JOHANNESBURG – Defending champion Italy was far from proving itself to be a credible contender for a second straight World Cup title Monday, and the flying form of the Netherlands never really got off the ground.
The Italians, who came into the World Cup in South Africa with an aging squad and questions about whether they could again win consecutive tournaments as they did in 1934 and ’38, were held to a 1-1 draw by Paraguay in Group F in Cape Town.
The two-time finalist Dutch struggled to get the offence moving at Soccer City but still managed to earn a 2-0 win over Denmark in Group E. In the other Group E match, Keisuke Honda scored to lead Japan over Cameroon 1-0 in Bloemfontein.
Antolin Alcaraz gave Paraguay the lead at the Green Point Stadium with a header in the 39th minute of the rainy Group F match, and Daniele De Rossi equalized for Italy from close range in the 63rd.
“The biggest regret is the result,” Italy coach Marcello Lippi said. “They only approached the goal once and they scored. We reacted well but you’ve got to win games likes these.”
Italy, however, played the second half without goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who left the game with back a problem. Buffon said the problem was with his sciatic nerve.
“I hope he’s back for the next game but that will be up to the doctors,” Lippi said.
In Johannesburg, Dirk Kuyt scored one goal for the Dutch, who came into the tournament in South Africa expecting to show the world how to play beautiful, free-flowing soccer. But the other goal came off an unfortunate mishap when Denmark defender Simon Poulsen headed a ball off the back of teammate Daniel Agger and into the net.
“We wanted to play beautiful football but we lost the ball,” Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk said. “(But) from time to time you could see how good we can be.”
The Netherlands took the lead against Denmark in the 46th minute when Poulsen tried to clear a cross from Robin van Persie but instead headed it off Agger’s back and into the net.
“I was just thinking, this can’t be happening,” Poulsen said of the freak goal.
Kuyt added the second goal in the 85th when he tapped in a rebound off the post from close range.
The Netherlands reached the 1974 and ’78 World Cup finals, but lost both times. Heading into this year’s World Cup, the Dutch finished the qualifying campaign with a perfect record.
In Bloemfontein, Japan won its first match at the World Cup on foreign soil when Honda scored in the 39th from a curling cross by Daisuke Matsu.
“I found a good position and the ball was very good,” Honda said. “I just told myself to be calm to make it because recently we have missed good chances, so I wanted to make it absolute today.”
Through 11 games, there have been eight clean sheets, with the only matches where both teams scored coming in 1-1 draws between the United States and England, between South Africa and Mexico, and Italy Paraguay. Through Monday, no winning team had allowed a goal.
The Italy-Paraguay match at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town started on time despite a wage dispute between stewards and a security contractor. Police took over responsibility for security both in Cape Town and in Durban.
“Gates have opened, the police are in control and the match will kick off as scheduled,” organizers said in a statement.
Also, the topic of the vuvuzela went right to the top at FIFA again on Monday, with president Sepp Blatter defending the loud plastic horns that are commonplace at soccer matches in South Africa.
“I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound,” Blatter said in a Twitter message. “I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country.”