Wednesday, June 16, 2010


World Cup: First Half Fit To Be Tied

by Wayne Robins

Another World Cup match, another first half, 45 minutes of mostly inaction, with the score tied at 0-0. That's the Wednesday morning score of Spain vs Switzerland. And that's been the halftime score of 9 of the 16 matches played in South Africa so far in the FIFA World Cup 2010.

Though knowledgeable soccer fans can appreciate the often tense attrition of a hard fought nil-nil match, there has been little this year to persuade skeptical Americans that low scoring soccer is worth their time or attention. The problem is that too many teams in the first round are playing to avoid defeat rather than to win. That is a sound strategy for a heavy underdog to linger in the competition: While there may be no crying (or ties) in baseball, or moral victories in American football, tying a superior team is often as good as a win in World Cup soccer. (A team gets three points for a win, one point for a tie, so it is possible to move forward in the tournament without actually winning, as long as one doesn't lose too much.)

But some 0-0 first halves can be dramatic: Witness Tuesday's intense battle between Brazil (ranked No. 1 in the world) and North Korea (ranked 105). The 0-0 halftime score stunned Brazil and most onlookers, and up-ended the predictable emotional/geopolitical equilibrium, for those of us who identify with Brazilian culture, and North Korea, not so much: As the second half began, one who enjoys epic upsets might have instinctively cheered on the North Koreans. As soon as Brazil scored one goal, the pendulum swung back, and the hedonistic party boys from South America began sweeping their fans, and the North Koreans, off their feet. When Brazil scored a second goal, the lead seemed insurmountable. But in the 88th minute, Ji Yun Nam of North Korea broke through the overconfident Brazilian defense and nailed the ball past some-say-best-in-the-world goalkeeper Julio Cesar. It was 2-1, and with about four minutes left, it was hard to deny rooting for North Korea to do it again and leave the festival favorites with a tie: It would have been ashes for Brazil, champagne for North Korea.

As this is being posted, Switzerland has taken a 1-0 lead over Spain: Watch for Switzerland to go into a defensive crouch and Spain to finally, play for keeps the last 28 minutes. If Spain scores, expect Switzerland to play for the tie.

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