YOKOHAMA, Japan – Spain finally figured out how to start a World Cup with a victory. England still doesn’t know how to beat Sweden anywhere.
The Spaniards broke a 52-year winless spell in World Cup openers, dating back to a 1950 victory over the United States. Goals from Raul, Juan Carlos Valeron and Fernando Hierro lifted the Spaniards over Slovenia 3-1 Sunday night (Sunday morning EDT) at Gwangju, South Korea.
“It wasn’t easy, there are a lot of surprises and all games are very close at this level,” Raul said. “There is more to come.”
England must hope there are no more meetings with Sweden ahead. A second-half goal by Niclas Alexandersson gave the Swedes a 1-1 tie and stretched their unbeaten streak against the English to 10 games – 3-0-7 – since 1968. FIFA does not recognize all of those matches.
“It didn’t look good in the first half,” Alexandersson said of Sweden’s one-goal deficit at Saitama, Japan. “We showed a lot of fighting spirit in the second half, when we came back into the game. We could have won the match.”
Also on Sunday, Argentina, the pretournament favorite, edged Nigeria 1-0 at Ibaraki, Japan, while Paraguay and South Africa tied 2-2 at Busan, South Korea.
Gabriel Batistuta, a fixture in the Argentina lineup but questionable to start after a poor, injury-plagued season in Italy, sent an angled header into the net off Juan Sebastian Veron’s swinging corner kick in the 63rd minute.
Batistuta moved into a tie for sixth place in career World Cup goals with 10 with the winner.
“I am not thinking of any records, I don’t care about that,” he said. “But if I score goals, it means that Argentina gets closer every time to our goal, to win the World Cup.”
At Busan, in a half-empty 53,926-seat stadium, South Africa rallied from two goals down against Paraguay.
Quinton Fortune scored on a last-minute penalty kick after a controversial call by the referee. Fortune drove the ensuing kick into the top right corner after the referee judged that Paraguay goalie Ricardo Tavarelli pulled down Sibusiso Zuma. Replays indicated the goalie barely touched Zuma when the South African already was on the way down.
Referee Lubos Michel handed out eight yellow cards, four to each team.
Meanwhile, U.S. coach Bruce Arena indicated star striker Clint Mathis might not start in Wednesday’s opener against Portugal because of a slow recovery from a torn knee ligament.
“It’s been a tough month for him because he was physically behind the other players,” Arena said.
Arena added that Mathis needs to develop a better work ethic.
The most publicized injury, the torn thigh muscle of French star Zinedine Zidane, is making good progress and the midfielder started running again this weekend. France dearly missed its playmaker in a stunning 1-0 loss to Senegal.