The Round of 16 was intense. Each game in the Round of 16 was breathtaking, electrifying and, at times, even heart-stopping. Each match was an elimination game; each win meant a ticket home for the loser. There were no ties. Ties at the end of regulation time were decided by 30 minutes of extra time, with a short break at the 15 minute mark for the teams to switch sides and get a drink of water. If, after extra time, there is still no clear cut winner, it goes down to penalty kicks. Each side chooses 5 players to strike from the penalty area, and each Goalkeeper takes them one at a time, trying to defend his net, and the chance for his team to advance. The Round of 16 ended today, though, and the world gets two days of rest before the Quarter-Finals start on Friday.
Germany v Sweden
It’s always good to see the host country advance in these games, and usually, when they win, there’s talk about “home court advantage” and “favoritism from the refs”. In this case, however, Germany made a fantastic showing against Sweden, with a hard offense and tight, unrelenting defense.
Jurgen Klinsmann led his team to Group A wins over Poland, Costa Rica and Ecuador, and, in this elimination match, German forward Lukas Podolski kept the German crowd cheering. With the help of Miroslav Klose he scored first at the 4 minute mark, and then again in the 12th, securing a commanding lead for the Mannschaft.
Sweden coach Lars Lagerback tried to rally The Blue and Yellow, but was stunned when Brazilian referee Carlos Simon reduced them to a 10 man squad, with Teddy Lucic getting two yellow cards before the half. Sweden held the German assault off as best they could and could have picked up a goal early into the second half with a penalty kick that might have energized the team, but Henrik Larssons shot went up and over the crossbar.
Germany has made a strong showing since their 4-2 opener against Costa Rica and, with this win, will take on Mexico or Argentina in the next round. They have been playing like champions, displaying the combination of teamwork and skill that has helped make it 68 years since they lost a game in the second round of the World Cup. If they can keep it together it could take them all the way to the Final.
Argentina v Mexico
Here was a match in the true spirit of the game. Fans on both sides displayed their pride and their confidence in their teams with the passion one has come to expect from Spanish speaking countries.
On the Spanish channel, for example, the Mexicans were started their broadcast in full party mode, and invited several Argentinean friends to participate in the fun. In Germany, the fans arrived with face paint and hats, waving banners, flags, and singing, and everyone seemed to be dancing.
Mexico started strong, with excellent plays in the center, trying to take the ball to Argentina, again and again, with a pay-off in the 5th minute when Rafael Marquez sent the Mexicans into hysterics with a fantastic goal. Argentineans looked shocked as the Tri Colores held their team through until a devastating penalty kick from Argentina 4 minutes later.
Midfielder Juan Riquelme took the kick, and Hernan Crespo went in for the finish but it went off the head of Mexican Forward Jared Borgetti and into his own goal. With the game at a draw, tension filled the stadium like an over stuffed tamale.
Mexico tried to recover testing the net as often as they could, playing excellent defense to deny Argentina anything more through the half. Argentina pushed hard, taking the ball to the net, but getting only heart-break and rejection from Oswaldo Sanchez.
In the second, both teams moved with confidence and determination, each side vying for the one goal needed to keep them from elimination, knowing the clock was slowly edging them towards the first overtime of the series. Several times each side gained and lost control of the ball, taking excellent advantage of opportunities that presented for a goal. Lionel Messi was able to net a ball but the shot was rules offside, and, when the whistle blew, the score remained 1-1.
The capacity crowd was filled with apprehension, neither side as confident, but both still exuberant and hopeful. With barely a minute between the end of regulation and the start of the 30 minute overtime, players on both sides seemed a little slower but no less hungry for winning goal.
It came 8 minutes into the over time, when Juan Sorin passed the ball across the pitch to the right corner penalty area and Maxi Rodriquez chested the pass before letting fly with a hard left foot that sent it past Sanchez and into the net. Argentinean fans sent up a roar that could be heard in Buenos Aires, Maridona, who had looked so glum at the end of regulation, was back to his cheering, flag waving self, and order, it seems, was once again restored.
Mexico, however, continued to try and equalize, pushing at every opportunity. Los- Albicelestes, however, held on to their lead, and the ball, as much as they could, eating up the clock, demoralizing the Mexicans, and pushed their lead through to the end.
This was one of the most exciting and satisfying games of the whole tournament. Afterwards, the teams embraces, and, through tears of loss and joy, wished each other well. Fans on both sides spoke only well of each other, and partied together all over the world, with the friendship and sportsmanship unique to the World Cup.
England v Ecuador
England is a perennial favorite at the World Cup. They have qualified all but six times since the games began in1930, have made it to the quarter-finals 6 times, came in 4th one and, in 1966, they actually won the World Cup. They come from one of the strongest soccer nations in the world, and, as I have said before, have some of the most passionate fans in Europe.
All that being said, however, they came out against Ecuador with very little new to offer their fans, and it was primarily a weaker Ecuadorian offense that kept them from getting beat. Ecuador, for their part, made several attempts at scoring, using thrilling ball handling and excellent strategy to outmaneuver an English team that looked, at times, confused and out of synch.
It was, in the end, a typically stylish free-kick by Superstar David Beckham that sent England past Ecuador and into the next round. With the kind of show they put on out there, however, it doesn’t seem likely that this is their year to repeat the Joy of ’66.
Portugal v Netherlands
This was a match that displayed just how important a win is at this stage, with vicious playing from both sides to secure a spot in the next round. The fact that both teams are riding 15-game winning streaks may have helped to fuel the pressure. The tensions and passions on the field kept Russian Ref Valentin Ivanov busy. He handed out a record-tying 16 yellow cards, and threw 4 players out with red cards. He also had to reprimand players and step in over several minor disputes.
In one, in the 8th minute, Defender Khalid Boulahrouz was yellowcarded for a hard check on Christian Ronaldo. Ronaldo was bothered for the rest of his 43 minutes in the game, limping through his plays and requiring treatment for his thigh two times, before leaving the field in tears of agony.
The Netherlands pushed hard, trying to secure a goal early on but faced a strong Portuguese defense that game them no ground to on which to play. Clashes and tumbles were many as both teams battled hard for control. The fans picked up on the nervousness in the game and watched with a fierce breathlessness.
Then, in the 23rd minute, Pedro Pauletta found fellow midfielder Nuno Manche near the net. Manche moved in with grace and fury around defender Joris Mathijsen, to launch a shot into the right corner of the net and bring the fans back to life. The men in Orange try a quick come back with Mathijsen out to prove a point but his shot goes high and over the net.
The game went back and forth, each team the equal of the other for defensive and offensive zeal. A number of well timed shots went off the crossbar, sidebar, or missed by wishes-breath. The Netherlands played hard to equalize the score, push the game into overtime, to find one more chance to pull through, but the Portuguese seemed to play with God on their side, making excellent saves, well timed blocks, and keeping enough pressure on the Dutch to keep them off their game.
The Selecção das Quinas went on to win it 1-0 and go on to face England in the next round.
Italy v Australia
The Azzurri were always the favorite coming into this match-up but the Australians game them a fantastic run, keeping the score to 0-0 to within kissing distance.
The Italians were taking no chances with the dark horse team from Down Under, however, issuing hard tackles to assert their authority early on. The Aussies would not be intimidated, however, and played with their usual force.
Italy seemed unable to find their rhythm in the game, and were kept off balance by a highly motivated Australian team, that seemed to get fired up with every cheer from their rowdy fans. With artistic ball handling, though, and lively passes, Italy kept the Australians guessing. The Azzurri displayed the famous Italian poise and style as they edged themselves into the next round.
Unfortunately, it was not a strike that did it but a stoppage time penalty kick that broke the hearts of Australians everywhere. With 30 seconds to the end of the match, Francesco Totti made a penalty kick that had the Socceroos kissing their chance of advancement goodbye.
Switzerland v Ukraine
Games like these make me crazy. Both of these teams won their right to play each other at this stage but neither team seemed to push as hard as they could have. With several missed opportunities and lost chances to score in regulation time, this game went into a 30 minute over time, and then, when that remained scoreless, it came down to penalty kicks.
Now, for many people, games like this, are a measure of each sides resolve, tenacity, and defense, but after having come so far, I find it a shame that a spot in the next round should be decided by a series of penalty kicks.
Either way, it turned into a match up of goalkeepers, with Pascal Zuberbuhler tending for the Swiss and Olexandr Shovkovskyi for the Ukraine. It’s a very interesting sort of ritual, these penalty shots, with the goalkeepers warming up, the quintet of men for each side who will take the shots focusing and concentrating. With absolutely no clear way to predict the outcome of this sort of shootout, all anyone, fans and players alike, was watch, hope, and pray.
Andriy Shevchenkos shoots first for the Ukraine and it goes to the right and so does Zuberuhler for a fantastic save.
Switzerland forward Marco Streller shoots his shot straight at Shovkovskyi, for a turnaround save.
Artem Milevskiy stepped up and gave the Ukraine some joy with a shot into the net. For the Swiss Tranquillo Barnetta sent the second Swiss kick into the crossbar.
Serhiy Rebrov placed another past Zuberuhler to make it 2-0. Ricardo Cabanas, for the Swiss, shot down the center and was met with denial from Shovkovskyi. With only one shot needed to win the shoot out Oleg Gusev eyed the ball with no trepidation or concern. He lounched and landed the shot to win the Ukraine a place in the next round with a 3-0 win.
Now, this win doesn’t exactly mean that the Ukraine is the better team. In fact, Switzerland hasn’t allowed a goal in this whole tournament. In 390 minutes or so of play, their defense was strong enough to keep their net untouched. So, in these games, as in life, the uncertainty remains to the very end, and no one can predict how they will turn out. As the guy on the Spanish station said- “Es la ley del futbol” –“It’s the Law of Soccer”.
Brazil v Ghana
Although, as the previous game showed, there are no sure wins in the World Cup, this game showed that there are such things as safe bets. Brazil was a safe bet. It was a wonder that The Black Stars of Ghana made it as far as they did. These debutants may not have had a chance of winning but they were thrilled to be playing their heroes at the World Cup.
Ronaldo hit an interesting high point by becoming the highest scorer in World Cup finals history with is 5th minute score. With comments still being made about his weight, he again proved that he still has the artistic ability and skill. His 4th minute goal was a graceful dance around Richard Kingson, leaving the net empty and wide open for him to tap it over the line.
Ghana played hard, however, keeping the Brazilian defense working hard, but their less than formidable finishing and, perhaps, lack of experience at this level, left them goalless. In the 45th minute Adriano made it 2-0 at the half.
Ghana came out pushing hard but missed several chances and had several more taken away from them by the better team. With one of their strongest players, Michael Essien, on the bench, the Black Stars lost their poise and focus, leaving the door wide open for Brazil to shine through.
In the second Brazil seemed more at ease, the comfort of a team with a padded lead. It was Brazils turn to turn up the heat on Ghana, taking it to the net and forcing Richard Kingston to use every skill he had to keep the ball clear of his goal. Ghana did not give up, however, and kept working to score, pushing hard but losing time and opportunity.
At the 84th minute, Jose Ze Roberto brought it into the net for another Brazil goal, leaving the Africans out of the next round, but with more experience, and the memory and joy of having played Brazil in the World Cup.
Spain v France
When this match up was announced I was decidedly for Spain. Having been following these games on several Spanish language stations, it just seemed the natural selection to back. That was before I heard about the controversial and racists statements Luis Aragones made about Thierry Henry last year. He was