There's a sense that, when considering this 2014 World Cup in Brazil, there's the football (which is riveting, as always, as ever) at the center of the enterprise, surrounded in a cursory way by the fans of the game - and then there's the entire rest of the universe swirling around that center, hungry eyes watching the well-fed dance, greedy eyes watching the celebrants consume, every human need and foible and selfishness pressed down and folded over.
Brazilian protesters - driven past their love for jogo bonita by their love for shelter, and clean water, and food - were still manning the barracks, still getting smashed by riot cops, even as Brazil and Croatia filed onto the field holding the hands of local kids. Then the anthems happened, and this 2014 Copa, begrimed by years of cost overruns and public protest over FIFA's gangster capitalism, found its grace. The sight of eleven yellow-clad mercenaries - men who ply their trade all across the globe - singing their hearts out on the Brazilian anthem after the recording stopped, some openly weeping while others simply sang moist-eyed, was a reminder of the complexity of every situation in soccer and in Brazilian life: This game, this province, this nation, this world is run by thieves, but we do love it so.
So this single game (which was won by Brazil 3-1 - do I really need to note this here?) served as an appetizer to the feast of football in which we're about to indulge. Three games per day - sometimes four! - in the group stages, then the heart-stopping tension of the knockout rounds. Here's the thoughts I took away from yesterday's opener:
Brazil is good, not great - This is not a Brazilian juggernaut, but it is a good team. In Neymar and Oscar they have two schemers whose tactical and technical sophistication lifts the entire enterprise going forward. In some ways, the fact that 'This is Brazil!' plays against them; they'd probably be better off playing less expansively.
Brazilian fans are deeply worried about this team - Witness the celebrations inside and outside the stadium for Neymar's scuffed equalizer - the relief was palpable. Croatia's ability to create chances on the break kept any hint of samba celebration out of the picture until Oscar's goal in the dying minutes finished the game off.
The protests aren't going to get covered during game time - Kudos to ESPN for mentioning the ongoing social tumult, but riots and protests put in motion by the event you are covering (and not merely same place / same time) deserve more than a 10-second look-in. Of course,
Big Evil FIFA probably has rules about that, too. Last thing Bob Ley wants is to wind up in a gulag under a mountain in Switzerland somewhere.
Bad calls are going to get insane scrutiny - Any game that turns on a very soft penalty will stir conspiracy theories - but in light of FIFA's ongoing troubles with match-fixing, are conspiracy theories paranoid, or simply a cold-eyed appraisal of what's going on all around the globe?
Croatia can come through this - Evenyone cites that "losing the first game means a team has only an 8 percent chance to advance" yadda yadda ... but one chance in 12 is still a chance. Mexico and Cameroon are going to have a difficult time dealing with the Fighting Tablecloths' movement and ideas in midfield. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two teams from yesterday's game in the knockout rounds (sorry, Mexico).
Mexico v. Cameroon, 11 a.m. ESPN2 - El Tri surely had one of its worst qualifying campaigns en route to this World Cup - fourth in the Hex, humbled by the USA, casting aside managers like used tissue. Miguel Herrera and the boys in green get a chance to put that all behind them now, though, but they'll need three points from Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions had some pre-Cup strife - disagreements over bonus payments meant the team went on strike barely a week ago - which could affect their approach. Each team needs three points rather desperately from this game; each must consider the other the weakest of their group stage opponents.
Spain v. Netherlands, 2 p.m. ESPN - Nothing like a World Cup finals rematch to kick off Group B play. Spain will keep the ball; the Dutch will be incisive. Anything could happen. Isn't the World Cup fun?
Chile v. Australia, 5 p.m. ESPN2 - ACTUAL MLS PARTICIPATION in the person of Mr. Tim Cahill. Can Chile keep Australia away from set pieces around the box? Can Chile press the life out of the Socceroos? Chile are always tactically fascinating; expect them to come out in an interesting shape.