The joy of the World Cup

WASHINGTON — Henry Kissinger was wrong to dismiss Chile as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” On Wednesday, the South American nation was a scalpel that excised the soul of Spain.

As a lifelong soccer fan, Kissinger doubtless understands what I mean: A particularly delightful and surprising World Cup tournament — the world’s greatest sporting event — is in full swing.

Anyone who follows the sport knows that the Chilean national team has been rapidly improving. But who would have imagined that the upstarts could so thoroughly embarrass mighty Spain, the defending World Cup champions who have dominated for the better part of a decade? And that such a thing would take place on one of soccer’s grandest stages, the history-filled Rio de Janeiro arena known as Maracana? The score was 2-0 but the match wasn’t nearly that close.

Midway through the opening round, the whole tournament has been a fiesta of the unanticipated. Favorites are looking shaky, dark horses are rising and the United States is undefeated. After just one match, but still.

Most surprising, Americans are watching. Monday’s contest in which the U.S. squad defeated archrival Ghana 2-1 was watched by 15.9 million viewers on ESPN and Univision. That’s the second-highest viewership ever for a World Cup match — a 2010 contest against England had 17.1 million viewers — and the upcoming USA-Portugal match on Sunday could set a new record.

Almost as unexpected is that Spain is out. Done. Finito. The loss to Chile followed a brutal 5-1 drubbing by the Netherlands. Never before has a defending champion been eliminated so quickly — but that’s not why Spain’s defeat is such an important milestone.

What this means is that Spain’s distinctive style of play, which has been enormously influential throughout the sport, may have had its day. Spain plays a game of possession, keeping the ball for long stretches through a series of lightning-quick passes that require great skill and precision — a style that came to be known as tiki taka. When you see them at their best, you understand why the onomatopoeic name fits.

Against the Dutch and the Chileans, though, tiki taka looked slow and purposeless. Spain’s opponents attacked more directly, relying on speed and power.

The overwhelming favorite this year was, and I suppose remains, the tournament’s host country. But Brazil, the only team to have won the quadrennial World Cup five times, has looked — how shall I put this? — not unbeatable.

Brazil defeated plucky Croatia 3-1 last Thursday in the tournament’s opening match, but showed little of the brilliance and creativity that its fans expect to see. The team showed even less of its traditional jogo bonito — “beautiful game”— style of play in laboring to a scoreless tie with Mexico on Tuesday.

By the way, my strongly held opinion is that Americans should never refer to a 0-0 tie as “nil-nil,” which is what a British broadcaster would say. We are not British broadcasters. If we are going to become soccer fans, we need to develop an American lexicon for the game. Never say “nil.” Say “nothing-nothing” or “three-zip” or “four-zero.” And continue to call it soccer. In this country, the word “football” is taken.

Now that we’ve taken care of how Americans should talk about soccer, the next question is how we should play it. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a legendary German star, has said his goal is to have his players develop a distinctive national style. The rest of the tournament will show how much progress he has made.

Against Ghana, the team that eliminated the United States in the last two World Cups, Klinsmann’s squad showed plenty of grit and determination. If the Americans are to go any further, the emergence of other defining attributes — extraordinary speed, dazzling skill, tactical brilliance, whatever — would be helpful.

Klinsmann said beforehand that he did not believe the U.S. squad could win this World Cup. In such an unscripted tournament, who knows? My view has been that when young Michael Jordans begin choosing to spend their afternoons at soccer fields rather than basketball courts, the United States will become a great power in the world’s favorite sport.

In the meantime, Germany was awe-inspiring in its opening match. Brazil may find its rhythm. Argentina would love to ruin its rival’s big party. Italy looked surprisingly good. The Dutch could finally win.

And watch out for Chile. You heard it here.

Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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