SALVADOR, Brazil — Spectators filled the newly assembled stadium seats in this colorful coastal town and viewers across the world flipped on their televisions to see one of the best soccer players alive. Cristiano Ronaldo could just as easily appear on the cover of a fashion magazine as he could on a late-night sports highlight show.
“He has everything a soccer player should have,” veteran ESPN analyst Tommy Smyth said recently. “He’s got speed, guile, a shot that’s unbelievable. He just has everything.”
On Monday, he had something else few others could lay claim to: a pretty great seat to watch an opposing player steal the show. Germany’s Thomas Müller, more likely to be confused with a Munich Footlocker salesman than one of the game’s top players, netted a hat trick in leading a powerful German squad over Ronaldo’s shellshocked team, 4-0, in both teams’ opening World Cup Group G match at Arena Fonte Nova.
The lopsided result not only sent a strong message to the entire tournament field, but it had major repercussions for the United States, which will face the beleaguered Portuguese squad next. Clinging to whatever remains of its confidence, Portugal will enter Sunday’s matchup against the Americans without defender Pepe, who picked up a costly red card Monday, and it will also likely be without two other starters who suffered injuries.
Portugal Coach Paulo Bento conceded that his team made “mistakes” in Monday’s loss, saying “what we have to do now is assess what we did and try to react in the best way possible against the United States.”
It was clear Monday the Portuguese had no answer for Germany and its unorthodox weapon. Müller can line up as a midfielder, striker or winger. He’s not the biggest guy on the field and never the fastest. But he’s often the most confounding.
“As a coach, sometimes you don’t really know or you can’t predict his pathways on the pitch,” German Coach Joachim Loew said. “He’s a very difficult player to interpret for the opponent. . . . He has one aim: How can I score a goal? That’s really the only focus he has.”
The 24-year old Bayern Munich star was particularly focused against Portugal, scoring on a penalty kick in the 12th minute, from the center of the box in the 45th minute and then in the 78th minute on a short tap-in.
“As things go in soccer, if gods look favorably on you, things work out well,” Müller said. “We need to focus on the next match now. There’s no gifts or presents in soccer anyways.”
Müller also drew Pepe into a red card that could have a big impact on Portugal’s ability to advance past the group stage. In the 37th minute, Müller went down after taking a hand to the face from Pepe. Portugal’s talented defender bent down to exchange words but leaned too close and bumped heads. Müller sprang to his feet but didn’t retaliate. Pepe promptly received the red card and his team was forced to face a deficit one man down for the remainder of the match.
Portugal also saw little life from Ronaldo and lost two starters due to injury: striker Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao. Both suffered muscle injuries and Bento was not optimistic either would be available to play against the United States this Sunday in Manaus.
“We’ll have to make changes, of course,” the Portuguese coach said. “There are several changes to be made . . . but in terms of reformulating everything, reformulating our processes, from our perspective and in my opinion, this would be the biggest mistake we could make.”
Germany, looking for its first World Cup title since 1990, hasn’t lost a World Cup opener since 1982. It has won its past five openers by a combined score of 22-2, and showed Monday it isn’t merely a threat in Group G but capable of faring well against most anyone in the field. The German team looked like a pugilist capable of delivering a thunderous knockout blow or just as easily opting to tire out an opponent with speed.
Even without Marco Reus, the crafty midfielder who will miss the tournament with an ankle injury, Germany showed it has plenty of bullets in its chamber. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was barely tested — facing 14 shots, nine on goal — but never buckled. And Müller again showed that he performs best on the biggest of stages.
Four years ago, a 20-year old Müller scored five goals in South Africa, which means he now has eight goals in seven World Cup matches.
“I cannot expect to score another three goals in the next match,” he said, “but I’ll certainly try.”
Germany will play Ghana on Saturday in Fortaleze and close out the tournament against the United States on June 26 in Recife.
The German squad’s win Monday came in front of an announced crowd of 51,081. Many of the Brazilians showed up early to root on the Portuguese, with whom they share a common language and ancestry. But they never really had a chance.
As the beleaguered Portugal squad, led by Ronaldo, its stunned hero, prepared to board a charter flight out of Salvador, it might not have many chances left either.
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