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Monday, June 21, 2010
Updated: June 22, 6:49 AM ET
The underdogs still have bite

By Chris Jones
Special to

JOHANNESBURG -- David Villa, the clinical Spanish forward, already had scored twice against Honduras, including one of the most beautiful goals of the tournament. Now he lined up a penalty shot to complete his hat trick. Very few of the more than 54,000 fans who packed into Ellis Park would have bet on his missing it. And yet, following whatever physical failing or mental hiccup, some microscopic mistake, he sent the ball wide, and he covered his face with his hands.

Monday at the World Cup was not a good day for fans of long odds. There were few surprises. Only Villa's penalty miss provided any consolation -- one faint mark on the upset side of the ledger. Chile beat Switzerland 1-0, as it should have; Portugal beat North Korea 7-0, a monumental defeat; and Spain earned an easy 2-0 win over Honduras despite Villa's misfire. The side of might scored 10 goals today, and the underdogs none. Today was a day for playing favorites.

It was the sort of day that gave credence to critics who -- since FIFA expanded its World Cup to include 32 teams in 1998 -- have complained that the competition, in its early stages at least, now is made up of a series of mismatches. A British newspaper actually thought to publish a letter recently in which a fan complained about his having to watch "Bongo Bongoland and the Former Soviet Republic of Bulimia" muddle through the group matches.

That was before his England managed a scoreless draw against Algeria, of course.

The simplest argument in favor of an inclusive tournament is also the softest one: This is a true World Cup, and soccer is the one sport that allows all of us the chance to play the same game. A record 204 countries attempted to qualify for South Africa, which is quite a feat, considering there are only 203 sovereign states. (The United Kingdom's disintegration when it comes to international soccer helps in part to explain the math.)

FIFA has even tried to make it easier for weaker teams to qualify, actively tilting the odds in their favor. Shifting Australia out of the Oceania Football Confederation and into the Asian one almost guaranteed a team such as New Zealand would end up here. The Kiwis only had to advance out of a group consisting of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia before winning a home-at-home against Bahrain. Just like that, the 78th-ranked team in the world found its way into the top 32.

And how did New Zealand return the favor? By roaring back to tie the Slovaks 1-1 before also tying Italy, the defending champion, 1-1 Sunday night.

That's why small countries belong here. Not so they might join some heartwarming campground sing-along, and not because they deserve a pity pass. Not because soccer is the one sport that allows all of us the chance to play the same game -- but because soccer is the one sport that allows all of us the chance to win it.

Yes, Honduras was outclassed here Monday night, and North Korea looked hopeless, and the Africans have stumbled.

But Algeria tied England, and New Zealand tied Italy. South Africa tied Mexico. Before it made Honduras look small, Spain lost a stunner to Switzerland. Serbia beat Germany. France is on its way out of the tournament in spectacular fashion, and England is in danger of missing the round of 16, too, for the first time since 1958.

Despite today's seeming evidence, the gap between the best and the rest isn't that wide. FIFA announced that six of the eight groups remain so closely contested that for the first time in World Cup history, the seventh level of tiebreaking hell might be reached: picking a name out of a hat.

And even after Monday's Group H results, there still exists the possibility that a team with two wins -- the usual standard for advancing -- could be eliminated. Chile's already there, and Spain and Switzerland could be, and yet one of them will go home. And maybe, just maybe, they'll be going home only because FIFA president Sepp Blatter picked a different name out of a hat.

It's a small chance, but it's still a chance. And on this day of locks and guarantees, it took the great David Villa sending a penalty shot wide to remind us that the beauty of soccer is its absence of sure things.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.