19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
(FRIDAY/JULY 2 & SATURDAY/JULY 3)
A few thoughts beforehand... all the referees are new from the crop in the Round of 16, giving a wider batch from which to cull the final four arbiters. Yes, it isn't just the four semifinalists who end up being deemed the best in the world. The four referees selected to officiate the two semifinals, third-place match and July 11 final will be the quartet deemed by FIFA to be the most worthy candidates to keep things in line when the stakes are highest. So we get another four officials to rate when this round is done, to give us a pool of a dozen (or more if they really feel the desire to pull from the preliminaries at this point) from which to choose those last four. Four in all things...
And here we are. A South American team still vying for the trophy in every quarterfinal matchup, the first time the continent has placed four sides into the final eight after landing five in the Round of 16 (Brazil knocked out Chile)... three Europeans sides left, a trio of sides that few expected would be the sole representatives of that prodigiously gifted footballing continent... and Ghana, left to carry the banner for the entire host continent. Every one of the African nations, those represented amongst the teams at the World Cup and those across the depth and breadth of the continent, were all swallowing regional prides and getting behind something more power with the Black Stars.
It guaranteed to be one hell of a battle in every one of the contests, another rung in the ladder to glory able to bear but one of the two teams clamoring for upward mobility across South Africa. Would South America defy prediction and snag all four spots in the semifinals? Could Ghana become the first African semifinalist? Would any of the former champions (Brazil, Uruguay) take a tumble against their opponents? We already knew one former champion would have to fall in the always-contentious draw between Argentina and Germany... and the tilt between Paraguay and Spain was automatically going to yield an team that had never tasted the greatest of soccer glories. How would it end up?
1E/NETHERLANDS 2, 1G/BRAZIL 1
Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium - Port Elizabeth - Friday/07:00 Pacific
Referee: Yuichi Nishimura
You know, I find it really hard to believe the people that thought this game was going to be a pushover. Over in my weekly A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America column at Informative Sports, I added some Twitter-style 140-character predictions for each match. I got this one woefully wrong myself, sure -- "Dutch have players to play Agent Oranje; Brazil still look pretty in Dunga-style cohesion. Tough pick, but South America on fire. #BRA 4-2" -- but I did get the fact that the Dutch system is still as prolific as ever. Sure, it is the central figures for the two 2010 UEFA Champions League finalists that inevitably drive this incarnation of Holland's hopes and dreams, but just like those teams of the 1970s were not just about Johan Cruijff, you can't pin the success of the Netherlands on just one factor.
It would be easy to just come out and blame Felipe Melo, the Brazilian whose head heated up after nodding in a gift-wrapped equalizer after Robinho had set the pace in favor of jogo bonito early in the first half. It wasn't even his red card for the studs-up challenge on Arjen Robben that was the worst part; once he made the blunder, it just seemed like his head was nowhere in this match. Why Dunga let him remain on the field -- when at least something a little more inventive and forward-thinking could have easily stemmed the bloodletting and revived the side to regain the upper hand and net the winner -- until he was expelled from the match is beyond me.
Speaking of that sending off, I must say that referee Yuichi Nishimura was at least decisive on his calls. He was doing a fine job through the first half, but a so-so job taking care of this ending of the matchas referee. There were no huge discrepancies in foul count (20-20, in fact), but toward the end he seemed to be quick to dole out the cards for a few Dutch offenses that looked fairly clean, at least to me. However, the second kick of Felipe Melo reeks of Beckham circa 1998 and is immediate grounds for expulsion; this is where the decisiveness came in most handy, getting things dealt with quickly and sensibly. All told, I'd give him a B so far this tourrnament.
"Brazil's coach is a dead man walking, eh?" I received that text message soon after the loss by the Selecao. It is true that Dunga is likely out of a job for a while after this disappointment for the next hosts of the tournament in 2014, a team and a nation that fully intended to be defending the world championship on home soil. Even if he had won the whole thing for Brazil's sixth World Cup title, though, it is highly likely the former captain would still have been let go soon after the tournament. Sure, he would be showered with ceremonials, but he would be neatly tucked away into the annals of the pround nation's illustrious futebol history. Now, he gets to stand before the inquisition of everyone, from high-ranking sports official and the fourth estate to every soccer equivalent of the armchair quarterback, wondering what went wrong after halftime.
Because Brazil did have this match under control after Robinho's 10th-minute score. They tightened up on the back end a bit, leaving more space for the Dutch to hover patiently and wait for goals on the flanks and in counter, but after Melo conked in the own goal, it was all over. Wesley Sneijder, the midfield for a team still alive in the hunt for the World Cup as well as Champions League winners Inter Milan, knocked the winner over a crowd and into the net off a set piece to claim the outright winner. There was resolution, and I'll be damned if I'm going to call one great team beating another great team an "upset"...
1A/URUGUAY 1, 2D/GHANA 1
Soccer City Stadium - Johannesburg - Friday/11:30 Pacific
Referee: Olegario Benquerenca
Heroes and villains and scapegoats, oh my! The match between Ghana and Uruguay was an absolute nail-biter all throughout, as I was forced to listen on the radio rather than getting the full spectrum of viewing. But whether you were keeping up to speed with this match via television, or radio, or internet or cellular phone, the turn of events that went down toward the end of the game polarized you into one of two camps.
There are those who were ready to turn Luis Suarez into a villain -- hell, most were ready to turn him into a villain. His compatriots, as Asamoah Gyan lined up to take what was surely the game-winning penalty kick, were preparing his effigies for immolation or to swing from the ombu trees across the nation. As soon as the effort, overcooked, bounced off the crossbar and failed to decide the match in extra time, the ire shifted from Uruguayans to Ghanaians. Now the anger was directed not toward the fact that Suarez had handed the African nation a gift-wrapped opportunity to become the first from its continent ever to reach the semifinals at the World Cup, but toward the fact that his time spent as a blatant rogue goalkeeper let the South Americans stay in a match that they had business losing after that blocked blast.
Say what you will about Suarez... Lord knows he sure enjoys saying some of it himself. "I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper so it was worth it. There was no alternative but for me to do that. Now we are in the semifinals -- although I was very sad because no one likes to be sent off." The 23-year-old Ajax striker certainly had the hugest impact on this match, just like I'd predicted: "Uruguay and Ghana both pre-tourney semis choices. Which do I pick here? Ghana has juju, Uruguay has the hot scorer. Go with Suarez. #URU 3-2"
Suarez didn't have the impact on the scoresheet -- it was his strike partner, Diego Forlan, who got La Celeste onto the board with the equalizer. It came after Sulley Muntari had emerged from a tournament spent sleepwalking to put Ghana up in first-half stoppage time with a long-distance scorcher that Uruguay's keeper Fernando Muslera could not pick up in traffic and which beat him to the near post.
After Forlan's score, both teams were relentless in seeking out the advantage. But for the second match this tournament, we were forced to endure the roll of the dice that is a penalty shootout. Call me cynical, but I can't stand these things. Gyan, still smarting from his miss just moments before, took a perfect penalty with his second chance and buried it to level things at 1-1 after Forlan had opened the shootout with his own conversion. Mauricio Victorino, up next, gave Uruguay the advantage right back. Stephen Appiah would strike his through for Ghana to keep things even at 2-2. But it would prove the last good penalty for the Africans on the day.
On the third set of kicks, John Mensah couldn't match Andres Scotti and missed his chance to keep things square at 3-3. Instead, Uruguay took the lead but couldn't immediately stamp their authority to close out the match. After Mensah's miss, Maxi Pereira stepped up and opened a door for Ghana to claw back in with a miss of his own. But the Black Stars handed the gift right back, unable it seemed to accept good fortune when it came at their opponent's expense today. Dominic Adiyiah promptly missed the second straight for Ghana, and once Sebastian Abreu had wrong-footed Richard Kingson and planted the match-sealing goal into the net for the 4-2 shootout victory the impact of Suarez's "save" was fully known -- Uruguay's version of the "hand of God" had swung the outcome fully from a Ghana overtime victory to its loss in penalties.
In this case, though, Olegario Benquerenca did everything he could officiating this match. After all the controversy surrounding officiating in the group stage and even into the Round of 16, we had absolutely nothing to complain about when it came to the refereeing on Friday. Benquerenca did exactly as he had been trained on Suarez's expulsion, and the fact that Ghana couldn't convert is hardly his fault. He kept Uruguay's hard-edged tactics in check, and the result was a wide-open match that could honestly have gone either way until the final kick. Isn't that what soccer is supposed to be all about?
1D/GERMANY 4, 1B/ARGENTINA 0
Green Point Stadium - Cape Town
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov
The match was over before it ever really even got the chance to begin. We were all set for a grudge match between two of the biggest cross-continental rivals in all of soccer... and instead we were treated to a blowout. This was the game that shattered the myth of Diego Maradona's newly-minted tactical genius and respectability. This was the match that ended the myth of South America as the powerhouse continent in this tournament. Following the previous day's loss by Brazil, the ouster of the Argentine squad was nothing short of cataclysmic for the continent's impression it had carefully built through the first few rounds of play.
Instead it was Germany, guided by the astute hand of Joachim Low, who reached the semifinals in resplendent fashion. Beating the South Americans with a style of play that flummoxed any opportunity for Argentina to get back into the match. When Thomas Muller found his head at the end of Bastian Schweinsteiger's free kick just three minutes in, nodding the ball decisively past Sergio Romero and into Argentina's goal for the opener, there were still 87 minutes left to be played... but there might as well have been 8.7 seconds for all the good it would do Maradona's side.
A half hour after Muller had put Germany ahead, Argentina would find the left side of the Teutonic defenses waning. Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain each cut inside on long loping runs, unleashing with their left feet two minutes apart, but Di Maria's shot skipped harmlessly into the keeper's arms while Neuer was wise to Higuain's better-placed attempt and smothered it at the near post. They would be the only two shots on goal Argentina would get in the first half, as neither side cracked through before the whistle blew at the half.
There were no changes at halftime, so the two teams came out to play the final 45 with the same look as the first half. Di Maria was finding space on that right side, exposing further some of the German weaknesses but unable to crack the final code. About fifteen minutes in, Argentina was really starting to get some good looks. In a two-minute span, Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Di Maria would all get chances to put the ball on goal... each time, though, something was left wanting on the final shot and Neuer was able to get to every ball that came his way.
All the pressing forward, though, was leaving tons of space exposed behind the Argentine attack. The slipshod defense was finally undressed in the 68th minute, a swift move downfield leaving Maradona's side unable to cover. Lukas Podolski, receiving a well-placed through ball from Thomas Muller despite the fact the latter was on the ground and marked, squared a pass between the last Argentine defender and the outstretched fingers of the keeper right on to the path of Miroslav Klose. The naturalized Pole-by-birth and longtime German international, a fearsome goalpoacher, knew exactly what to do, walking the ball into the net for his thirteenth career World Cup goal and his 100th for Germany. It was now 2-0 for the Europeans, and Argentina were getting chippier and more despondent.
Then, after the most-likely of scorers put Germany two up, they expanded their lead six minutes on when the least likely of scorers netted a third. Schweinsteiger, getting the ball on the left, looked like a young NFL prospect weaving through cones at the Combine as he took the ball at the corner of the box and went on a darting run. Whizzing right past Di Maria, Javier Pastore and Higuain toward the endline, he deftly darted around Romero's challenge and passed on for the goal. The bearer of the boot that knocked it in? Left back Arne Friedrich, the longtime Hertha Berlin defender playing in his 77th international match, tapped the ball into the net for his first-ever international goal to make things 3-0.
It was clearly all over, anything but Argentina's day in Johannesburg, yet the Germans knew they couldn't let up at all. Argentina were still pressing, and the surest defense is a good offense. Rushing forward on the counterattack right before stoppage time, they got yet another opportunity. This time it was Mesut Ozil, crossing in on the left, who put the ball right into Klose's path. The wily veteran struck perfectly on the volley, blasting right past Romero into the opposite corner for his second of the match, his fourteenth of his World Cup career and into a tie for second all-time in the competition's illustrious history. 4-0 would prove the final scoreline, a thorough thrashing sending Argentina home unmasked as pretenders and Maradona as less than the absolute genius that we'd branded him beforehand. But then again, with predictions like these -- "Maradona looking genius (& suave)! #GER hot-&-cold. Higuain difference along w/Messi. Ozil just not Messi yet; Muller not Higuain. #ARG 2-1" -- I was hardly a genius either...
1H/SPAIN 1, 1F/PARAGUAY 0
Ellis Park - Johannesburg
Referee: Carlos Batres
The last quarterfinal was the last opportunity for South America to save face. Europe had won both the head-to-head encounters, the Dutch knockout of Brazil and the earlier caving by Argentina to Germany denting continental pride and glory. Gerardo Martino had a tough task ahead of him in trying to stave off European champions Spain for the right to endure another hard battle against Germany in the semifinals. Yet for long stretches of this match, it appeared as though the Paraguayans might just have some magic tucked away for this moment. Stifling the Spaniards at every opportunity, they blocked the few dangerous shots the Iberians put toward goal and forced them wide at every other opportunity.
Hell, it was even the underdog who got the best look of the opening half right out of the gate. Not even a minute had passed by, and Paraguay caught Spain still soaking in the surroundings in a slumberlike state. Bursting open the left side of the pitch, the ball was worked in to Jonathan Santana in dangerous position inside the box and staring down on goal. He uncorked a low right-footed shot that tested Iker Casillas in goal right away. The Real Madrid keeper was up to the task, scooping up the chance and ending the momentum from there. Defenses dug in, the trench warfare was in play and the battle between former colonizer and formerly colonized ended after 45 in a scoreless stalemate.
It looked like the improbable might come to pass as Paraguay came out full of life for the second half. When they earned a corner in the 57th minute, it all looked to be weaving together into a tapestry of upset. The ball came in, and Oscar Cardozo was brought down in the box. Referee Carlos Batres came in immediately, pointing to the spot and doling out a yellow card to Gerard Pique. It was no light foul, either, as Cardozo pushed off and drifted away from Pique, the towering defender latched onto his left arm and looked as though he was trying to wrest it from its socket so as to beat the Paraguayan with the limb.
But this was just to set off an improbable few minutes that ended with everything still scoreless. Cardozo, taking the penalty kick himself, stood sweating behind the ball. Running up, he shot to Casillas' left with his left foot. The keeper read the ploy right away, the low shot pounced upon and wrapped up with no rebound opportunity. Paraguay missed its golden opportunity to take the lead against Spain, and it nearly looked as though it would cost them dearly two minutes later. Racing downfield with the ball at his feet, just Justo Villar left to beat, David Villa was streaking left-of-center toward goal when he was dragged down by Antolin Alcarez in the box. Again Batres raced in correctly, again he assessed a yellow (despite Spain's protestations for red), and we would have another penalty kick at the other end.
Xabi Alonso stepped up, blasted the ball the same direction Cardozo just had, and Spain were up 1-0... or were they? Batres was right in there, whistling off the goal. Why? Well, as replay backed him up, Spain were encroaching into the box as Alonso was taking the shot against Villar. So the ball went back on the spot, Xabi Alonso set up to take the kick again, he picked his spot, and... Villar blocked it away! But it wasn't time to celebrate yet, the rebound giving Spain a chance still to nab the goal. Villar dove in to wrap it up, was rebuffed and took down a player in the process. But as Paraguay belted it out for another corner, the referee did not point again at the spot, and neither team had capitalized on good fortune to unknot the deadlock.
It wouldn't come until the final ten minutes, when the Spaniards had realigned themselves and were finally starting to break down Paraguay. Pedro, who had come on eight minutes earlier for the dejected Xabi Alonso, took a pass from Andres Iniesta on the right and blasted in on net. The ball bounced off the far post... and right onto the foot of David Villa. Villa, a joint leader in the race to be the top goalscorer at this World Cup, struck the ball... and it bounced off the other post! Ricocheting around, it rolled off the far post along the line into the near post, caroming into the net to end the suspense. Spain had the 1-0 lead, after finally displaying some of the attacking prowess we've come to expect from a side whose results indicate dominance.
Yet things weren't over yet. A minute from stoppage time, Paraguay nearly found a late equalizer. Cristian Riveros put a ball through to Lucas Barrios on the right side of the box. Barrios, receiving it in perfect position, one-timed a superb right-footed blast on net. Casillas could only parry away the attempt... right into the path of Roque Santa Cruz. The Paraguayan veteran was set to tee off for the tying score, when at the last possible millisecond Pique made a risky slide on the ball to knock it out of bounds safely for the throw-in. Mere milliseconds later and we would have seen either a goal or a hard tackle leading to Pique's expulsion on no less than a second yellow with a third (er... fourth) penalty kick attached. It was a crazy end to a match that was far more intense than a 1-0 scoreline might initially indicate...
And thus the myth died away for all but Uruguay, South American dreams crushed under a blitzkrieg of European organization and tactical wit. Europe was 3-for-3 in direct matchups against their continental rival, with Uruguay's lone victory for Sudamerica coming against the sole African survivor to this point in the competition. Stay tuned as the semifinals loom on the horizon...
Can the Uruguayan darkhorse stave off the Dutch? Will we see a replay of the 1974 final? Or will Spain rise up to culminate one of the most-dominant two-year stretches ever for an international side with its first World Cup ever and shed forever its underachiever label? We'll find out Tuesday and Wednesday... be sure to come right back to the Non-Traditional Sports World for all my thoughts on the action, but take all my predictions with the grittiest of salts...