It’s worth remembering on evenings such as this that, much as some people used to make a degree of noise about South Americans not travelling well, no European side has ever won the World Cup outside of Europe. Anyone expecting this situation to change next summer may wish to take this evening’s match between Brazil and Italy as proof – as if it were needed – that Brazil might be just the team to stop the Spanish juggernaut. Italy, who had been slowly grinding to a halt since flattering to deceive in beating the USA a week ago, had been resembling one of those YouTube videos of an animal falling asleep and then forcing itself to wake up again. This evening, they fell asleep for eight minutes just before half-time and by the time they had jolted themselves back into life they were three goals down and heading out of the competition.
It was, by any standards, an extraordinary evening of football and it was crowned by one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of international football. At seven-thirty, the USA needed a six goal turnaround to get through. This would have seemed beyond anyone, and this wasn’t even taking into account the fact that the USA were playing an Egypt side that had been outstanding in beating Italy during the week. For at least forty-five minutes, the unlikely set of results required to send the USA. However as time wore on everything fell into place with the precision of a game of Tetris, and it was the USA that went through to the semi-finals. The writing had been on the wall for Italy from the start of the evening. Brazil cut through the Italian like a hot knife through butter and, in some respects, it was surprising that it took them as long as it did to score.
When they did, though, it opened the floodgates for eight minutes and, in the course of that eight minutes the shape of the tournament changed irrecovably. First, Maicon’s misdirected shot was turned in by Luis Fabiano. Five minutes later, Fabiano added his second and then, right on half-time, Kaka released Robinho and his cross was turned into his own net by Dossena. Eight minutes earlier, only a goal for Egypt would have caused Italy any serious problems. Now, however, any one of three teams could go through and the odds were stacked against it being Italy. Midway through the first half, though, the USA had taken the lead when the Egypt goalkeeper Esssam al Hadari made a hash of claiming a cross from Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies turned the ball over the line off the stricken goalkeeper’s back.
For those of us watching the Brazil vs Italy match, the news that Egypt had gone a goal behind was a surprise. Egypt had beaten Italy and been the better side during the week. Against an American side which had been slightly hard done by in losing 3-1 to Italy but had beaten comfortably beaten by Brazil, one might have expected more from them this evening. However, with the start of the second half came an extraordinary chase. If the USA could score twice they would go through unless Italy scored. If Egypt could find a way back into things then they would go through. Italy would be left to sweat upon results from elsewhere. Goals from Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey gave the USA the goals that they needed to keep up their end of the six goal deficit and change things again.
The last ten minutes were not as tense as they should have been. Brazil had taken their feet off the accelorator at half time, so getting into the final third of the pitch wasn’t Italy’s major problem. Their major problem was an utter paucity of ideas of what to do with the ball when they got anywhere near the opposing goal. Brazil continued to look far more likely to score on the break. Meanwhile, Egypt were pressing for a goal but this wouldn’t come (in spite of a couple of chances as the clock ticked over ninety minutes), and when the whistle blew the USA had somehow won their way through to the semi-finals.
Italy, then, go home with serious work to do ahead of next year’s World Cup. Outplayed by Brazil and Egypt, they will have to raise their game considerably if they are to do anything back here next year. We still have to see how Brazil shape up against Spain, and it is likely that they will now get to do so in the final of this competition. They take on South Africa, while the USA play Spain. With four different confederations to be represented in the semi-finals, the biggest winners of all this evening might just turn out to be FIFA, who may benefit from increased television audiences as a result of this and bigger crowds as the result of the hosts still being in the competition. After tonight, Italy and Egypt will have cause to wonder about what might have been. Congratulations, however, to the USA. They might not necessarily have deserved to have got through to the semi-finals, but it would be vexatious to suggest that Italy deserved to, and Egypt were found wanting when they had a real chance of making significant progress, having already shown their ability against Brazil and Italy. Now, as if playing Brazil and Italy wasn’t enough, the USA have to take on Spain. After two defeats to the old world of football, their third will probably be their biggest test yet.