WASHINGTON -- The region's soccer fans will get their first peek at Spain and Switzerland today, but they aren't at a disadvantage in predicting an outcome. Loyal followers of the two teams are just as clueless as to how their heroes will perform.
Will Spain trot out the team that played defending champion Germany even, or the one that blew a two-goal lead to South Korea in the last seven minutes? Will the Switzerland side that dominated Group A winner Romania show up, or the shaky group that allowed one-time favorite Colombia to regain some respect?
Spain and Switzerland meet today at 4:35 p.m. at RFK Stadium in one of eight second-round games in the 15th World Cup. The winner moves on to a quarterfinal at Foxboro, Mass., July 9, when it will meet the Nigeria-Italy survivor, but Spain feels it is capable of reaching the championship game July 17.
"That is my objective," Spain coach Javier Clemente said. "My first ambition, of course, was to reach the second round. Now it is to reach the quarterfinals, and I am confident we have the capacity to do that."
Spain-Switzerland is one of two round-of-16 games that pit group runners-up, and it's as low-profile a match as the elimination phase will see. RFK wasn't expecting much from its four group games either, however, and if one of the two teams can generate the excitement that Mexico and Saudi Arabia did, RFK's farewell to the World Cup will be an aesthetic success.
Only four of the 24 national teams went unbeaten in group play, but other than the tie with Germany, Spain's 1-0-2 record in Group C was uninspiring.
Spain has advanced out of group play in four straight World Cups, a streak that began at home in 1982. Its under-23 team used the home-field advantage to win the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics and its players hail from some of Europe's top club teams, but Spain has had difficulty generating momentum in the United States.
Ace defender Miguel Angel Nadal, one of six Spanish starters from European Cup finalist FC Barcelona, was ejected in the 25th minute of the opener against South Korea, and today he will end a 15-day absence mandated by FIFA. Spain, however, will be without Jose-Luis Caminero, who got two goals in last Monday's 3-1 win over Bolivia, then got his second yellow card of the tournament during injury time.
Clemente and Switzerland coach Roy Hodgson -- the chap who backed down from his demand for celibacy from his players during the World Cup -- have overhauled their national teams since taking their posts two years ago. Both keep going back to some old hands.
Andoni Zubizaretta, a 32-year-old who was released by FC Barcelona last month, has won back the Spanish goalkeeping job. Switzerland's goal against the United States June 18 was scored by Georges Bregy, 36, whose next game could be his last.
While Spain has been on the verge of breaking through to the top group, Switzerland, which went 1-1-1 in Group A, is making the most of its first World Cup in 28 years.
"The Swiss are no longer a team full of beginners," said Andoni Goikoetxea, the Spanish standout on right wing. "They've improved considerably, as the first round showed."
In Stephane Chapuisat, Switzerland has one of the top young forwards in Europe.
Midfielder Alain Sutter is still bothered by the broken toe he suffered against the United States, but he'll be ready today.