RIO DE JANEIRO — In the buildup to the World Cup, the Brazilian football catchphrase of “Jogo Bonito” – The Beautiful Game – was drowned out by the bangs of frantic construction work and the shouts of angry protesters. Not now.
The football – it's been open, attacking and packed full of goals and great moments – is doing all the talking.
Neymar kicked Brazil into gear, Robin van Persie soared and scored with one of the most spectacular headers you'll see, and Argentina wizard Lionel Messi conjured up a little left-footed magic at the Maracana. On Monday, it kept coming: Thomas Mueller scored a hat-trick for Germany in a shock 4-0 rout of Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and Clint Dempsey hit the net just half a minute into the United States' World Cup in an end-to-end 2-1 win over Ghana. The first round of group games isn't even done yet.
It's not just the big-name teams either. There was Costa Rica's pulsating comeback to sweep past a highly-rated Uruguay and Switzerland's last-gasp winner over Ecuador.
“All the games we're watching, there's a lot of open play, there's a lot of beautiful goals. It's just wonderful to be here, isn't it?” Netherlands fan Paul Rolleman said as he walked – with a party-inspired hangover, he confessed – under perfect blue skies along Rio's famed Copacabana beach.
Half-expecting patched up stadiums and large street demonstrations, many worried that the return of the World Cup to the spiritual home of football after 64 years could be the most troubled in recent memory. But with a bunch of goals – 44 in 14 games so far – and no major backlash from protesters, it could turn out to be the best in over half a century.
“High-scoring games, this is what fans are waiting for,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “They want to see goals.”
And they have. From Sao Paulo to Salvador, from Cuiaba in the vast Brazilian interior to the golden sands of Rio de Janeiro, the goals have flown in. The World Cup is averaging over three a game. At that rate, it will be the highest-scoring since Brazil began its great love affair with the tournament and – with a 17-year-old Pele up front – won the first of its record five titles in Sweden in 1958.
There has been just one draw in those 14 games. Nigeria's scoreless meeting with Iran drew boos from fans spoiled by the World Cup goal glut. Jogo Bonito, first made famous by Pele, is rubbing off on everyone, it seems. No one is “parking the bus,” as the Europeans say, or playing defensively here.
“There's none of that. No game has been boring,” German fan Andre Lien said, adding with a sulk that he had to head back home for work on Tuesday.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, previously defensive in his approach to howls of disappointment from home fans, is playing with three strikers at the World Cup. The Netherlands made a mockery of pre-tournament criticism of their formation switch with blisteringly fast, attacking play to blow away defending champion Spain 5-1. Even Bosnia, the World Cup debutant, aggressively took the fight to Messi and Argentina – as coach Safet Susic promised they would.
“This is how we play football,” he said. “We don't know any other way. And I don't want my players to play any other way.”
The fans have reacted by filling stadiums or fan fests and embracing the carefree culture: A group of middle-aged German men in super-tight swimming costumes and with bellies bulging played football on Copacabana Monday morning before heading for the big screen TV.
Of course, it's still early days. Organizers can't let down their guard. There was a moment at Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo last week when Brazil's opening night seemed to hang by a thread – or an electrical wire. One section of the floodlights flickered off, then on, then off again. Disaster loomed. The lights came back on, stayed on, and Neymar rescued Brazil with a double as the home favorite came back from 1-0 down to beat Croatia 3-1.
There have been sporadic protests – police clashed with protesters not far from Rio's Maracana stadium on Sunday night while Messi scored and Argentina beat Bosnia – and in the northeastern city of Natal, torrential rain and flooding is threatening the World Cup experience.
But on the field, at least, the tournament has met the early challenge and more. Brazil's only worry there is if the goal-happy World Cup can keep up this breathtaking pace for a month.
“It's a big party,” Netherlands supporter Rolleman said on Copacabana. “But I do need to get some sleep now.”