19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
DAY 9 SCORES (SATURDAY/JUNE 19)
- Group E - Netherlands 1, Japan 0
- Group D - Ghana 1, Australia 1
- Group E - Denmark 2, Cameroon 1
Really? Did it finally come? For the first time since the World Cup started, I have a day off work, meaning I didn't have to scrounge to get my information on all the matches of the day. That didn't mean I slept in, though -- always hard for an insomniac to pull that off. So instead, there I was again, up before five in the morning. A trio of games were on the docket, a full pot of coffee awaited my arrival, and I had nothing else I had to worry about save my ill wife. She was still asleep at this point, though, so I fired up the computer, found a feed of the match, and away I went.
Before I go any further into the match coverage of the day, there were a couple thoughts which were anchored in my brain as I groggily awoke. The first was the reverberations of that U.S.-Slovenia tilt yesterday. It turns out that Koman Coulibaly, the now-infamous Malian referee whose phantom whistle disallowed a Maurice Edu go-ahead goal in the 86th minute yesterday and cost the United States two points, is now under an expedited review from FIFA for the way he handled yesterday's game. It is likely that the controversial match between the Slovenes and the Americans will be his first and only World Cup match. He is the most decorated official in Mali, having worked the final at the 2010 African Cup of Nations this past January. He's also one of their most controversial -- his egregious penalty for Cameroon in 2006 World Cup qualifying against Egypt could have sent the Indomitable Lions through instead of the Ivory Coast, though Cameroon missed the subsequent kick and all was righted. This time, though, his errors were on too big a stage.
We can't fault the fact this was his first World Cup match -- every official must have a first if he is to have a second, third, fourth... -- but we can find fault in his decision-making. FIFA did right by giving him a shot to prove himself in South Africa; they will also be doing right by preventing him from getting the chance to botch another move this tournament. But we cannot dump on Coulibaly alone. In the early match yesterday, Alberto Undiano Mallenco was doling out infractions like his job depended on it. Once he sent off German striker Miroslav Klose, the tide turned completely in Serbia's favor -- and neither card issued to Klose seemed to warrant such a harsh penalty. In retrospect, the same went for the red card handed out by Oscar Ruiz in the Nigeria-Greece match on Thursday; once Sani Kaita was sent off, the wind fell from the Nigerian sails simply because Ruiz was willing to hand out his own version of an Oscar to Greece's undulating flop artist Vasilis Torosidis. FIFA should be instituting a fully-expedited match review process for all its referees.
But it wasn't just referees who were sparking protest. We've seen several coaches under fire. After blasting his coach at halftime of their match against Mexico -- "Go [screw] yourself, dirty son of a [prostitute]!" -- French striker Nicolas Anelka found himself on the wrong end of Raymond Domenech's fury. Anelka has been sent home from South Africa for his outburst, while Domenech remains. Now I'm not about to condone what Anelka said (I have no knowledge of what Mrs. Domenech does for a living), but his aggravation about the arcane tactics and dubious abilities of his coach are well-founded if crassly articulated. Four years ago, he was on the sideline as France nearly won the World Cup. But it has become readily apparent that it was Zinedine Zidane's leadership and not Domenech's tactical savvy that led Les Bleus all the way to penalty kicks in the final. Zidane came out after the match against Uruguay, deriding his former coach and generally taking a more-polite direction toward the same message as Anelka. Domenech, already a lame-duck coach (former French sweeper Laurent Blanc was hired as his replacement months before the World Cup started, ready to take charge as soon as France is eliminated), has no grip on his team anymore.
The same could be said about Paul Le Guen, the Cameroon coach who is embroiled in his own row with his players. Sacrificing tradition and experience for the sake of branding the team in his own identity, he has caused irreparable factions to develop amongst his 23-man roster. Benching legends like Alex Song in the opener in favor of youth, his plans have backfired repeatedly as Cameroon as the Japanese side defeated them 1-0 in the opener. They would have their chance for redemption later in the day, playing Denmark with each seeking their first points of the tournament. It would be of great interest to see whether or not he set his petty infighting aside and named his best eleven to start the match...
Well... with all that swirling around in my brainstem, I plopped down on the futon in the den to watch that first match of the day. Sitting in the darkened pre-dawn room I watched the Netherlands take on Japan, nodding off now and then through the first half of play despite the high-octane java in my mug. After that match against Cameroon, the name "Keisuke Honda" was starting to enter the public consciousness. (Of course, I thought he'd be the young key to the success of the Japanese side before the tournament started, but... hey, you've simply got to toot your own vuvuzela once in a while when the prognostication comes to pass!) In between my bursts of catnap, that first half unwound with some interesting soccer, Japan having the better run of things throughout most of the period. The only yellow card of the match came after Dutch right back Gregory van der Wiel shoved Daisuke Matsui ten minutes before halftime, Argentine referee Hector Baldassi doing a good job keeping our minds focused on the game action and not the jurisprudence of his officiating.
I snapped to during halftime, finally snapping out of my comatose fog at the intermission as I refilled my cup of coffee. Apparently I had been taking long pulls off the mug without hardly realizing I was drinking! So as I flipped through some statistics to catch up before the second half started, it was looking like we might just see Japan pull off another upset based on their defensive pressure and their offensive chances. Of course... once I started having those thoughts, the Oranje came out of the locker room for the final 45 and proceeded to turn the screws almost immediately.
Wesley Sneijder, the Inter Milan man who was conspicuous in the first match for his inconspicuous play, awakened finally on the international stage. He teed up an attempt just outside the box off a deflection, though Japan was able to slide in and block it away. A minute later, Robin van Persie got a head to a cross from the left but could only weakly flick it right into the waiting arms of Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima. Then, in the 53rd minute, the pressure paid off. Giovanni van Bronckhorst, pressing on the left from his back position, whipped another cross in. Dirk Kuyt tapped it over to van Persie, who kicked it back to Sneijder for a blast on goal. Kawashima couldn't handle this shot, and it bounced off his fingertips with such force that even the deflection couldn't prevent it from billowing the net to its fullest stretch. It would prove the only goal of the match, as both sides maintained their offensive pressure but to no avail. What a spectacular way to start a morning that had begun with such grumbling about the turn of events of the past few days...
And then, there was the second match of the day looming right on its heels. Ghana, the Black Stars, were hoping to put themselves into the knockout round with a win; Australia were trying merely to put on a better showing than their 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Germany in the opener. The Socceroos came out determined, fired up to show that they were better than their initial performance. That persistence paid off in the eleventh minute, when the Aussies got a free kick on the edge of the box. Mark Bresciano booted a rocket over the wall at Richard Kingson in the Ghana goal, who coughed up a juicy rebound that was quickly pounced on by Brett Holman and potted into the net for the 1-0 lead.
And then we got a red card... though this one was wholly justified. Harry Kewell, the iconic Australian striker who is amongst the most famous soccer players ever produced by the continent-sized country, blocked Jonathan Mensah's shot on goal off the line with his arm, a too-obvious handball that left Australia down to ten men and Ghana with a penalty kick. Asamoah Gyan stepped up to take the shot and coolly deposited it past keeper Mark Schwarzer for the equalizer. But while Ghana would keep pressing for the go-ahead goal, Australia gamely hung in there a man down to keep things tied up at the half.
A relentless onslaught forward was on tap in the second half as the Black Stars desperately tried to take the three points from the match. The setting was ripe for victory, but Schwarzer and the Socceroos simply weren't caving. Ghana, with the score all knotted at one when the final whistle blew, would jump a point ahead of Germany and Serbia, who were each sitting on three points after the latter defeated the former in an improbable result yesterday which was aided by the machinations of Undiano. But it was an opportunity lost for Ghana, who could have all but sealed up a spot in the next round with a win. For Australia, though, this was sweet redemption, evidence that they were just off their game against Germany and can pull together as one even when that one is a man down...
And then we had one of the most wide-open games of the tournament to date. I hear a lot of people complaining about defense, and on all the goals it was pretty bad. Samuel Eto'o was left unmarked, perched right in front of goal, and the Inter Milan man pounced on a well-placed pass to put Cameroon up 1-0, as Paul Le Guen's side benefitted from the addition of players like Alex Song and Achille Emana and the tireless efforts of Geremi. It seemed through the first half hour that Cameroon was going to turn this match into a rout, running Denmark all over the pitch. They were spreading things wide, controlling the middle, and generally having the run of the place. But then a well-lobbed pass from Simon Kjaer landed at the feet of Dennis Rommedahl, who stayed onside and flicked on a pass right into the path of a streaking Nicklas Bendtner. The youngster slid to redirect the ball into the net with his right foot, catching everyone -- including the announcers -- unawares.
And then it was a firefight, both sides spending the last fifteen minutes of the half taking one chance after another. Eto'o hit the post, Emana missed a couple of choice opportunities, and Geremi was hitting in picture-perfect crosses with such frequency and expert placement that his teammates couldn't keep up with the chances. Denmark was getting its own opportunities, Rommedahl breaking down the Cameroon defenses from the right side as Bendtner disrupted the left side with darting runs in toward goal; they were benefitting from the bombs Kjaer was delivering out of the backfield. The defending wasn't as bad as everyone wanted to assume at this point, though -- without some of the expert blocks players were getting on opposition shots, the scoreline could easily have read closer to 4-4.
At halftime both sides were thinking about what might've been and looking forward to the next 45. The second half yielded much more of the wide open game to start things off. The tireless Rommedahl was the one who capitalized, controlling a shot to the right of the Cameroon goal. Turning around Jean Makoun -- who failed to cut off the inside route on goal from the Dane -- Rommedahl curled a wicked shot just inside the far post to tally what ultimately would prove the winner. With the loss, Cameroon became the first team to be mathematically eliminated from the competition... only five African nations remain, with the Brazil-Ivory Coast showdown sure to settle more scores tomorrow...