Consider: in South American qualifying, the Chileans scored 32 goals, just one fewer than Brazil, and allowed 22 -- 54 goals in 18 games, which means a Chile game is more likely to witness more offense than any other (a few European clubs like England and Spain had a higher qualifying ratio, but this is primarily due to 6-0 wins over Andorra and Armenia and the like).
Consider: their offensive style owes itself to the aggressive, three-striker formation preferred by their Argentine coach, Marcelo "Loco" Bielsa. He's called El Loco for a variety of charming reasons, one of which was his refusal to accept regular salary during the first two years of coaching.
The Chile-Spain first round match should be among the most open and entertaining of the group stage. And if Chile catches fire, and manages to escape Brazil in the round of 16, who knows where El Loco can take them? They are from the Southern Hemisphere, after all.
Plus: Elephant mascots and uniforms; and the chance to play spoilers in a group with ubiquitous Brazil and obnoxious Portugal. An upset or two there would be sweet to see.
Going into the competition, Ghana looked like a nice slightly-under-the radar pick -- less hype than Ivory Coast or Nigeria, but more evidence of strength: a surprising WC run in '06, and the most impressive final round of qualifying of any African team. But in the past few months they've had almost the worst luck imaginable. First a lousy draw, then the definitive loss of their best player, and the second or third best on the continent, for the entire tournament -- Michael Essien.
Today, of course, their luck turned, and they got a terrific and fortunate result against Serbia. Here's hoping they keep working and find the form that led them past the USA and a strong Czech squad four years ago.
Besides, Mexico is playing some of its most exciting soccer in recent years. In pre-Cup friendlies, they played even with the Netherlands and England in tough losses, and decisively beat Italy. Against an inspired South Africa, in a tough spot for any visiting team, they dominated much of the game and were unlucky not to have 2-3 goals. Unlike in recent years, they have an interesting mix of domestic stars and European-based professionals; key men to watch are playmaking wizard Giovani dos Santos (the man of the match in the opener), and Javier "Chicarito" (Little Pea) Hernandez.
The Dutch have always been about offense. In the '70s, Johann Cruyff and his team pioneered something called "Total Football", which I don't quite understand from a tactical perspective, but theoretically involved all 11 players on the team -- strikers, midfields, defenders -- operating as a single flexible unit. It was a fluid and unpredictable style, and like Brazilian joga bonito, it took Europe by storm. In the '80s and '90s great Dutch forwards like Marco Van Basten, Bergkamp, and Patrick Kluivert continued the tradition, dominating European club football and leading the Netherlands on memorable runs through several World Cups.
Sometimes called "the Brazil of Europe" for their offensive-minded game, no nation outside of Brazil has a more artistic football tradition, or a more heroic myth of self. But there are two critical differences that explain why I'm mostly rooting against Brazil and for the Netherlands.
For one, they always lose. In the '70s, Cruyff and his gang made the finals twice, losing both times to the host nation: dour, defensive West Germany in '74, and a shady, military junta-backed Argentine team in '78. More recently, Bergkamp's team lost a 3-2 classic to Brazil in 1994, and then again, unluckily and on penalties, in 1998. Why the Dutch can never successfully harness their talent has puzzled soccer writers for decades, with explanations usually beginning with specific intra-squad squabbles, and ending with grand commentaries on "the nature of Dutch individualism and antipathy to autocracy." Regardless, they are the ultimate beautiful losers of world football, and that alone entitles them to your sympathy.
More to the point, though, their team this year is dynamite. Unlike Dunga's Brazil squad, its strength is offense, not defense. What the Argentines are to strikers, the Dutch are to attacking midfielders. I don't think it's a coincidence that both Champions League finalists were led by Dutch playmakers -- Arjen Robben for Bayern Munich and Wesley Sneijder for champs Inter Milan. Robben is temporarily sidelined with an injury, but before he returns the Dutch can look to Real Madrid's Rafael Van der Vaart, plus youthful highlight-reel dazzlers Eljero Elia and Ibrahim Affelay.
Not even the Spanish can match the quality of Dutch talent in midfield. True to form, of course, they all hate each other, and have already been forbidden to use Twitter while in South Africa -- but that just makes them more entertaining to watch. They probably won't win, or even make the finals, but I'd be shocked if the Oranje don't play some of the most special football of the Cup.