Cinderellas Turned into Pumpkins
After the thrilling Round of 16, World Cup Soccer fans were treated to an extended Fourth of July weekend of action-packed quarterfinal matches.
I wouldn’t be giving anything away to announce that prior to the quarters all eight of the so-called favorites (as determined, I guess, by odds-makers in the know) had won their various match-ups. Not ONE of the underdog nations was able to overcome those odds. Such upstart teams as those from Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Greece, Nigeria, Algeria (who gave the Germans the most difficulty), Switzerland and Team USA all failed in their quest to make it past heavily favored Brazil, the aforementioned Germany, the Netherlands, or Argentina — all ranked in the top five.
With the exception of former world champion Spain, who sputtered out early in the tournament, that left the above four favorites to join Colombia, Costa Rica, Belgium and France in the knockout field-of-eight round.
Starting with the French, Les Bleus did their best to stem the rising Teutonic tide — which wasn’t easy, what with the poised German strikers possessing a clear height advantage and near pinpoint accuracy. Blessed with the likes of Thomas Müller, Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mezut Özil, and Mats Hummels, Germany took the lead off Hummels’ header in the 12th minute of play. It was enough to put them into the semis against Brazil on Tuesday, July 8, in Belo Horizonte.
He Came, He Saw, He Fouled
Uh, about last Friday’s quarterfinal win against Colombia, the cost of Brazil’s 2-1 victory may have been too high for fans to bear. Team captain Thiago Silva was yellow-carded, and will miss the semifinal match with Germany, due to his pointless blocking and unnecessary roughness of Colombia’s goalie Ospina. With no adequate substitute in sight, it’s difficult to believe how his absence can be anything but bad news for the Brazilians.
In another, perhaps even more “necessary” foul, goalkeeper Júlio Cesar tackled Colombian attacker Carlos Bacca in the penalty area, earning another yellow card and a penalty kick to boot. James Rodriguez, Colombia’s 22-year-old superstar, converted it into his country’s lone goal, giving his teammates hope of “possibly” conquering Brazil. Not a chance, fellas!
But the most egregious display of the match involved Brazil’s own superstar striker Neymar, who was hit from behind by the knee of Colombia’s Zuñiga. Neymar was dutifully carried off the field in a stretcher. He was later reported to have sustained a fractured rib in his struggle for possession of the ball, and will be out of action for the next six weeks. Obviously, Neymar is not expected to play in the semi as well.
So where was the referee while all this was happening? And what did he do about this flagrant abuse of the rules? According to one of the ESPN commentators (I believe it was Ian Darke, my favorite sports announcer, I don’t mind telling you), the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo must have left his cards at home. During the first half of the match, not once did Carballo single out a rule infraction — and there were an indecent number of them, to be perfectly frank. All were dismissed with a wave of the ref’s hand. Is this any way to officiate, FIFA? If Sr. Carballo had started issuing yellow cards at the outset, Brazil might not have lost Neymar for the duration of the Cup; or at the very least, we might’ve been spared the spectacle of having the young talent taken off the field writhing in pain — not the most comforting sight for his followers.
No doubt the cards are heavily stacked against Brazil in their upcoming bout with the Bully Boys of Germany. Still, I have a feeling the game’s not over until the Soccer Lady sings! And she’s going to sing a happy tune in Belo Horizonte. Why do I say this? Because Brazil FINALLY started to play like the five-time World Cup champions they are. The addition of Maicon to the starting lineup gave a kick-start to the team’s offensive push.
Adversity sometimes makes squads stronger. Look at Mexico against the Dutch, or Chile versus Brazil: both sides took the fight to their opponents, but good. If Mexico and Chile lost, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Each gave it their all, and they can leave this Cup with heads held high (well… most of them, anyway).
The same can be said for Belgium, who fought the good fight against Argentina. Lionel Messi scrambled about in unstoppable fashion, as is his wont, thus confusing the opposition by running this way and that. Argentina’s only goal in their 1-0 battle, however, came off one of Messi’s passes, first to teammate Di Maria, and then on the rebound to Gonzalo Higuaín, who fired a half-volley shot safely into the net and beyond the reach of Belgian goalie Thibaut Courtois, who was more tortoise (accent on the “French” pronunciation in this instance) than Courtois.
Infractions, We Have Infractions (But No Red Cards)
The final brawl of the afternoon occurred when the never-say-die Netherlands met the Cinderellas of the tournament, Costa Rica, the unlikeliest of candidates for World Cup stardom. Making it to the quarterfinals on a hope and a prayer if not their fairy godmother, the guileless Los Ticos had met every challenge posed to them. But this time, they were unable to withstand the ruthless onslaught that such powerful Dutch forwards as Arjen Robben, Wesley Snejder and Robin Van Percie unleashed. It was 120+ minutes of non-stop pounding of Costa Rica’s goalie, the heroic Keylor Navas, who was able to shut down the Flying Dutchmen until the dreaded penalty shootout.
It was here that Holland’s coach, Louis van Gaal (a dead-ringer for William Shatner of Star Trek fame, but with a broken nose) and his bench of assistants (Dutch Mad Men in gray-flannel business suits and orange ties) took a gamble and came up with their game-winning strategy: to substitute the goalie of the match, Jasper Cillessen, for the fresher arms and legs of the gigantic Tim Krul. Physically smaller in comparison, Navas did his best to block the Netherland’s penalty kicks, but his best wasn’t enough to turn the tide. Krul stopped two of the Costa Rican’s tepid shots on goal, thereby giving the Dutch Masters a semifinal berth against the Argentines.
Which brings me to my closing argument. There are now four teams left standing in the Cup, two more matches to go before the final confrontation: Brazil vs. Germany, and Netherlands vs. Argentina, both to take place next Tuesday at 3 o’clock PM (our time). I wish all these squads the very best of luck — they’ll need it! And may the best team win. However, a word of caution: may they win by honest means. By that, I mean let fate have a hand in their victory, not in their face.
In my first post about the 2014 World Cup, I mentioned the unavoidable “Hand of God” moment. To quote from my own writings, “All we need now is another ‘Hand of God’ moment (I’m referring, of course, to Argentine player Diego Maradona’s phantom goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England) to lend illegitimacy to an already dubious reputation that the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, has no doubt fostered.”
Well, dear readers, that moment came to pass. Earlier in the Netherlands vs. Costa Rica encounter, the “Hand of God” struck Navas across the eyes and forehead. To put it bluntly, it was more the eleventh-hour Dutch substitute Huntelaar’s outstretched arm that blatantly tried to interfere with Navas’ goal-tending skills. Down went Navas, and out came the referee’s yellow card — which, in my opinion, and after the still earlier roughness of Colombia’s goalie by Brazil, as well as Brazil’s own roughing up of an opposing player, was the perfect time for a RED card. Not this time, folks, thanks to another of those card-free referees.
I fear that sentiment by the Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto may have overruled tactics in keeping Navas on as goalie. Although a substitute was waiting in the wings, Pinto’s heart took the place of his head in making his fateful decision. Frankly, I can’t blame him; better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all. To replace Navas as this late stage would have crushed Los Ticos’ fighting spirit.
Unfortunately, Navas’ subsequent poor state at the end, along with previous rough play at the goalmouth, may have contributed to his impaired ability to ward off the Netherland’s vicious penalty strikes — an unhappy ending to Costa Rica’s fairy-tale-like story. Did I say winning by “honest means”? A “Hand of God” moment? Make that “Fists of Fury.”
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes