The World's Blog: Day 7

Higuain's hat does the trick; Greece gets a bailout; and Mexico parties like it's the 5th of May! We are a week into our month-long World Cup celebration.

Argentina 4, Korea Republic 1

The winner of Argentina and South Korea is almost guaranteed a spot in the knock out round. Six points after two games is considered a run away in this World Cup, where ties are as common a sight as any, and only six of the thirty two teams have score more than one goal. To say that teams have been playing tight would be an understatement. If a winner of group B could be determined after two games, it would be here, at Soccer City, South Africa. 

The sun shone down, almost encouraging the sky blue and white stripes to advance- to score early as they did against Nigeria and never look back. The first seven minutes saw possession controlled entirely by La Albiceleste, while the Koreans in the red, tiger-striped kits gave chase, eventually leading to a free kick in the 17th minute. It was then, off the foot of Lionel Messi, that Argentina would score first, and spark what would become, in this World Cup, a scoring frenzy- all the while forging a new Argentine hero.

Just as the game found its rhythm, it was brought to a halt. A foul allowed for a set piece from 22 yards out, and as both teams crowded the box, jostled, and bickered for position, Lionel Messi strode to the ball- prepared to create magic. As the ball rotated through the air, all watching knew it was a winner. The spin put it firmly in the center of the six yard box, and as it floated past one Argentine player after another, it seemed to be all for not. Then, as quickly as I had given up hope- a deflection. From the shin of South Korea's number ten, Park Chu-Young, the ball rattled the back of the net, and the scoring had opened. I let out an inquisitive cheer, as it took a few moments to process what would later be determined an own goal. While the biggest star on the field accepted congratulations and adulation from teammates and fans alike, it was Gonzalo Higuaín who would be steal the show- for a hat trick in the World Cup is not easily, or ever, forgotten.

In the 33rd minute, already up 1-0, Maxi Rodríguez sent in a ball that was flicked on to an awaiting Higuaín, who finished with a header inside the far post. It was Lionel Messi who fed the ball to Rodríguez, holding the defense long enough to allow the ball in. In the 76th minute, Messi's footwork, ball control, and speed affirmed the claims of many of being the best footballer in the world. After racing down the left side of the field, mixing in one touch exchanges with Sergio Agüero, his initial effort was parried away, right back to his feet. While running full speed and falling out of bounds, Messi's second effort was neatly tucked under the keeper's outstretched arm, but grazed the near post and rolled in front of goal- eventually landing at Gonzalo Higuaín's feet, which he finished with zero opposition. In the 80th minute, Messi released Ángel di María with a chip that seemed too good to be true, effortlessly placed in stride, at his feet. María lofted the ball over the defense, and Higuaín's precise header, across the keeper's body and to the far post, enshrined him in World Cup, and Argentine folklore.

While the win meant three more points, and six total for La Albiceleste, it wasn't without a moment of mental lapse. Just before half, a defensive gaffe by Martín Demichelis saw South Korea pull within one, as the ball was poorly given, allowing Lee Chung-Yong to open Korea's scoring. Argentina fans across the world collectively wondered if this was the beginning of the end, the downward spiral witnessed in qualifying that almost saw Diego Maradona removed as coach. At half, Maradona was able to corral the inevitable nerves and concerns of his nation and his team, igniting an offensive showcase the likes of which have only been seen once thus far. The result was a 4-1 victory, and an almost guaranteed spot in the knock out round. If Argentina play as they did today, there aren't many teams in the world who can compete. To fans of Argentina, it's a great win, to the rest of the world, it's a scary reminder- a reminder that the best player in the world doesn't need to score for La Albiceleste to completely dismantle an opponent. Imagine the possibilities when Argentina's number ten does score.

What a game for Argentinians, and what a disappointment from South Koreans. With Higuain’s hatricks and Messi’s flawless passes, Agrentina showed that they are a class team and proved that they too can win the World Cup to the criticizers and haters of Argentina.

As for the Koreans, they did play fairly well against the South American powerhouse for 70 minutes although they were deflated after their own goal. They were trying to move the ball forward and to create chances to score an equalizer; however, for the last 20 minutes of the game, they lost their confident and lacked concentration in defense. They are all skillful players, but they just did not believe themselves that they can play against Argentina. Also, I think the Korean manager had a bit of gamble switching to the defensive 4-5-1 formation, putting Captain Park in the center instead of left side, and leaving out solid right back Cha Du-ri.

Lee Chung Yong gave Koreans something to cheer about when he scored against Sergio Romero right before the half time and created that beautiful pass to Yeom Ki Hoon who missed the chance to the equalizer. I’m looking forward to see Koreans to be more confident, offensive, focused through the whole game against Nigeria next Tuesday.

Greece 2, Nigeria 1

Greece wins! Until today, the probability of saying that seemed dismally unlikely. However, on a day of World Cup firsts, Greece was able to sneak two balls into the net, and left the Nigerian side walking off the pitch of Free State Stadium wondering, “What the Hellas just happened?”

The early stages of the game belonged to Nigeria, and I am sure many like myself, had flashbacks of the Korea game… I won’t say any more about that. Then, sure enough, the Super Eagles were given a free kick opportunity in a dangerous position, and were then able to score on a shot/cross that mysteriously went untouched by everyone on the field. 

Things would change however! In the 33rd, Sani Kaita was shown to the exit for ungentlemanly behavior. Up a man, the Greeks took over control of the game and one minute before halftime, scored their first World Cup goal on a deflected shot that popped up past the keeper into the back of the net.

The second goal came in the 71st when the Nigerian keeper coughed up a rebound and Vasilis Torosidis was there to clean up the mess and score the game winner. Although lucky in many ways, Greece was the undeniable victor on this day as this team became the first contingent from their country ever to win a world cup game. The Super Eagles on the other hand, could simply scratch their heads and wonder how things could have gone so afowl… (Pun intended).

This day started out with so much promise.

A good result from Argentina and South Korea opened up the Nigerian path to advancement in Group B. In the 16th minute, Kalu Uche delivered a magical free kick into the Greek box. Untouched by any player (least of all their keeper, who threw himself the other way), the ball found the back of the net. GOAL NIGERIA!!! Finally, the Super Eagles were going to deliver the great form and skill they had promised at the start of the tournament.

All those good feelings evaporated minutes later when Sani Kaita “earned” a red card for… something. Yes, Kaita ALMOST struck the Greek player, but it’s not like Kaita was crane kicking a member of Cobra Kai. On the replay, it didn’t even look like there was contact. If Landon Donovan were involved, Sportscenter would dedicate 30 minutes to breaking this tape down like it was the Zapruder film. But because it’s Nigeria, I’m sure it will be forgotten tomorrow. Unbelievable.

That red card seemed to do us in. The entire second half saw Nigeria playing like zombies. Our single counter attack ended with a pitiful Obasi “shot” that weakly rolled wide of net. That was our one and only chance. You could see the life get sucked right out of the team.

Final shot totals: Greece 27, Nigeria 10. If you give any team that many shots, one of them is bound to go in. Neither Greek goal was a result of a horrible defensive play by anyone in particular, just a result of constant bombardment towards the Nigerian goal.

Today was a never ending string of disasters: The first Greek goal was deflected off our own player, we had a player sent off with a red card (for what?) and played with ten men for an hour, two players at the same position were injured (hamstring and groin pulls for our left backs), and the second Greek goal comes off a rare rebound chance from our best player.

Everything went wrong today, but if everything goes right on June 22nd when we play South Korea, there’s still an outside shot at advancement.

Mexico 2, France 0

Today’s victory over France is as significant as the victory against France at the Battle of Puebla (known as Cinco De Mayo).   Mexico came into the match as the underdog and as the 17h ranked team in the world.   Mexico knew a draw would not be enough to proceed to the round of 16. We needed to win but it would be a tough battle not because we lacked talent but because we were in the same situation as France….desperate and frustrated. 

Coach Aguirre’s line-up was also of concern.  Chicharito was not on the starting line-up…again.  Memo Ochoa, Mexico’s best goalie, was also not in the starting line-up….again. In addition, Mexico failed to follow my keys to the match, which I thought were quite simple.  The first was improving the accuracy of our finishes.  Second, put shots on goal because the ball does funny things as it flies through the air and keepers have been making silly mistakes.  Third, do not give France set pieces.  Fourth, control Ribery. Finally, do not let France go into the half nil-nil.

I took a long lunch and watched the match with my boy David.  His enthusiasm, energy, and love for El Tri is equivalent to that of 100 Boca Juniors or 100 River Plate fanatics.  We vowed we would make it to Brazil 2014 to support our beloved Mexico in the next World Cup.

Just as in our match against South Africa, we were dangerous with the ball but failed to capitalize on great opportunities.  It was a frustrating first-half.  To make things worst Carlos Vela suffered an injury early in the game.  I feared this would hinder our attacking tempo.  It was déjà vu all over again.  I spent the half-time break restless and nervous.   I wondered what coach Aguirre was telling the team in the locker room.  I also wondered what was going through the minds of the French squad.  I wondered what was going through Ribery’s mind.  Would he rise to the occasion and take down El Tri? I wondered many things…terrible things.

After the half, France brought the fight to El Tri.  I feared every French shot and set piece.  Every poorly-executed tackle by El Tri brought yellow cards or more free kicks.  It seemed like France was turning the momentum but then Chicharito and Blanco came to the rescue. 

Finally, when Marquez made a beautiful and well-placed pass, just as Chicharito had made a ninja-like move on Le Blues, my world came to a halt.  It was as if I were watching Chicharito’s play in bullet-time. The French keeper was the only thing standing between Chicharito and glory. 

Everything was in slow motion. The room became silent.  All eyes were fixed on his moves.  The room became silent.  It was quiet.  I could hear my own heart beat. I could not believe what I was witnessing…it was just Chicharito and an open net.  I could hear my heart beating faster.  He took a peak at the net.  He put his head over the ball.  He swung his foot…GLORY!

With every breath in my soul I screamed “Goal!” The high-fives, banner-waving, and emblem-kissing soon followed.  Blanco’s penalty kick sealed the victory.  Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole….

Again, Blanco saved El Tri. It was a great tribute to the Mexican fans to see Blanco play such a vital role in today’s victory.  Had it not been for Blanco, El Tri would not have qualified to the 2010 World Cup.

Everybody Hates Raymond.

That was the saying before tonight’s crucial encounter. Tomorrow morning, however, L’Equipe will surely cry out for a much harsher punishment for France’s joke of a manager: the guillotine.

How did it come to this? Les Bleus, champagne poppers and simultaneous kings of Europe and World Cup champions just a decade ago have crashed out of South Africa in ignominious fashion. Without Zidane’s brilliance and grace to propel France to yet another World Cup Final, Les Bleus stumbled around the pitch chasing Mexican shadows.

Despite scoring a blatantly offside opening goal, Mexico was clearly the better footballing side. El Tri can also claim victory today in the other darker, cynical aspects of modern football (i.e. an Oscar winning dive in typical Mexican fashion to con a gullible referee into awarding a gift of a penalty kick).

As us French wallop in our misery, at least Nicolas Sarkozy can take relief as he hands the title of most hated Frenchman over to Raymond Domenech, of whom Zidane himself accused of “not being a real coach.” Well, Zidane’s words became reality (Domenech has already been sacked), and Laurent Blanc is sure to do better with Les Bleus in Brasil 2014.

As for now, the only thing us French can take pride in is a small but savory victory off the pitch. In yesterday’s press conference, Maradona went on a tirade against Pélé and French legend and UEFA boss Michel Platini. Today, after Platini told the Argentine tragedy of a coach to shove a baguette in his mouth and smoke it, Maradona, of all people, has apologized to Platini and the French.

So, here’s to the stars of the French footballing past—let us hope that you were not brighter than our future.