Messi leads the way, again
Football, at least at the individual player level, has long been dominated by a sort of proxy war between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not direct opponents, even on the pitch, the duo have contested for supremacy through more subtle means. Team trophies. Goals scored. Impact in big games. And while Messi, for a while, seemed to have an insurmountable lead (perhaps because he cared less about the lead than Ronaldo), the Portuguese is catching up (perhaps because he cares more). At least, at club level.
But there is a bigger stage than even the Champions League, and when it comes to the World Cup, Ronaldo's so far behind that he might as well not even be in the same conversation. Portugal are struggling as a group and Ronaldo has failed to have a significant influence thus far, his solitary assist to salvage a point against the United States only serving to highlight what's been missing from the team's play. Argentina, too, are struggling as a group, but Messi has been almost singlehandedly bailing them out, winning games more or less by himself.
Against Nigeria, Messi was sublime. His burst of acceleration to net the first goal after Ángel di María's shot hit the post, Vincent Enyeama, the post again, and finally popped loose into space was astounding: he covered so much distance so quickly it was as though he was gliding across the grass while everyone else was sinking into the pitch. His free kick to make it 2-1 was similarly impressive, arrowed over the wall with such precision that Enyeama found himself rooted to the ground. That the rest of the team was decidedly less sublime only served to make Messi's performance all the more outstanding. He's made serious contributions to his team winning in every match thus far, and Ronaldo ... hasn't.
Perhaps fairer (and friendlier) competition comes from Brazil's Neymar, who's level with Messi on the World Cup scoring charts and, since Karim Benzema and Thomas Muller look set to meet early, looks like his most serious contender for the Golden Boot. Through the group stages, Messi has the edge on the darling of the Selecao, but the knockout rounds -- and perhaps even the final -- might well be a duel between South America's most recognisable superstars. Considering this is the continent's first World Cup in 36 years, that seems more than appropriate.
The Swiss are doomed
The theory, at least, is sound. Take Ottmar Hitzfeld, all-round European coaching legend. Give him a squad comprising players plucked from just below the very top of European football: a back-up Bayern player here; a Juventus wing-back there. Mix and serve over ice, and voila! One Dark Horse, sir. That will be fourteen real, please. Obrigado.
And you'd think, with Switzerland qualifying for the knock-out stage in second place, behind France, that the theory had worked. They'd have taken that at the start of the tournament, after all. But there's a problem. Yes, the Swiss are on track when it comes to results. When it comes to performances? They're kind of struggling.
Shipping five goals to the French is one thing; they've got Karim Benzema and, er, Olivier Giroud. But against Honduras, though Xherdan Shaqiri will take the headlines thanks to his excellent hat-trick, their clean sheet was maintained only thanks to some intriguing finishing from the Honduran forwards, who seemed determined to maintain their country's proud record of never having won a game at the World Cup.
In essence, the Swiss can't defend. Maybe this is a personnel issue: Stephan Lichtsteiner, as defenders go, is excellent when attacking; Fabian Schaer is talented but young; and as for Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos, well, even Arsene Wenger cottoned on in the end. Alternatively, perhaps it's an question of approach: they went into the game against Honduras needing not just a win but goals, to be safe, so there was always going to be some space. Either way, if they go into their last-16 game against Argentina without making some kind of adjustment, then Lionel Messi will have the Golden Boot sewn up before the quarter-finals even begin.
Team Melli has its moment
By the 80th minute of Iran's match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was clear that we weren't going to get most neutrals' dream scenario. The drawing of the lots was off the table unless Iran could find three goals in ten minutes to match Argentina's result against the Super Eagles, which was significantly more goals than the zero they had managed in 260 minutes of World Cup football before then.
But in the 82nd, Javad Nekounam slipped in behind the defence on the Bosnia right, and, swiveling his hips, fired a low, volleyed cross through the six-yard box. Asmir Begović didn't come for it, but Reza Goochannejihad did, racing onto the loose ball and tapping home for Iran's first goal of the tournament. It was obviously meaningless in terms of the result (and Bosnia would score less than a minute later to render the goal even more meaningless), but the crowd went wild anyway.
As well they should have. A goal celebration, no matter the context, represents the one time when your team's on top of the opposition, and, therefore, the world. The broader context didn't need to be considered -- any goal is cause for joy, and so the crowd erupted. For the first time all tournament, Iranian fans had something more to cheer than merely playing the opposition close: they had their first goal in the finals since 2006.
Why was this a special moment? Because with Goochannejihad's 82nd minute goal, every single team in the tournament has scored at least once. Cameroon have done it. Australia have done it. Honduras have done it. For every single country in this tournament (and for the first time in 16 years) the World Cup has brought at least one moment of utterly pure jubilation, undiluted by result. That, surely, is something to celebrate.