The first round of the football World Cup is never without its surprises. Perhaps the greatest came in the 1990 Italian edition of the Cup, when an unheralded Cameroon team, without a single first-division player, stunned Diego Maradona’s Argentinians in the opening match with a superb display of intensely physical football. There are fewer unknowns in today’s global game, now that European club football scouts have gotten ever better at identifying and soaking up talent from the rest of the world. But that doesn’t mean that glorious upsets don’t still happen – the sort of results that keep the world hanging on to games that, on paper, look like foregone conclusions. Indeed, defending champions are sometimes most at risk. In 1990, Argentina were defending champions. Much later, in 2002, 1998’s all-conquering French team were eliminated in the first round. Italy, which won the Cup in 2006, also crashed out in the first round in 2010. And, in Brazil in 2014, it is the Spanish team – which has dominated world football since it won the European championship six years ago – which has been been sent ignominiously crashing out.
Spain’s slide began at the hands of the Dutch – the very team that the Spanish beat in the final of the last Cup, in South Africa. This should not entirely be a surprise. That 2014 final was redolent with odd resonances. The “Orange” team wore orange in memory of a war of independence against a Spanish king whose soldiers wore the red-and-gold the national team still wears; the South African crowds overwhelmingly supported a Dutch team full of names they will have found familiar, as belonging to that country’s apartheid-era Afrikaner elite. But perhaps the oddest resonance was that Spain’s fluid, possession-intensive style – the “tiki-taka” of complex passes and the unbreakable midfield quadrilateral – was associated, before Spain, with nobody as much as Johan Cruyff’s magical Dutch team of the 1970s. Cruyff bequeathed that style to FC Barcelona, and thence to the Spanish national team – which used it against Cruyff’s successors from the Netherlands. But that style never won Cruyff’s flying Dutchmen a Cup, because it is so very vulnerable to the attacking, aerial football that the Dutch of 2014 deployed with such devastating efficiency. It is not perhaps just age that brought an end to Spanish dominance of football. After all, the Dutch strikers who kept on finding the net are not young men, either. It was also because their once world-beating style had been successfully challenged.
It isn’t just Spain that has had a spot of trouble. England’s national team, once again, has failed to live up to the hopes of its fans, the headlines of its media, and the excellence of its premier league. Not since 1966, when the Beatles ruled the charts, has England won a World Cup; and with every year that passes, it seems their chances get dimmer and dimmer. Five members of the magnificent 2013-14 Liverpool FC side were on the pitch for England on Friday, raising unfortunate Albion’s hopes; but a sixth Liverpudlian appeared in the light blue of Uruguay, and it was Luis Suarez, fresh out of a wheelchair, who knocked in two to send the English home – barring a miracle. And, a day later, the tiny Central American country of Costa Rica beat the mighty Italians to be the first to qualify from Group D – a group in which the three other teams are former champions. The greatness of the World Cup is that, like history itself, it will keep on producing new champions.
But there is also a pattern to these defeats. Italy beaten by Costa Rica. England by Uruguay. And Spain, after its Dutch disaster, by the Chileans, 2-0. (For those keeping historical score, the Spanish empire was not just beaten by the Dutch in the 17th century, but also by the Chileans, in 1821.) The fancied European teams are being seen off by the Latin Americans. Perhaps it’s the weather – it was 29 degrees when Costa Rica beat Italy, and 70 per cent humidity. Or perhaps it’s just South America’s turn.