First Week Of World Cup Play Disappoints Many Fans

In World Cup action, Italy was stunned by New Zealand — handing the defending champions their second draw. And the French team devolved into chaos — walking out on its coach and its director resigned. This year's World Cup has been full of surprises and disappointing play by favored teams.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some of the national teams at soccer's World Cup have found their currency falling. Italy does not look like the defending champion that it is, and France's team appears to be imploding.

NPR's Mike Pesca is following the story from Johannesburg. Hi, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: I thought you were going to say the English continued to be pounded.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: No, I would leave those lines to you, of course.

PESCA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Although I mostly wanted to ask about - or at least at the beginning ask about Italy, which is, as we said, the defending champion, but just managed a draw against New Zealand, definitely not a defending champion.

PESCA: Italy usually starts out slow, so if you told me that they were going to have two ties - or as they call it in international soccer, draws - to begin the tournament, it wouldn't be that shocking.

The shocking result was that it was against New Zealand. Now, New Zealand was the lowest team to qualify for the World Cup. The South African hosts are actually ranked lower in FIFA rankings, but hosts always get an automatic qualification.

Many smart gamblers thought the best bet of the World Cup was that the New-Zealand-wouldn't-score-a-goal-in-the-entire-tournament bet, but they managed a tie with Slovakia in the last minute of their first game, and then the 1-1 draw against Italy. And if you want to argue it, it is true, the Italians had so many more chances, and they hit a post.

But the one goal that Italy scored was based on a fairly poor referee's decision to give a card in the box, which resulted in a penalty kick. It was the greatest day in the short history of New Zealand soccer.

INSKEEP: Is there actual danger that Italy might not make the second round?

PESCA: Yes, they - if they lose to Slovakia, which is proved to be the weakest team in their group, they might not win. And the only reason we would say that that could happen is because they have not been playing well. And in this World Cup, there have been so many upsets and so many things that we think couldn't have happened, like Spain losing in Germany, losing in teams that are supposed to be doing well, not doing well at all.

INSKEEP: And then there's France.

PESCA: And then there's France, which is a category unto itself. Now, the French losing wasn't so shocking. In fact, coming into this, most French thought the best they could do was to acquit themselves, not embarrassingly. But they have, in fact, not played well, and their loss against Mexico, two to nothing, was downright embarrassing, because the players - this is a sports cliche, but it is true and it has been borne out by what has happened since the players quit.

And what happened yesterday was that the players pretty much revolted en masse. They refused to play for their coach. And their coach is a strange cat by the name of Raymond Domenech. And he believes in astrology in help picking his lineup. He says I don't want to put a Leo at striker because he's going to do something to embarrass us.

All of France, all of the team was not behind the strange decisions of Raymond Domenech. The only people who supported Raymond Domenech were at the sports federation. The players revolted. The players walked out of practice. I mean, this is just a French revolution, and anyone who knows history knows how bloody those can be.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just make sure I understand what's happening here. Are the French going to play?

PESCA: They are going to play. They were staging a one-day protest. And they have a final game against the host, South Africa. And it's a pretty good chance that no matter what happens in that, neither team will move on to the next round.

INSKEEP: Mike Pesca, I want to ask about another thing. Every time there is an American game, you can tell in Washington, D.C., because the bars here are allowed to open early in the morning with the time difference. And you walk past a bar, and there will be hundreds of people in there at 10 o'clock in the morning. When's the next time that's going to happen, and what are we expecting to see?

PESCA: The United States, again, plays on a Wednesday. They play for their lives. If they beat Algeria, they advance to the next round. If you had told the Americans beforehand that would be the situation, one game against Algeria to advance, they certainly would've taken it. And let me tell you, in the last couple of days, a Dane, a Chilean, a Honduran - I can think of 15 different nationalities have come up to me and said: What was with that disallowed third goal?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

PESCA: Because they think I know. And I don't know. And no one knows. But it has made the Americans the sympathetic darlings of the world. Everyone's fascinated and think that they got jobbed on that last call.

INSKEEP: So you get to drink in all that sympathy as an American?

PESCA: Yeah, it's nice. It's a strange feeling for once, right?

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mike Pesca, in Johannesburg.

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