World Cup Weekend: Messi, Sofia Veraga and The Great Swiss Escape

Switzerland's Admir Mehmedi (2nd L) heads the ball to score a goal against Ecuador during their 2014 World Cup Group E Eddie Keogh/Reuters

An upset, a last minute triumph, and a seeing-eye goal by the world’s best player capped the weekend’s action. Five of the 11 matches thus far have seen teams that trailed 1-0 eventually winning. Let’s dive (that’s for you, Fred) right in…

The Swiss Do Not Miss

Haris Seferovic, who only entered the match in the 75th minute, scored with just 23 seconds remaining in stoppage time to lift Switzerland to a 2-1 triumph over Ecuador in both sides’ opening match of Group E play.

With the score tied 1-1 after 92 minutes of play, Ecuador’s Michael Arroyo had the ball on his right foot in the center of Switzerland’s penalty box. Arroyo hesitated for just a moment, to set up a better one, but that was all the opportunity Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami needed to dispossess Arroyo of the ball. Behrami headed up field and was tackled on his own half, but the referee signaled for play to continue, which was to the advantage of the Swiss.

Behrami continued past midfield, the equivalent of a full-court fastbreak in basketball, and then chipped a pass to Ricardo Rodriguez on the left wing. Rodriquez’s shot on goal was then redirected into the net by Seferovic as the stunned Ecuadorians could only pull their jaws back upward.

Four years ago in South Africa, the Swiss were the only side to defeat eventual champion Spain, which they did 1-0 in both sides’ first match. But the landlocked European nation failed to score in their next two matches and hence did not sail past the group stage. This year they entered the World Cup ranked No. 6 in the world by FIFA, having not lost any of their 15 qualifying matches in which they produced nine clean sheets (shutouts).

The Swiss are managed by German legend Ottmar Hitzfeld, who has won two UEFA Champions Leagues titles with two German clubs, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. FIFA president Sepp Blatter attended Sunday’s match and was booed by sections of the crowd, as thousands of fans missed the first 10 or so minutes of the match due to long security lines.

Messi Lights Up Bosnia-Herzegovina

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, of whom more is expected in this South American homecoming than any other footballer in the tournament, scored a virtuoso goal in the 65th minute of Argentina’s 2-1 Group F win versus World Cup virgins Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dribbling from right to left just beyond the penalty box, Messi’s display so frustrated the Bosnians that one defender attempting to mark him literally somersaulted over another. That allowed Messi ample time and spice to launch a kick that directed off the left post and into the net.

Messi’s goal not only gave Argentina a 2-0 lead at the time in Rio de Janeiro’s famed Maracana Stadium, which was overtaken by powder blue-and-white clad Argentines, but it was also the football icon’s first World Cup goal since 2006. The 26 year-old was held scoreless in South Africa in 2010, when Argentina was eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals. The famed FC Barcelona striker had scored one goal as an 18 year-old in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

"Messi is the best player in the world," Argentina's coach, Alejandro Sabella, said.  "Beyond whatever happens in this World Cup."

The Bosnians, making their first World Cup appearance, acquitted themselves well versus one of the two South American World Cup favorites. Vidad Ibisevic scored in the 85th minute to draw within a goal, so that the boisterou Argentinian fans were unable to exhale until the final whistle.

Uruguay Upset

Uruguay, the surprise side of the 2010 World Cup when it advanced to the semi-finals, got a surprise itself on Saturday. After taking an early 1-0 lead via penalty kick versus underdog Costa Rica, La Celeste allowed three second half goals to lose 3-1 in their Group D opener.

Temperatures soared above 91 degrees in the northern coastal city of Fortaleza, and Uruguay was without its most dynamic player, strike Luis Suarez, who is recovering from knee surgery. La Celeste held him out of this match to save him for next week’s fixture versus England, but doubtless the Sky Blues did not expect this type of a battle versus Los Ticos, who entered the tournament as the least formidable side in a group that also has Italy and the Brits.

The Menace in Manaus

Two iconic European nations who both sought redemption after what ESPN announcer Ian Darke bluntly stated were “pitiful displays” in World Cup 2010, England and Italy, met in the most remote Amazonian jungle city of Manaus on Saturday evening. The Azzurri prevailed 2-1 on a second-half header by Ghanian-born striker Mario Balotelli, one of the most talented and polarizing stars in this tournament.

The buzzword of the NBA Finals, “cramps”, also became a factor in the stifling heat and humidity of the Amazon jungle. Both sides had players cramp up and both wondered aloud whether timeouts should have been an option. “It’s truly absurd that we cannot consider timeouts,” said Italian manager Cesare Prandelli of a city in which the U.S. men will meet Portugal next week.

"It's Manaus and the climatic conditions are extreme. It was too hot,"said Balotelli, whose game-winning header came off a perfect cross from teammate Andrea Candreva early in the second half of their Group D match. "Other places are hot, but not like this. If it was like this everywhere they would have to have timeouts in all the games. … Here [in Manaus], it's bad. Truly."

Drogba Lifts Ivory Coast

Though he did not score, 36 year-old national hero Didier Drogba appeared to inspire Les Elephants to victory in their Group C opener against Japan. When Drogba, a former legendary striker for Chelsea of the Premier League, entered in the 62nd minute, the Ivory Coast trailed 1-0 and appeared listless. Within five minutes the orange-clad side scored not once but twice, both goals off headers, to overtake the Japanese and secure three points in a 2-1 victory.

And It Was All Yello

If you thought Sofia Vergara was the only extroverted Colombian, here’s hoping you tuned in on early Saturday afternoon to witness Los Cafeteros’ 3-0 rollover of Greece. Under brilliant sunshine in the inland city of Belo Horizonte, some 250 miles due north of Rio de Janeiro, Colombia’s fans turned the stadium into a sea of yellow waves. When Pablo Armero scored just five minutes into the match --Colombia’s first World Cup goal since 1998 -- the stadium erupted while Armero proceeded to lead his teammates’ in what can only be described as FIFA’s best response to line dancing.

Day 5

Match of the Day (Stateside)

USA vs. Ghana

6 p.m., Natal

The United States meets Ghana, the African side that has knocked them out of the last two World Cups, in the super-saturated coastal city of Natal. Floods have ravaged the town in the past week, and a heavy dose of precipitation is expected. That may favor the Yanks, who as you recall scored a decisive qualifying victory in a blizzard in Denver a year ago. Ghana is ranked 37th in the world by FIFA and the U.S. 13th. A win and three points is almost a must for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side today in the group of death, Group G, as the next two opponents will be…

Match of the Day (Everywhere Else)

Germany vs. Portugal

Noon, Salvador

If you have die Mannschaft proceeding all the way to the World Cup final in your pool, you are not alone. The No. 2 ranked-side in the world has advanced to the semis in each of the past three World Cups and are led by midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose name may only be pronounced if you use your Sgt. Schultz (“Hogan’s Heroes”) voice. The Portuguese are led by striker Cristiano Ronaldo, whom many fans consider to be the best player in the world and even more the best-looking.

Wager of the Day

Iran vs. Nigeria

3 p.m., Curitiba

The Super Eagles are winless in their last eight games at the World Cup, while Iran’s only victory in nine appearances was a 1998 triumph over the United States, perhaps the nadir of American international soccer. This could be a close match, but we’ll side with the Africans in this battle of countries the State Department would advise against visiting.

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