A good World Cup ought to shatter or at least shake assumptions about soccer's global order, and so far this tournament is delivering.
Canada, one of the pre-tournament favorites, is already out, and deservedly so. The USA looks like the mere shadow of a reigning champion. Nigeria beat another fancied team, Australia, on its home turf in front of a partisan crowd. Co-host New Zealand lost to the feisty Philippines.
Meanwhile, perennial achiever and twice-crowned winner Germany found itself in a compelling battle with Colombia in just their second group game. Having lost a warmup scrimmage to Zambia just before the tournament, the Germans should have been forewarned, but a 6-0 win over Morocco in their first group match perhaps had them thinking it was back to business as usual. Instead, Colombia's 97th-minute header through Manuela Vanegas has threatened Germany's place in the knockout phase.
"Is this team equipped with the skills to defeat a team that plays nasty and defends with discipline?" the bi-weekly sports magazine kicker asked the day after the game.
It's a question that shouldn't just apply to Germany, but to all the hitherto leading nations. France could not break down Jamaica. The USA could barely create a single clear chance against Portugal and was almost sucker-punched on to the next plane to Honolulu.
As soccer spreads, thrives and improves in previously underserved countries, the old order is no longer having things its own way. Of course, you can cite mitigating factors. Germany has been hit by an injury epidemic in its defensive ranks. And the Honduran referee should have been thrusting yellow cards at the Colombians during the first half for what can only be termed consistently brutal play. Yet, you can't blame the South Americans for exploiting the referee's lenience and continuing to be physical. The Germans, especially the returning Lena Oberdorf, began to match them back, making for an intense and intriguing game.
Having equalized Linda Caicedo's succulent strike with Alexandra Popp's penalty kick in the 89th minute, though, the main question back home in Germany was how such an experienced and talented team still managed to throw the game away. "We go and concede a stupid set-piece goal, which we just have to analyze and then do better on," said Oberdorf. In the TV studio, the incredulous faces of former players turned TV pundits Almuth Schult and Nia Künzer could be read before they'd even opened their mouths: defending a corner kick in the 97th minute belongs to the ABC of soccer, and conceding a goal in that situation has to be out of the question.
Out on the field, captain Popp saw things differently. After the penalty to make the score 1-1, Germany had the momentum, she said. "I had the feeling that we were going to turn the game." Honestly, most fans will have felt the same. That's part of soccer's irresistible lure, the temptation to turn a 1-0 deficit into a surging 2-1 comeback victory. Of course, the team felt the urge to keep going forward.
Only coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (top photo) would have preferred less attacking spirit, and more sheltering the ball by the corner flag to preserve the point and first place in the group. She was phlegmatic in her analysis — her side had conceded the corner in the first place as the result of an offensive ball loss that had lead to a dangerous counterattack, itself only thwarted by last-ditch defending. "We have to be smart," she said. "We're at the World Cup. We have to think more in terms of results."
Her theoretical settling for a draw will have taken into account Germany's failure to create a dangerous chance until the 42nd minute. The Colombians pressed and hustled, and the German team failed to find any rhythm or a way through, being forced into mistakes or into passing the ball all the way back to goalkeeper Merle Frohms.
Player after player described the defeat as "bitter.” Yet two major errors — the ball lost upfield and the failure to pick up Vanegas at the corner kick — were the significant difference between a tie and a defeat. Colombia's win was absolutely deserved. Even with the expansion to 32 teams, there are fewer and fewer expected wins at the World Cup. There are no real favorites here. Japan, Colombia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Sweden or Australia are just as much in the reckoning as Germany, France, England and the USA.
From this weekend, it's knockout soccer, where chance, error and flashes of genius will decide the outcome. Bitter for some, but fantastic for the rest of us.Photo by Mark Metcalfe - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images