So… it transpires that England weren’t rubbish after all, just in an impossibly difficult group. Mexico sit proudly in the Under-20s World Cup semi-final line-up and Argentina should have been alongside them. The apologies of a nation are due to Brian Eastick and his team. Details of Mexico’s elimination of tournament hosts Colombia were impossible to find without possession of Eurosport HD among your package of cable channels, as the match was the only one not to feature on ‘ordinary’ British Eurosport. This was a bizarre scheduling decision, almost as much of a surprise as Colombia’s defeat… and Nigeria’s… and Spain’s. But at least Sunday night/Monday morning’s quarter-finals also halted the tournament’s drift into general mediocrity.
Portugal’s unfeasibly dramatic shoot-out win over La Albiceleste was a case in point. Whereas, for example, Spain’s group win over Ecuador allied technical brilliance with watchable goalmouth activity, this quarter-final lacked the latter to a soporific degree. Two hours of dreck (even the Fifa website, not noted for telling it like it is, admitted it was “a dull evening in Cartagena”) were partially redeemed, however, by the best shoot-out I’ve ever witnessed. Portugal’s selection of spot-kick heroes/villains had already caught the eye as they attempted a 120th-minute introduction of substitute and David Luiz-twin Tiago Ferriera (rumours that Tiago beat Luiz himself in a David Luiz-lookalike contest last year cannot entirely be discounted).
Unusually, there wasn’t a fourth official looking for a moment of glory as Tiago waited by the touchline while 120 minutes became 121 minutes. However, and Fifa will deny this of course, New Zealand referee Peter O’Leary saw the situation midway through the complex semaphore routine which accompanies a Fifa final whistle and added just enough time for Tiago to take the field. Handy, that. Such was Portugal’s urgency over this substitution that it was a surprise not to see Tiago stride up to take the first penalty…or the second… or the third… Indeed, with Argentina 3-1 up in the shoot-out and two kicks to take, Tiago was long odds-against taking a kick at all. Then Argentina fell apart. Rodrigo Battaglia was booked for reasons not clear to TV viewers…or Battaglia himself to judge by the look of genuine surprise on his face. This meant he would miss the semi-final, which Argentina looked sure to be in at the time, until, for a few fatal moments, they turned into Cameroon (see last article).
Tiago was spot-kicker number six which, given the efforts of Danilo (“a big old roof inspector”, in the world of analyst Gary O’Reilly) and Roderick, was something of an indictment. Yet he did his job before Argentina’s Nicolas Tagliafico comprehensively did not. This sparked Portuguese celebrations including dribbling over the nearest TV cameras, a kicking for the nearest advertising board (Visa will be grateful, sort of) and captain Nuno Reis giving the crowd the finger with enough gusto and frequency to threaten to put his shoulder out. It’s a wonder the officious O’Leary didn’t book him. Colombia’s dismal defeat, in High Definition only, was the only one which didn’t require extra-time or “kicks from the penalty mark,” to give spot-kicks their full title. The goalkeepers couldn’t be separated, Mexico’s Jose Rodriguez and Colombia’s Cristian Bonilla each letting one eminently saveable shot out of their grasp. But the difference was El Tri substitute Edson Rivera who, Fifa’s website quite magnificently suggested, “bagged a brace,” – a phrase only used in football match reports and never since any of this tournament’s players were born.
France/Nigeria was, for 49 minutes, the stereotypical game that “needs a goal”, which made it surprising that analyst Brian Hamilton hadn’t made the suggestion at least six times before half-time. Evidence that games which “need a goal” benefit from a goal is patchy at best. But Alexandre Lacazette’s opener for France transformed another technically superb bore into “the game of the tournament”, according to commentator Wayne Boyce, who’d clearly seen too much of England and/or Korea DPR for the good of his perspective. Lacazette’s role as an “impact sub” has become one of the established facts of the tournament since he made his first “impact” against Colombia – missing an open goal which would have drawn France level at 2-2 in a match they lost 4-1. Here, he had been brought on earlier than expected after an injury to Arsenal’s impressive striker Gilles Sunu (Arsene Wenger will be pleased) but had made no impact until the 50th minute. Then he found himself played onside by Nigeria’s dozy defender Emmanuel Anyanwu, whose attempts at pushing up for offside were three yards behind the rest of the back four and amounted to little more than a dancefloor shuffle at about the same time as Lacazette’s shot arrowed towards the corner of the net.
This set up the fascinating scenario of Nigeria deploying their pace and power a la Wimbledon, circa 1985 – with all the quality of Wimbledon circa 2000 – and being picked off on the break with almost clockwork regularity. That the score remained 1-0 until seventeen seconds from the end may baffle scientists for years to come. France’s forwards hit Nigerian keeper Dami Paul with the same almost clockwork regularity, which was no mean feat given that Paul was either the only goalkeeper capable of moonlighting as a garden gnome or was permanently in the distance. The substitution of tournament star Ahmed Musa in the last minute suggested that coach John Obuh’s Colombian hat was cutting off his brain’s oxygen supply.
But on 92 minutes 47 seconds replacement Maduabuchi Ejike was where his nation needed him to be, forcing extra-time – something for neutrals to relish rather than dread, for a change. Obuh’s other last-ditch substitution, Afro-of-the-tournament Sami Emanuel, seemed less well-advised as he contrived some imaginative ways to squander good Nigeria positions early in the extra half-hour. Thus reprieved, France led again when Gueida Fofana’s sensational lob showed Paul to be diminutive rather than distant. And when Lacazette briefly became the tournament’s top scorer moments later, Les Bleuets were almost home. They hadn’t figured on Emanuel producing a moment of wing wizardry with nine minutes left…but then again, who had? Indeed, the referee’s assistant was too shocked to flag scorer Ejike offside, despite his goalbound effort nearly serving as a goal-line clearance.
The best match was left to last, however, with Spain and Brazil serving up the sort of encounter so relentlessly hyped since the pairing became apparent. The contrast in styles was between Spain’s familiar high-tempo, short-passing game and a Brazilian side for whom ‘languid’ was a philosophy of life. This appeared to satisfy everyone until, after 34 minutes, Brazil had the temerity to take the lead. This upset Eurosport’s Tim Caple some way beyond reason – as if he’d recalled a particularly unsavoury incident from a holiday in Sao Paolo, thereby releasing years of pent-up anti-Brazilian emotions in one verbal flood.
With the benefit of hindsight, there had been a hint of what was to follow when Caple described Brazil’s progress to the quarter-finals as “crushing everything in their path”, lending a ferocity to Brazil’s performances which simply hadn’t existed. And as the match continued without a Spain winner in sight, Caple’s language became more and more disapproving of A Selecao. “Are Brazil going to spark into life?” he asked, after Spain’s profligate tree-trunk Rodrigo finally levelled what had been a terrific match to that point. “It is like a chess game,” he noted fifteen minutes later (the gods alone know what sort of chess he grew up watching) before declaring, snooty as you like: “If Brazil don’t want to play, they are going to have to do something.”
He sounded personally insulted at full-time when the “hugely disappointing” Brazilians had the nerve to receive some standard muscle-massaging before extra-time. “They can’t be tired,” he ruled. And late in extra-time, after Brazil substitute Negueba (“the player the game had been waiting for”, apparently) came close, Caple insisted Brazil “showed some imagination there but they’ve waited 110 minutes to do it.” All of which was grossly unfair, both on Brazil’s genuine contribution to a fine match and on the Spanish, whose skill and industry, personified by Sergio Canales and Chelsea-bound Oriol Romeu respectively, kept Brazil on the back foot for so long.
For all that Brazil were getting a raw deal from a Eurosport studio, Spain should have won and would have won but for an almost flawless goalkeeping display from Brazil’s Gabriel – nearly producing the save of the tournament/century from Alvaro Vasquez’s close-range drive for Spain’s second goal. Gabriel’s display made Brazil warm favourites for the penalty shoot-out, in which he duly made the two key saves in Brazil’s 4-2 win. Fortunately, Caple didn’t accuse Brazil of having played for penalties otherwise my telly might have been a goner.
Spain are a loss to the semi-finals, no doubt, as are Nigeria. Neither semi – Brazil/Mexico or France/Portugal – quite sets the juices flowing like, say, Spain/Colombia. As such, they are rather representative of a tournament which hasn’t yet made it to the promised heights. “It hasn’t been that disappointing, that often,” noted Caple. And you sort of knew what he meant. My money is on Brazil and France victories. So, given that I got all four quarter-final predictions wrong, the very best of luck to Mexico and Portugal in next Saturday’s final.
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