After encountering the brutal, stifling heat of Dallas and Orlando, Germany and Belgium opened the second round of the World Cup in Chicago in welcome weather.
It was like a typical summer's day in Northern Europe. It was chilly. It was windy. It was rainy. And both teams played well in one of the two best games of the round of 16.
Franz Beckenbauer, the great German player and coach, remarked in 1990 that the World Cup did not begin until the second round. It was true also in 1994, even though this year, due at least in part to FIFA's rules and procedure changes designed to step up the pace, the first-round games were more interesting than four years ago and the goals-per-game average was about one-third of a goal higher.
"Depend upon it, sir," wrote Dr. Samuel Johnson, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." And when the World Cup has moved to the single-elimination stage, the certain knowledge that minutes from now it's either you or the other guys can produce some terrific concentration and splendid games between well-matched teams.
Beckenbauer before the Germany-Belgium game, put the Johnson aphorism into soccer language: "Everything henceforth depends on speed, power and concentration."
He thought that if Germany fulfilled its potential, it would go through to the final, that of its possible rivals on the way there, Italy had the best material and that the new football powers like Saudi Arabia would fall by the wayside.
Germany and Belgium surely fulfilled that prediction. Germany was the stronger and faster, but Belgium played courageously and tenaciously. Its spectacular goalkeeper, Michel Preud'homme, saved Belgium from several German goals. Belgium could have used the obvious penalty kick the referee neglected to award, but the truth was that the Germans, for the first time in the Cup, played with tremendous power, led by forward Juergen Klinsmann and 34-year-old striker Rudi Voeller, called back from retirement, and nearly every attack threatened a goal.
A German team playing like the one that beat Belgium, 3-2, is likely to reach the final.
The other splendid game of the second round, a great game in any World Cup, was Romania's 3-2 dispatch of Argentina in a moderately hot and quite smoggy Rose Bowl. These teams are each capable of arousing extraordinary cynicism. But on this occasion, what you are bound to remember for many years was their commitment and verve: Romania's creative fast breaks, propelled by a brilliant Gheorghe Hagi, and Argentina's marvelous passing game. The rapid, end-to-end sweeps as Argentina attacked and Romania counterattacked produced a match that only a churl could have asked to be more exciting.
Spain swamped the Swiss in a fast, rough game in which Spain ordered 18 fouls to 12 shots at the goal against a Swiss side that lacked the power to keep pace.
Sweden, playing very methodically, beat Saudi Arabia, 3-1. The Saudis were charming to watch but they still lack the experience to break into scoring at this level of competition. It was a tribute to their skill and courage that they got this far.
Ireland, losing to the Netherlands, 2-0, played with verve and toughness. But important as defense is, no team can win consistently if it scores only two goals in four games.
The Dutch, at 3-1, are looking strong. They seemed confident and determined. They have scored six goals and given up only three, but they lack the fluidity and imagination of the great Dutch teams of the '70s. When they face Brazil in the heat in Dallas, it will be power against panache.
The real question is whether the Brazilians are suffering from the Brazilian disease of subordinating goal scoring to technical brilliance. Their footwork is elegant but they have trouble finishing. Except for their 3-0 defeat of a squabbling Cameroon in the first round, they have scored no more than one goal from the field in any game. (Their second goal against Russia was on a penalty kick.)
It was much to the credit of the United States that it held Brazil scoreless in the first half and allowed only one goal in the second in the classic American football stadium at Stanford University under the clear blue sky and crisp air of Northern California. The United States, not having yet developed an identifiable soccer culture, confused the seasoned Brazilian team with its recklessly aggressive defense. But if Brazil does not develop a better finishing touch it will not prevail through the final week.
Poor Mexico! After slogging it out with Bulgaria to a 1-1 tie, it lost, 3-1, after overtime on a humiliating run of failed penalty kicks. Theirs was by far the more skilled side, but the defensive tactic it adopted seemed not to fit with its national style. It seems strange to us that Mexico waited for the penalty kicks and made no serious attempt to decide the game in its favor during overtime. A measure of this resignation was that Mexico didn't make any substitutions in overtime, despite the obvious exhaustion of some of its players.
This Cup's enigma has been Italy. It is a stereotyping cliche to call its sudden resuscitation and end-of-game 2-1 victory over Nigeria operatic, but it would be an accurate description of the team.
The renowned Roberto Baggio, who had done little for three games and most of the fourth, sprang to life in the 89th minute to tie Nigeria with a clever shot, then set the stage for a penalty kick in the 102nd minute by lobbing the ball over the head of a defender who committed a foul in a desperate effort to recover. Nigeria at its best played beautiful, muscular soccer. But in the game against Italy, it let itself be drawn into a European-style tactical game, for which it lacks the experience and perhaps the conviction.
Italy played much of the game with one man out. So did Brazil. If that is the way to win, perhaps FIFA, instead of awarding a penalty kick to a team, should reward it by taking a man off the field.
In the quarterfinals, Brazil will have trouble against the Dutch today in Dallas unless it can develop more power in its attacks.
Italy's problem is psychological. No team has technically more accomplished players. It is not clear whether its coach can make them play together. If Italy--and Baggio--can mesh their great abilities today, it should take Spain in a close game.
As for the other quarterfinals, in the Romania-Sweden game Sunday, everything depends on which Romanian team shows up. If it plays as brilliantly and purposefully as it did against Argentina, Romania is likely to beat Sweden. But if it performs as poorly as it did in the first round against Switzerland, it will return to Romania.
Bulgaria has some first-class players. But Germany seems too strong. Our prediction for the semifinals is Germany-Italy and Brazil-Romania. But we could easily be surprised.