For many soccer purists, the World Cup actually begins today, with the Round of 16.
Each of the World Cup competitions held from 1930 through 1978 had a 16-team format (though for various political reasons only 13 teams participated in 1930 and 1950). The number of participants was increased to 24 in 1982 and to 32 in 1998.
The frenzy of matches over the past two weeks has resulted in the elimination of 16 teams, and now the stage is set for the dramatic knockout phase of the World Cup. If the first two weeks of this year's event are any indication, prepare yourselves for some hard-fought games with lots of early and late goals along with, unfortunately, some more dubious refereeing.
The arbiters of these games have gone crazy with the cards, peeling them out at an alarming rate, mostly for unnecessary reasons. Fortunately, the matches themselves have been rather exciting, with plenty of drama emerging toward the end of the matches, such as in the England-Sweden and Japan-Australia games.
Through the first round of play, the perennial favorites have produced mixed results. Brazil looked sluggish, but won all three of its games. Spain and Portugal looked much better winning their three opening matches. Although England and France struggled to make it to the second round, Germany rose to the occasion and scored goals galore to make it to the knockout stage.
The most impressive team after first-round play is undoubtedly Argentina. The South Americans played crisp, collective soccer en route to a 2-1 victory over dangerous Ivory Coast and a 0-0 tie with European power Holland.
But the Argentines' 6-0 demolition of Serbia-Montenegro emerged as the marquee performance of the first round and perhaps the entire cup. The Serbs only allowed one goal in their entire qualifying campaign, yet Argentina managed to score six in 90 minutes. In the process, teenage phenom Lionel Messi notched a goal and an assist in his World Cup debut.
The United States national team deserves special mention in this column for its frightening display of ineptitude. Save for a gallant nine-man effort against Italy in a 1-1 tie, the lack of effort in matches against the Czech Republic and Ghana was disappointing, to say the least.
In a World Cup teams are supposed to battle furiously back after being a goal down to win or tie their games. I never got a sense that the U.S. was desperate to win in either game. Message to coach Bruce Arena and players Eddie Lewis, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and Kasey Keller: goodbye, and good luck. I look forward to thinking about your replacements for the next World Cup.
There are some great matches ahead in the Round of 16: Germany vs. Sweden; Argentina vs. Mexico; England vs. Ecuador; Portugal vs. Holland; Italy vs. Australia; Switzerland vs. Ukraine; Brazil vs. Ghana; and Spain vs. France.
On paper, I expect Germany, Argentina, Italy, and Brazil to advance. Portugal vs. Holland is a toss-up, while Spain should edge out France. Every World Cup features a surprise quarterfinalist, and perhaps Ecuador or Ukraine will rise to the occasion.