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Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Pressure? Let's see if Spain is feeling it

4:07 p.m., Cozy Soup 'n' Burger, Astor Place, New York

Portugal and Ivory Coast conspired to prove that the only risk of fatality in the much-hyped Group of Death was of boredom to those watching. The Portuguese managed to alienate more casual American viewers than a choral symphony of vuvuzelas with their game plan, which centered on an otherwise sloppy Ronaldo tumbling at the slightest touch in order to draw free kicks he could then spank goalward. The one time he caught the ball flushly, Michael Davies' player of the tournament -- the post -- leapt in to save the day. Didier Drogba donned a cast to enter the fray in the second half, but the rivalry between the Ivorian and Ronaldo remains more heated in the offices of Vanity Fair than it was on the field of play.

The mighty Brazilians were pragmatic yet never scintillating. They donned gloves and a straight flush of shirts numbered 1 to 11, but displayed little football intelligence during a first half in which they allowed the clinically organized North Koreans to resemble Inter Milan. Two goals in the second half gave them a 2-1 victory everywhere in the world apart from North Korean television, where they were stunned 0-1.

Meanwhile, the name Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz remains on the short list for our soon-to-be-born child. New Zealand Super Striker Smeltz appeared unnerved for much of the All Whites' storming 1-1 comeback tie against the occasionally fluid Slovakians. He managed to deposit a late, point-blank header as far away from goal as is humanly possible. But deep into injury time, Smeltzy displayed the heart of a giant and the footwork of a tiny dancer as he floated over a pinpoint cross for Winston Reid to barrel home, earning a first point in four World Cup games for the Kiwis, courtesy of their first goal against a team other than the Scottish.

Wednesday promises three cracking games worth salivating over as we complete the opening round of the draw. I prophesize goals-a-plenty.

Honduras versus Chile, 7:30 a.m. ET, Nelspruit

Those who adore Bono's World Cup promo in which he rhapsodizes that the tournament is "not about politics, or religion, or the economy," will want to steer clear of this matchup. It is about all that and more. Chile is still recovering from the devastating earthquake that battered the country in February. Honduras' qualification last fall brought joy to strife-strewn streets, which had witnessed a coup just weeks earlier. How much would a victory mean to either team? When Chile scored in a 4-2 victory over Colombia, helping it qualify for South Africa, the commentator let out this joyous stream of consciousness: "Goal, goal, goal, goal, goal. The fire is lit, the illusions are lit, gather coal, unite all, throw the match, dream with the illusions, enjoy the moment, prepare for a toast, enlist the suitcases, open the liquor, buy the tickets, break the piggy bank, because we are going to South Africa."

Honduras is a team equipped with sufficient talent to surprise, but protracted arguments surrounding bonuses and payments have been a distraction. Two English Premier League stars form a central core of the team: Wilson Palacios, a thunderous midfielder known as "Harry Potter" because of the magic he can perform with his feet, and Maynor Figueroa, a skillful defender. Palacios has been battling a thigh injury but should play. The absence of Carlos Costly, a consistent goal scorer, has deprived the World Cup of one of its greatest names, though an appearance off the bench by Georgie Welcome may compensate.

The Chileans were a surprise second to Brazil in South American qualifying, slotting home 32 goals along the way (only Brazil, with 33, had more). Stern disciplinarian coach Marcelo Bielsa, known as "The Madman," has molded a young, inexperienced squad, keen to surge forward like a poker player going all-in. The Chileans' prime goal is to end a streak of 13 winless World Cup matches stretching back to the third-place match in 1962. If they make the elimination rounds, how far can the naïve confidence of youth take them?

Plump striker Humberto Suazo, a game-time decision due to a hamstring injury, is critical to their attacking flow, as is Alexis Sanchez, a young prodigy known as "El Niño Maravilla." The Asociación de Fanáticos del Fútbol Chileno has encouraged fans to light a digital candle to campaign for Coach Bielsa's canonization. Right now, 71,000 candles have been lit. A victory should enable the fanatics to surpass their goal of 100,000. Arise, Saint Marcelo.

Spain versus Switzerland, 10 a.m. ET, Durban

Traditionally talent-rich yet mentally fragile, Spain went 10-0 in qualifying but must now confront its history of dazzling early in international competition, only to implode once the elimination round begins. This all changed at Euro 2008, when Spain's constant motion and precise passing paper-cut all comers to death. Barcelona's smurfish midfield tandem of Andres Iniesta and Xavi displayed the kind of clockwork precision previously the purview of teenage video game addicts. Up front, Fernando Torres is the poster boy, but his sometime partner David Villa is more precise, a striker whose modest demeanor masks a ruthless talent. At their best, the Spaniards appear telepathic, but can the players cope with the immense pressure of being favorites from the outset?

Last week, the headlines of sports daily Marca commanded: "Spain are the best in the world. Now, we have to prove it." Spain's ability to do so may lie on the Spanish treatment table, which has seen more action than most of the games we have witnessed, as it has been busied by the assorted healing body parts of Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Torres. Spain is blessed with a deep bench. It may need it.

Switzerland has medical issues of its own to deal with and will be missing midfielder Valon Behrami and captain Alex Frei, possibly the unluckiest player in international footy. He blew out his knee during the first game of Euro 2008 and is currently recovering from an ankle injury. The Swiss' stingy defense will offer an interesting test for the Spanish possession-based game. At the last World Cup the Swiss departed after a penalty shootout in the round of 16, becoming the first team to be eliminated without leaking a single goal.

Scoring has been a Swiss weakness. None of the forwards has found the net in the past five games. Tranquillo Barnetta will seek to drive the midfield forward and Congo-born attacker Blaise Nkufo, who has been called "The Poor Man's Emile Heskey" (a description which will be hard for some to visualize), will be headed to the Seattle Sounders of MLS as soon as Switzerland is eliminated, which will be soon if Frei does not recuperate. Spain has never lost to Switzerland, winning 15 of their 18 previous fixtures. It is hard to imagine this will change on Wednesday.

South Africa versus Uruguay, 2:30 p.m. ET, Pretoria

And so the second round of group stage matches begins and we return to the beginning. Names unfamiliar to us just a week ago -- like Siphiwe Tshabalala and Reneilwe Letsholonyane -- now cascade effortlessly off the tongue.

Group A is perfectly poised with each team sitting on a single point. The Bafana Bafana will seek to replicate the tenacious last 70 minutes of their opening game against Mexico in which the team appeared to mature from boys to men in fast-motion. The 1-1 tie will give them belief, but they know they must show more poise on the ball if they are to win, something they may need to do as they will face the desperate French in their final game.

Tshabalala became a national icon the second he dispatched a blistering drive into the corner of the net to register the tournament's opening goal. Lucrative brand ambassadorships descended upon him as soon as the final whistle blew. This match takes place on a somber date in South African history: June 16, 1976, was the Soweto Uprising, a protest by black students against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools. Between 200 and 600 people lost their lives in the uprising and Tshabalala has promised to unveil a special goal tribute should he repeat his scoring feat. Should he succeed, there will be more than enough cause for celebration. South Africa has not fared well against South American opposition, winning just twice in 13 games, and being blanked six times.

Uruguay held France scoreless in a dire opening game, but the team, many cognoscenti's sleeper pick, will have to create more if it is to threaten. This game will be the team's moment of truth. While forward Diego Forlan was all whirring industry on the left side of the attack, his vaunted strike partner, Luis Suarez, lacked confidence. The Uruguayan camp was unsettled when $12,000 was swiped from its hotel rooms. Furor ensued until hotel surveillance footage suggested a member of the Uruguayan delegation was responsible and the squad was rocked by the notion of an inside job.

The team should prepare to be further rattled on Wednesday. South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, one of the heroes of the Mexican game, has spent the week demanding more from home fans in the local press, defying any sense of aural reality as he vented, "I did not hear the sound of the vuvuzelas. It was like people did not bring them at all to the stadium."

Uruguay will need to play with heart, skill, organization and earplugs.