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Gelson Fernandes of Switzerland scores the first goal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group H match between Spain and Switzerland at Durban Stadium on June 16, 2010 in Durban, South Africa. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Gelson Fernandes of Switzerland scores the first goal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group H match between Spain and Switzerland at Durban Stadium on June 16, 2010 in Durban, South Africa. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

STEPHEN BRUNT

A win that could change the World Cup Add to ...

By design, it was to be a walk in the park.

When Spain plays soccer, its short, precise passes cross-hatch the pitch, a beautiful thing to behold when it's working well. Man on man, every one of its players is willing and able to feint and bedazzle an opponent. Then when the time comes to score after a patient buildup, the strike is surgical.

That's how Spain won Euro 2008, finally a tournament breakthrough after decades of underachievement, and that's how it planned to win this World Cup, a great side at the height of its powers.

Switzerland in the opening match would represent only the tiniest of speed bumps, a familiar European foe that, at its best, is competent, decent, okay but nothing special. In the first half at the magnificent Moses Mabhiba Stadium here, Spain held the ball, smacked it around, made little bits of magic and occasionally took a shot on goal. At the half, it was scoreless, but there was no question who was in charge.

Seven minutes after the break, though, it all changed, and perhaps this entire World Cup changed, given the potential consequences.

Swiss forward Eren Derdiyok took a short pass, then made a fast, powerful and direct run at the Spanish goal, with defenders parting before him like the Red Sea. The keeper, Iker Casillas, rushed out to try to beat him to the punch. He and the ball and Derdiyok arrived in the same place in the penalty area at the same time. Derdiyok went flying. Casillas was left down and out of the play. The ball ricocheted around, was for a moment under the prostrate body of Spanish defender Gerard Pique, then finally squirted free.

Gelson Fernandes found it there, knocked it in, became a Swiss sporting legend, at least for the time being, and conventional wisdom at this tournament was turned on its head.

Through the furious 40 minutes and a bit that followed (the referee allowed an especially generous five minutes of added time), Spain attacked desperately, seeking the equalizer (Xabi Alonso's shot off the crossbar came closest), while the Swiss defended and occasionally counterattacked (Derdiyok made a great play before chipping a ball off the post). But there would be no more scoring, the huge upset was complete, and the consequences immediately became clear.

If the Swiss beat Honduras and Chile, as they might, they would control their own destiny and finish first in Group H, a spot previously reserved for Spain.

If Spain finishes second in the group, its likely opponent in the first knockout round would be Brazil, which entering this tournament was co-favourite with Spain to win this World Cup.

There is a long way to go between now and then, and lord knows there will be more surprises. But in the early going here, a pattern has been established. So far, soccer's great powers, the sides that historically have always been in the mix, have looked like nothing special in this exotic environment.

Begin with the exceptions - Germany, with its new, youthful cast. The Germans weren't supposed to be factors here, but having watched them slice and dice Australia 4-0, they must be taken seriously. Same with Diego Maradona's Argentina, though there were enough nervous moments in its 1-0 opening victory over Nigeria to raise questions about how it'll do when the going gets tougher, especially with an idiot savant at the helm.

After that, it is one long series of question marks. Brazil won, but wasn't very convincing against the prohibitive underdogs from North Korea. England struggled to a draw against the United States in a match that raised all kinds of questions about the talent and injuries and Fabio Capello's tactical approach. The French were dreadful against Uruguay after a largely dreadful qualifying campaign. Italy struggled to a 1-1 draw with Paraguay in the pouring rain in Cape Town, an awfully slow start even for a country that has often saved its best for last. The Dutch were okay in beating Denmark 2-0, but it took a gift own-goal to take the pressure off.

It's not that there has been any great revelation from the rest of the field, a wild-card country ready to make a historic breakthrough; you'd be hard pressed to make the case that anyone else is about to break through the historic compact of World Cup winners.

But there is a levelling, certainly. Maybe it's in part the new ball, maybe it's in part the vuvuzelas, but mostly it's because we are in a place far away from Europe, far away from South America, where finding your legs (as a player, as a visitor, as a reporter) takes a while.

Let's see who settles in first, and let's see if, for those who take their time, if comfort comes soon enough.

 

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