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By Mike Collett
RIO DE JANEIRO, June 23 (Reuters) - One trend has clearly emerged at this World Cup - no teams have turned up to be cannon fodder.
Naturally some teams are better than others, and they will emerge as the group stage draws to a close and the knockout phase begins.
But Iran's superbly disciplined defensive performance against Argentina, Ghana's full-on second-half attacking display versus Germany and Costa Rica's stunning wins over Uruguay and Italy among others are proving the gap between the "lesser nations" and the established powerhouses is closing further.
In what was nearly a major upset, the Netherlands trailed 2-1 to Australia, the FIFA's 62nd ranked team and the lowest among the finalists, before eventually beating them 3-2.
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez is convinced there are no longer any weak teams in the World Cup and his view is shared by many other coaches from the more fancied nations already given a fright in the tournament.
"What you hear in the media is not always true," said Tabarez whose Uruguay team were beaten 3-1 by outsiders Costa Rica in their opening match.
"Favouritism, historic backgrounds are all relative during the competition. Parity is a distinctive trace of today's soccer. There are always surprises in a World Cup, because there are always teams that were not factored into the calculations."
There will always be days when one team gets everything right and thumps another by a big score and, ironically, the two teams to suffer the biggest losses during the opening round of games were world champions Spain, who lost 5-1 to the Netherlands, and Portugal who were thumped 4-0 by Germany.
But the days of scorelines like Yugoslavia 9 Zaire 0 (1974) or Hungary 10 El Salvador 1 (1982) are unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
The internationalisation of the game, better fitness regimes, more professional coaching from men who now work all over the world and the migration of the best players to the top leagues in Europe have transformed the international landscape.
Italian Fabio Capello, who took England to the World Cup in 2010 and is Russia's coach here, summed up what many people are thinking at these finals.
Shortly after watching Iran come within a whisker of a draw against Argentina before losing 1-0 to a stunning goal from Lionel Messi with almost the last kick of the game, Capello said: "I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of play of all the games. It's all top level. Every match has been difficult.
"There is not one team that can simply say all we need to do is go out there and win.
"Every match is one you have to really battle to win. Nothing at all is just given away. You have to go out there and earn it."
Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella had told reporters before his side faced Iran: "There are no weak opponents in this tournament and this is a World Cup match. We cannot underestimate any team. We have to give it 100 percent and respect everyone."
As if to prove his point, Argentina had to rely on Messi's stoppage time winner.
Argentina defender Javier Mascherano, who played against Iran, said: "We're seeing a World Cup where every team has the ability to fight.
"If world champions Spain, a team the world marvels at and which I still like, was eliminated, that shows that everything has levelled off."
ATTACK WITHOUT FEAR
Before the tournament started, former France manager Gerard Houllier, a member of FIFA's Technical Study Group for 20 years, said he expected an exciting World Cup and the most successful teams would be those who attacked without fear.
His suggestion has been borne out by high-scoring, attacking games with fewer than a handful of goalless draws.
Even most of the relatively lower-scoring matches have been absorbing, with only one team seriously outclassed so far -Honduras in their 3-0 defeat by France.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, speaking after they scored two late goals to beat Algeria 2-1 in their opening match, reacted a little testily when reporters suggested his side should have won more comfortably against a team of Algeria's relatively lowly status.
"Did you expect us to win 4-0, 5-0? Well I didn't. Algeria is number 22 in the world ranking, you know. No team who is at the World Cup is going to be easy. They have all fought hard to be here.
"Do you realise where we are? This is the world championship now. If you want to win a match, you have to reach the limits of your pain, you have to have no regrets about anything afterwards." (Additional reporting by Andy Cawthorne, Rex Gowar, Esteban Israel, Zoran Milosavjlevic, and Karolos Grohmann; editing by Ken Ferris)
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