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Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The stage is set

By Leander Schaerlaeckens

JOHANNESBURG -- This tournament was just blown wide open.

Now that each team has played its first game, the 2010 World Cup is shaping up entirely differently from what could have been reasonably expected.

As the teams trickled into South Africa in the weeks before the June 11 kickoff, two countries were considered favorites, Spain and Brazil, and seven others -- Argentina, England, Germany, Italy, Ivory Coast, Netherlands and Portugal -- were considered to have outside chances.

Although it's still too early to make grand proclamations, the tournament is starting to look a little topsy-turvy. It's a welcome shot of adrenaline after a lot of cagey games and lackluster draws.

Thank you, Switzerland.

The Swiss, of course, just defeated Spain in the first big upset of the tournament. Spain's pain was clear: It failed to score off of 24 shots -- eight of which were on goal -- despite having a preposterous amount of possession.

The world leaders of soccer aren't alone in feeling a crisis in form. Except for Germany, which played lights-out in its game, all the tournament's favorites failed to impress.

Argentina created a flurry of chances against a meek Nigeria but didn't get further than a lone goal. Although that proved to be enough for three points, Lionel Messi continues to fall short of his form at his club, Barcelona. Coach Diego Maradona will have to figure out a way to get his team firing on all cylinders.

England got a mere point from its game against the U.S. despite dominating the run of play. Yet the English couldn't make good use of their biggest weapon, Wayne Rooney, whom the U.S. shut down by cutting off his supply routes and trailing him with a physical defender.

The Netherlands squad was out of sync and unable to properly deploy its biggest strengths, midfield playmaker Wesley Sneijder and striker Robin van Persie against a Denmark team with a strong tandem in central defense and a penchant for choking off passing lanes. After 70 incompetent minutes, the Dutch broke the Danish resistance thanks to an own goal, but it was hardly a resounding victory.

You get the idea: Defending champion Italy got a draw against Paraguay, and Brazil struggled for its three points, and Portugal and Ivory Coast had viewers reaching for some caffeine to stay awake. The Group of Death? It wasn't looking too murderous based on that performance.

Meanwhile, several unsung teams showed themselves to be far better than anybody could have foreseen. South Africa held its own against Mexico in the 1-1 tournament opener; South Korea showed itself a well-oiled side against the hopelessly bad Greeks in a 2-0 win; the U.S. stifled England's creative juices; North Korea punched above its FIFA World Ranking of 105; and Chile had a tidy 1-0 win over Honduras.

What does it all mean? Good news, for one, because the tournament's favorites are going to be pressing for three points in the second wave of the group stage to right their wrongs.

The stage is indeed set for some exciting matches.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for He can be reached at