Robin van Persie becomes the Flying Dutchman in the Netherlands' famous 5-1 victory over the World Cup holders, Spain.
If you're a World Cup newcomer, or a skeptical holdout looking for reasons to jump into this tournament the rest of the world seems to be embracing, you're in luck. Friday offered a trio of highly entertaining games with goals aplenty, several more outrageous referee calls, and one of history's greatest upsets. It was the World Cup equivalent of a welcome mat.
The roster began with Spain versus Cameroon, in the driving rain of Natal — a foreshadowing of what is to come in this tropical climate. This was World Cup as water sport. We were treated to the sight of world-class players charging around in soaked-through kits, often unable to connect to the ball on a pitch that acted as a slip and slide.
Cameroon battled bravely against a team that was clearly more talented, and Mexico was unlucky with a couple of harsh calls on would-be goals in the first half. Mexico's Oribe Peralta finally broke the deadlock early in the second half. But Cameroon kept fighting till the end — and considering that they lost all but one of their last 14 World Cup games, there's no shame in going down to Mexico 1-0.
And Cameroon were extremely unlucky not to claw one goal back in the 90th minute, when the African side forced the best save of the tournament so far from Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa:
Then all eyes turned to Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador for a grudge match between Spain and the Netherlands, a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final. Spain won by a single scrappy goal last time; this time, a single dubious penalty in the first half was all they could manage. The Dutch decimated the Spanish defense, charging forward again and again like tireless greyhounds, reaching the back of the Spanish net an incredible five times.
One of those goals will be remembered more than the rest, perhaps more than any other goal of this World Cup. That goal belonged to Robin van Persie, whose one-touch leaping header instantly earned him the nickname the Flying Dutchman.
One World Cup newcomer asked me today whether it was common for winning teams to defend the title for tournament after tournament, Yankees-style. That hasn't happened since Pele, the greatest player in history, hoisted the cup for Brazil in 1962, I responded. This game shows you why. It's just too easy for the defending champions to be picked off, either through the pressure they put on themselves, or because their opponents have spent the previous four years figuring out how to pick their locks.
Spain could yet bounce back, of course — that's the other exciting thing about the World Cup. There is room for redemption at the group stage, and fortunes can turn on a dime.
Finally we turn to Arena Pantanal in Cuiabá for Australia versus Chile, and another classic World Cup trope: the plucky underdog. The Socceroos, as the Aussie team is known, are so lowly ranked as to make Cameroon look like three-time winners. Still they threw everything they had at the superior South American side.
It wasn't nearly enough in the first 15 minutes, when Chilean superstar Alexis Sanchez and his teammate Jorge Valdivia made short work of the Australian defense. It looked like a blowout. But the Socceroos refused to be rattled, and 20 minutes later Tim Cahill headed in a cracking goal:
Australia came close several more times, but a Cinderella ending was not to be. Still, Chile and the world were put on notice: in the World Cup, it is never enough to be considered the better team.