NATAL, Brazil – Nil-nil ties.
Players milling about midfield just kicking it back and forth in a seemingly pointless and passionless game of keep away.
End of games plagued by turtle defensive tactics and cautious attacks. One-goal leads causing the foot to be taken off the gas. Scores that feel more arbitrary – or simply the product of a set play – than excellent, based-on-open-field athleticism and speed.
These are some of the criticisms of soccer by non-soccer fans. And no matter how much the hardcore supporters would wax on about the so-called "Beautiful Game," the complaints weren't without some merit.
The World Cup was, often, an acquired taste.
That was then. This is 2014 in Brazil.
Befitting of a host nation that demands up-tempo and creative offensive play, the world has unleashed a torrent of not just scores, but highlight reel plays, back-and-forth action, an aggressive push for victories not just ties and even Sunday, a near buzzer-beater when Haris Seferovic of Switzerland banged home the game-winner in the third minute of stoppage time.
That was the 31st goal thus far in this tournament. It's the most through nine games since 1982 and far ahead of the 2010 snoozer when just 15 were scored over the same period.
It's more than that, though. There have already been four come-from-behind victories, when the 2010 tournament produced three total. And thus far there hasn't been any of the dreadful 0-0 ties that while possibly exciting aren't an easy sell to potential fans who actually watched and tried to be won over.
The blistering pace is indicative of a fresh style of play, with more teams eager to make an initial statement in the tournament rather than sit back and survive. Monotonous midfield passing has been kept to a minimum. It appears having defenders seek offensive opportunities is the story of the event.
This isn't your older brother's World Cup, and if you're sitting it out assuming soccer is just dull, then you aren't just missing a good soccer tournament. You're also missing some legitimately breathless action.
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"This is what fans are waiting for," said United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who himself favors an attacking style and promises his team will deliver when the Americans open play Monday here against Ghana (6 p.m. ET). "They want to see some goals. They want to see attacking football. They want to see excitement."
They are getting all three. The tournament has already been a blur of memorable plays by some of the game's greatest stars.
There has been the leaping header by the Netherlands' Robin van Persie, his teammate Arjen Robben's dash down the field and goal on two defenders and the Spanish keeper, Japan's Keisuke Honda blasting a shot into the top corner, Oscar of Brazil scoring on a long run, the power header by Italy's Mario Balotelli, the brilliant cross from England's Wayne Rooney to set up Daniel Sturridge … we could go on.
Conversely, there's been a number of terrific saves by goalkeepers and defenders alike. Crossbars have taken a beating. And teams that survive an attack aren't just booting balls out of bounds in an effort to regroup. They are looking upfield for a chance to counter.
"There's been a lot of goals being scored, especially from crosses," U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said. "We've seen a lot of teams go down and come back and win the game."
For all the talk about the growing popularity of soccer in America, perhaps nothing will provide a shot in the arm like casual fans tuning in to see the kind of athletic plays that even the biggest doubter can't deny.
If nothing else, there was the entertainment of various goal celebrations that would make Chad Ochocinco blush. Each one tries to outdo the other, although none have been more unusual/creepy/bizarre/hysterical than Joel Campbell of Costa Rica who followed an excellent left-foot drive by sucking his thumb while stuffing the ball under his shirt to mimic a pregnant woman.
Why? What? Why would a pregnant woman suck her thumb? And why would a 21-year-old want to go with that look?
Ah, whatever, just go with it.
This World Cup has been fantastic so far. Even that line from the shaving-cream-like substance the ref sprays on the field is cool. And if the biggest soccer hater you know disagrees, just sit them down and make him watch.
A goal, likely fabulous, will come soon enough.
- Sports & Recreation
- World Cup 2014