win it. Meanwhile, when Uruguay – who took the field without star Luis Suarez – got spanked 3-1 by Costa Rica, it took them down a siginificant peg with the world watching. They may have the same amount of points as England right now, but their debut was far less impressive and you have to expect both the English and the Italians are now frothing to get their shot at the other half of their bracket.

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