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Barring Swiss upset, World Cup a letdown so far

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Finally, the World Cup has the injection of drama it needed.

Switzerland, land of chocolate and cuckoo clocks, upset Spain, the European champion. The 1-0 win was not beautiful. The Swiss spent much of the game frustrating successive waves of Spanish attacks on Wednesday. Gelson Fernandes' scrappy goal, scored around prostrate Spanish defender Gerard Pique, wouldn't have looked out of place at a mud-wrestling contest.

But most fans — Spaniards excluded, of course — should celebrate. Because until now, this World Cup has been something of a disappointment, strangely anti-climactic.

Beautiful goals like Siphiwe Tshabalala's left-footed thunderbolt for South Africa or Maicon's clever strike that opened Brazil's account against North Korea have been rare. The scoring average is, by far, the lowest it has been since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998.

That traditionally efficient Germany looks like one of the most exciting teams in South Africa speaks volumes about the cautious, unambitious and, at times, simply poor levels of play in the first matches.

North Korea brought an element of mystique. So little is known about the Hermit Kingdom's players that the opening game, won 2-1 by the Brazilians, was always going to be intriguing. But most of the other teams — the Swiss aside — have not sprung big surprises.

"The games haven't been that exciting," says England striker Wayne Rooney, one of several stars who has yet to live up to expectations. "I'm hoping it gets more exciting."

Aren't we all.

Nerves are inhibiting performance. Teams were so afraid to lose their first match that they didn't always battle for wins. Many, like Switzerland against Spain, have packed defenses. The angst etched on the faces of England's players before their 1-1 tie with the United States was, in hindsight, an early warning of their constricted and, at times, frightened performance.

"In the first matches one is more careful than maybe one should be. The teams are studying their opponents, which is why there are fewer goals," Diego Maradona says. His Argentina side scored just once in beating Nigeria despite fielding three attackers — Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain — who, among them, scored 101 goals for their clubs last season.

In South Africa, teams walked back to the dressing room tied 0-0 at halftime in nine of the first 16 matches. They included talented outfits Spain, Brazil and the Netherlands. Only two of the first 16 matches at the last World Cup in Germany were scoreless after 45 minutes.

Just two matches produced more than two goals. In contrast, that happened in seven of the first 16 games 1998 and 2002 and eight matches in 2006. In all, players scored just 25 times in the initial games this year and are scoring at a lowly average rate of 1.56 goals per game. At the previous three World Cups, the first 16 games produced totals of 39, 46 and 37 goals, respectively, and the average-per-game never dropped lower than 2.3.

Soccer's governing body, FIFA, isn't interested in discussing why this is happening. It says conclusions must wait until after the final on July 11.

"Not now, it's just too early," FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot says.

The World Cup ball and the high altitude at some venues that allows it to travel farther and faster through the thin air is clearly confounding players and goalkeepers. Shots are sailing high over the crossbar. No goals came from direct free kicks in the first 16 matches. Passes have been going wildly astray. 'Keepers have mistimed blocks and fired goal kicks too far.

Logic and history dictate that this World Cup will get better. The lack of goals is clearly an aberration. Until now, World Cups have seen an average of 3.18 goals per game. Players will perform better as they master the ball, the conditions and their stage fright. With survival in the tournament depending on it, teams that lost first matches will try harder and may be more adventurous next time. Players like Rooney or Spain's David Villa will drive themselves to make amends.

"Teams are growing into the competition. In the first games there is a lot of tension, whether it is the big teams or the little ones," South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira says. "The World Cup really starts after the first round, then you have the real World Cup. As the competition progresses, the standard will get much better."

While Parreira is undoubtedly right, the broader question remains regarding whether the World Cup really is the pinnacle of soccer. It is, perhaps, the most emotional, because of national pride. But the best club sides often have more talent and are better drilled and more accustomed to working together. The likes of Barcelona FC, Chelsea or Manchester United would handily beat most of the sides in South Africa.

It seemed almost sacrilegious when Jose Mourinho suggested exactly that this season, before turning Inter Milan into the European club champions.

The Champions League, he said, "is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams."

After the first matches in South Africa, one suspects that Mourinho may be right. For the sake of spectacle, we will cross fingers that the next three weeks prove him wrong.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.