Italian fans -- despite the confusing Union Jack T-shirt -- celebrate their team's victory over England in Rome
Everything is a little different down in Brazil. Samba and soccer rule the cultural imagination. Politics are rather more sharply drawn, as is the clash between wealth and poverty. The water rotates in the opposite direction when you flush. And topsy-turvey upsets, huge, dramatic reversals of fortune, can strike at any time.
Brazil learned that lesson the hard way back in 1950, when it last hosted a World Cup and made it to the final, only to be outdrawn by its tiny neighbor, long-time rival and first World Cup winner, Uruguay. On Saturday, in a moment of sweet revenge for Brazil, Uruguay learned that lesson on Brazilian soil, suffering a shock 3-1 defeat to CONCAF minnows Costa Rica.
Memo to time travelers looking to get rich quick: go back to Friday and put a large bet on that scoreline.
Few of us knew much about the Costa Rican team before Saturday, and the unknown, as you also learn in Brazil, will always surprise you. Its star Joel Campbell had been bought, but sidelined, by Arsenal. Popular opinion simply considered that a team ranked 28th in the world would be short work for the 7th rank team. Costa Rica was just in Group D, sandwiched between three World Cup winners, to make up the numbers.
Nothing in the first half disabused anyone of this notion. But Costa Rica, which is to say Joel Campbell, came out of nowhere. It's worth watching, not least for Campbell's cheeky ball-based pose after he scores the first:
Then came Oscar Duarte's goal, and then to cap it off, even the substitute had a go:
It wasn't just a victory that delighted tiny Costa Rica, a nation so unassuming it doesn't even have a standing army (and yet, as many of us discovered when we rushed to the Internet after the game, it somehow has a population that's 50% larger than Uruguay's). It delighted underdogs everywhere — especially in England, which will face a weakened Uruguay next (weakened especially by the red-card ejection of star Maxi Pereira). When news came through that the goalkeeper for England's equally tough opponents, Italy, was out with an ankle injury, it seemed the best possible collision of circumstances for the knights of St. George.
Suffice to say that Italy and the Amazonian heat made short work of England. Sure, the English actually took more shots, but they also melted faster, starting to disassemble around the 50th minute. Plucky 19-year-old Raheem Sterling danced and leaped around the field as if determined to fill every position, vigorous to the end, and Daniel Sturridge sought the Italian goalmouth with dogged determination, scoring one goal and deserving more.
But in truth, England was lucky to get away with a 2-1 Italy victory. England simply had nothing to match the calm control of Italy, the magic of Mario Balotelli or the ruthlessness of Andrea Pirlo, whose frowning, bearded visage seems to have an uncanny ability to stare into English souls. Wayne Rooney played like a man convinced he is cursed, in the midst of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. When he and captain Steven Gerrard knocked nervy shots way over the crossbar, this Englishman was left to wonder whether his team can ever find a cure for the pressure it puts on itself.
In the end, English defeat seems as inevitable as the 3-0 drubbing Greece received at the hands of Colombia Saturday morning, or the Japanese going down 2-1 to the Ivory Coast Saturday night — despite being up 1-0 for most of the game. Japan is ranked 46th in the world; Ivory Coast is ranked 23rd. The African side physically towered over its rival, bided its time, then knocked two goals in faster than anyone else in the tournament.
Sometimes, you're just outclassed: that was the conclusion to be drawn from all four Saturday games. The winners simply possessed more talent and tenacity; every matchup felt like you could play it out five times over and still get the same result, even in Costa Rica's case. And not one of those times would fail to be thrilling. There are no boring nil-nil draws in Brazil, it seems. If the first three days is any guide, we're looking at a World Cup tournament that is anything but dull.