What a world. Regardlesss of the lie of the fixtures, if anyone had said two days ago that Paraguay and Uruguay would be the last South American representatives in the 2010 World Cup, they would have been dismissed as cranks. But here we are. We have had three marvellous quarter-finals so far (for an almost baffling variety of different reasons) and here we are, all set for the final match between Paraguay and Spain. The Paraguayan flame has burnt intermittently in South Africa so far. Their penalty shootout win in the last round against Japan came at the end of possibly the worst match of the tournament so far, but they demonstrated their capability in winning their group as Italy imploded.
Spain, meanwhile, have also been a mixed bag. They play in a style so relaxed that it could almost be described as “louche”, stroking the ball around as if they are playing a jazz solo on a bass guitar, but this has costs as well as benefits. Two of their three wins have been some degree short of outstanding, and their opening game defeat at the hands of Switzerland seemed to demonstrate cracks in the invincible aura that they had built up around themselves. Fernando Torres seems out of sorts. Paraguay have nothing to lose. A match that may have filled the Paraguayans with trepidation a couple of weeks ago may not pose the same concerns now. Yet Spain still have The Talent. David Villa, for example, has the ability to make grown men salivate. Yet they remain at the point of slipping into loquaciousness – talking a lot and saying little.
The opening thirty minutes pass like a balloon on a breezy day. Spain are so much pretty play, but they are playing with the pace of eleven anesthetised koala bears. Paraguay, on the other hand, threaten sporadically and on two separate occasions float crosses into the Spanish penalty area that pass inches from their forward players. They are sitting pretty, though. Spain look disjointed and disorderly. Xavi Hernandez fires in one shot from twenty-five yards or so that dips and drops a yard or so over Justo Villar’s crossbar, but Paraguay are dictating the pace and timbre of the game, getting in amongst the Spanish players and denying them the space that they need in order to control the pace of the game. Indeed, it starts to feel as if Spain have been resting upon their reputation but that Paraguay are having none of it.
Five minutes from half-time, Paraguay have the best chance of the first half. Dario Veron swings the ball into the centre, Nelson Valdez spins on the ball and deposits the ball under Iker Casillas and into the back of the net. The linesman’s flag, however, is waving in the breeze and play is called back. Half-time comes with the scoreline still goalless and the neutral observer would, at a glance, be unable to determine which team are the current European champions and which is in the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time.
The second half starts in the same state of torpor as the first ended, and Fernando Torres is withdrawn from the match. He hasn’t looked fit since the tournament started – why, then, was he starting in a World Cup quarter-final? Just as the watching audience is starting to drift off to sleep, though, the match wakes up, and it does so with the jolt of someone awakening from a night terror. It starts with a Paraguay cross from the left-hand side. It’s a fairly harmless looking cross, but Gerard Piqué inexplicably grabs hold of Oscar Cardozo’s arm – a fit of pique, if you will – and drags him to the ground. Cardozo picks himself, dusts himself down and, with the gait of a man that really doesn’t want to be taking a penalty right now, sends one of the worst penalties of the tournament straight at a doubtlessly grateful Iker Casillas.
Spain break straight away, and within seconds they have broken into the Paraguayan penalty area whereupon David Villa is dragged, rather in the style of a cheetah felling an antelope, to the ground by Antolin Alcaraz. Xabi Alonso steps up, and sends Villar the wrong way to send… no, wait. The referee spots Spanish players racing into the penalty area and orders a re-take, so Alonso steps up again, but this time his kick is weak and it’s time for Villar to save. The ball squirms free, though, and Villar clatters into Villa, bringing him down, but this time no penalty is awarded. An escape for Alcaraz, to labour a pun.
Spain, though, are starting to wake up and are dominating the match in a manner that befits their reputation. They’re not creating much, though, and Paraguay still look capable of breaking and scoring. With eight minutes to go, however, Spain get their breakthrough, and it’s an appropriately strange goal for a match that has become increasingly engrossing as proceedings have got odder and odder. Iniesta bursts forward and releases the ball for Pedro Rodriguez. His shot thuds back off the post and into the path of David Villa, and his shot across the face of goal hits one post, bounces across the face of goal, hits the other post and eventually crosses the line. There is still time for one last chance for Paraguay, though, as Lucas Barrios breaks through and sees his shot blocked by Casillas. The ball runs loose to Roque Santa Cruz, but Casillas blocks that as well. And with that, Paraguay’s chance has gone.
Spain, then, will play Germany in the World Cup semi-final on Wednesday night. Paraguay have put in a spirited performance, far gutsier than many might have anticipated, but hang on a moment. Earlier on in this tournament, we pointed out that some of the grounds being used for this tournament are using square rather than round or elliptical goal posts. At Ellis Park, they are square. The bounce of the ball from Pedro’s shot that fell straight to David Villa bounced at an angle that was unusual to say the least. It’s not an observation that would merit the title of “controversy”, but the extent to which these seemingly innocuous fixtures and fittings can make a difference is certainly striking. Was Villa aware of this, or was it a happy accident? We’ll probably never know.
Of Spain’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death unto Paraguay. They rode their luck and took their chance. On today’s evidence, though, they will struggle against Germany in the semi-final on Wednesday night. With Torres either injured or hopelessly out of form, their spark is missing and they worked their way into the last four of the competition but how will they cope with the pace and fluidity of Germany? Paraguay, meanwhile can leave with their heads held high – a best ever World Cup performance and plenty of reason to be optimistic for the next tournament, to be held in Brazil in four years’ time. This most extraordinary of quarter-final rounds ended with a most peculiar match, and they can be proud of their involvement in it. We should keep our fingers crossed for more of the same over the next eight days.
Thanks once again to Historical Football Kits for the use of the graphics.