World Cup of big surprises smiles on Americas
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The World Cup of surprises is turning into a sweet samba party for teams from the Americas.
Having already stunned one former world champion, little Costa Rica shocked another on Friday and sent a third one home. Then the French exploded with five goals against their Swiss neighbors.
The story so far: Two European powers -- Spain and England -- are out of contention after just two games. European teams have played eight teams from the Americas and won just twice. The nine teams from Africa, Asia and Oceania have contrived to win just one game between them.
But for teams from the Americas, their record as of Friday against nations from other regions: played 12, lost just two. Ole! In short, the new world is embarrassing the old one.
None of the previous seven World Cups in the Americas were won by teams outside Latin America. On current evidence, this one looks increasingly unlikely to be the exception.
Although the score was just 1-0, Costa Rica was an easy winner Friday over four-time champion Italy in the coastal city of Recife. Having also won its first match, 3-1, against two-time winner Uruguay, Costa Rica is now guaranteed a spot in the knockout stage.
Costa Rica’s win also killed off England’s faint hopes of advancing. Italy and Uruguay will play each other on Tuesday to determine which of them joins Costa Rica in advancing from Group D and which will join 1966 champion England and 2010 winner Spain in phoning their travel agents.
Costa Rica, with just 5 million people, was seen as the easy opponent in the group -- the first ever with three former world champions. Instead, the Ticos have looked the hungriest team of the four, and are already preparing for a knockout game.
The only two European nations to have beaten Americas teams so far in Brazil are France and Switzerland, which overcame Honduras and Ecuador, respectively, in their first Group E matches. On Friday, France and Switzerland played each other in Salvador, also on the coast. The French were rampant winners, 5-2, all but guaranteeing they, too, will advance to the last 16 for only the second time since they won the title in 1998.
Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld tipped France to go "very far in this tournament" after it shredded his team’s defenses and reputation as tough to break down. Five different players scored for France.
If it stays on top of Group E, it will likely face Iran, Nigeria or Bosnia in last 16. They should all be manageable opponents for the talented French who are rebuilding their reputation ruined by a training ground strike by players at the last World Cup. Friday marked the fourth anniversary of that debacle in South Africa.
Attackers Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema each scored one goal and created another against the Swiss. Benzema went 15 games without scoring for France in 2012-2013. He now has three goals in Brazil.
"Karim is confirming that he’s in very, very good form. He’s in great shape athletically," said France coach Didier Deschamps. "Having such an efficient player is very important in a competition like this."
The two other teams in the group, Ecuador and Honduras played in the late game in Curitiba.
Costa Rica had never beaten Uruguay in eight previous attempts or Italy in their only meeting in 1994. If it beats England in the teams’ first-ever encounter next Tuesday, Costa Rica will complete a hat-trick of victories over those former champions with seven World Cup titles between them.
Their victory over the Italians was no fluke. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made several diving saves. But he couldn’t reach Bryan Ruiz’s pinpoint header in the 44th minute off Junior Diaz’s long, curling cross from the left.
Costa Rica ground to a standstill as government employees took the day off to watch the game and many schools shut down shortly after the victory to allow children to join celebrations. Crowds shouting: "Yes, we did it!" blocked streets of downtown San Jose, the capital. In Brazil, players began to receive photos of the party on their smartphones. Costa Rica’s only other appearance in the knockout phase came in its World Cup debut in 1990. It didn’t get beyond the group stage in 2002 and 2006.
"It was the squad with the lowest profile in the group, but you don’t advance on profile alone in big tournaments," said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.
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