THIS World Cup got off to a flying start, and has yet to falter. The gap between the big footballing nations and the small has ceased to yawn: there were weak sides on the park, too often reduced to dangerous harassment, but there were really very few of them.
No side so far have appeared stronger than Brazil, who have still, however, to be severely tested. There is a touch of ill- feeling at the heart of the team, centred on their captain Dunga, but I cannot see it knocking them out of the competition.
England were a little frantic at first against Tunisia, but settled to an easy win, sealed by Paul Scholes' memorable goal. Alan Shearer's sharp header, which opened the scoring in Marseilles, was greeted with a horrible yell of triumphant execration from the swillers and scrappers in the dominant English section of the crowd. All the England players performed well.
It could be said, with reservations, that referees performed well too. Out, if not entirely, has gone the unsafe and unsightly tackle from behind, under foolish protest from one television expert, Mark Lawrenson. In, though, has come obstruction, in the form of holding, pulling and pushing - even more than there has been in the past. The United States-Germany match brought one comic bout of mutual tugging which looked like the Dance of the Elastic Jerseys.
A bad refereeing mistake occurred when Italy's Roberto Baggio drove a ball at close range against a blameless Chilean forearm. The against-the- rules penalty award allowed Italy to draw and could even help decide the tournament. This was followed, last Thursday, by an outbreak of indefensible sendings-off, among them that of the Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, who can't have done more than tread, as opposed to "stamp", on the Saudi Arabian.
Among the high points was Morocco's draw with Norway's not very endearing giants. Morocco's fast ghosts were a wonder, and Hadji's goal was an ace. A Norwegian player praised his opponents afterwards, while contributing to the racist sub-text that keeps creeping into World Cup discourse by adding that "they weren't a typical African side". I don't know whether the very different Nigerian team are typically African, but their defeat of Spain, one of the strongest nations in the tournament, was an even greater coup for the dark continent.
A second Hagi shone as ever, at the age of 33, when Romania played Colombia, and so did the bushy Carlos Valderrama at 36. Valderrama and Asprilla of Colombia looked, respectively, like Struwwelpeter and the Baron Samedi of voodoo magic (the tournament's living dead are those players who leave the field on a stretcher and are back within seconds).
The game was exhilaratingly dynamic, and Colombia didn't deserve to lose. They then lost their magician: taken off, not very cleverly, five minutes from time, Asprilla has done a disappearing trick. A British newspaper said that Glenn Hoddle's spies would be reporting that England had "nothing to fear" from either of these teams. Nothing?
With his usual glaring candour, Tony Banks, the Minister of Sport, recently suggested that England's players are less "proficient" than those of the other leading sides. Despite England's early success, the claim has still to be dramatically disproved. I share the view that Steve McManaman and Michael Owen need to be in the side - McManaman to make chances and to send Owen on his Greaves-like runs.
It must often seem to fans that managers wouldn't be managers if they didn't have their perversities and their obstinacies. The Coventry striker Darren Huckerby not wanted in France. No David Ginola in the French team. Owen and Brazil's Denilson nursed on the bench, where Ronaldo spent the whole of the last World Cup. Anderton, who has not played for the best part of a year, instead of David Beckham. The Paul Gascoigne of the present moment would not have done as well as Scholes in that opening game. Later on in the competition, he may possibly be missed.
Many neutrals are likely to feel that England are no better off for creators than Romania or Colombia, and are no more powerful collectively. I believe that England will beat them both. But they shouldn't be too sure of it, any more than Scotland can be sure of beating a Morocco stung by capitulation to Brazil.
Having drawn with Norway, Scotland may now make the second round of the tournament. They have done well with what they have, which includes a sound midfield and a self-confessed tendency to "tail off" in attack. Craig Brown, their excellent manager, may have erred in playing at the back a player who prefers to play upfield and who scored a brilliant lobbed goal when he was finally allowed to play there - a decision fulsomely referred to in the press as "astute".
Both Scotland and England can seem at times like single-striker teams: Brazil have four strikers, going on 10. Nevertheless, Scotland were, as the situation required, better than simply brave: they were also proficient. The Scottish painter Calum Innes has described his national team as "full of promise but never getting anywhere". I don't think they have been especially full of promise. But they have got somewhere.
The television coverage of the World Cup has lived up to its occasions. One picture that will remain in the mind showed Italy's Roberto Baggio, sunk in thought, like some philosopher, amid the pushing and pulling turmoil of the Chilean goalmouth, seeking out a chink of light for his pass.Reuse content