Trying to keep up with the World Cup soccer tournament's initial phase is like following several bouncing balls at once.
Since the 12th renewal of this quadrennial competition began on June 13, cities throughout Spain have played host to 24 teams in two weeks of intensive first-round action. Brazil, England, Poland, Belgium, and the Soviet Union have already earned passage to the second round, with seven others scheduled to join them by this weekend.
Argentina will probably advance, although the reigning World Cup champion dropped a 1-0 decision to Belgium in the tournament's opening match. It was a sad start for a country in need of a lift. Because of the round-robin format, the Argentines were able to redeem themselves with an emotional 4-1 victory over Hungary in the second of three first-round games.
The West Germans, champions in 1974, were victims of an even ruder upset. Their 2-1 loss to Algeria has been lumped with the greatest upsets in World Cup history. But they, too, bounced back, beating Chile 4-1. To advance, however, they must beat Austria on Friday.
This year's expanded field has brought a new element of excitement to first-round play, where newcomers have given the established powers more than they bargained for. Honduras tied the host Spaniards, Cameroon achieved the same result against Peru, as did Kuwait against Czechoslovakia.
To say Kuwait has taken its participation seriously is putting it mildly. Each player from this oil-rich nation stood to make $200,000 if Kuwait reached Round 2, which it hasn't. In view of this wealth, soccer's international governing body had no qualms about fining the Kuwait team $11,000 for protesting a goal in a 4-1 loss to France. Goal differentials are used to break deadlocks in the group standings, so the Kuwaitis didn't take kindly to a goal that came after play seemingly had stopped. Fahd al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, president of the Kuwait soccer association, actually came onto the field to protest a French insurance goal.
Beyond this controversy, the tournament has been relatively quiet, perhaps too quiet in Group 1, where a record was set with a sequence of four consecutive draws. In fact, Poland played two scoreless ties, then beat Peru 5-1 to lock up a berth in Round 2, which begins Monday. The championship game on July 11 will receive live network coverage, an American first (ABC, 1:30-4:00 EDT).