The World's Blog: Day 10

Paraguay leads their group, Kiwis stay alive against defending champs, and Brazil punch their ticket. Happy Father's Day on this 10th day of the World Cup.

Paraguay 2, Slovakia 0

A great result today. Paraguay came out wearing a less cynical cloak, playing much more positive, attacking football. The difference this time was not the quantity of possession, but the quality, as Slovakia held the ball for long periods of play. However, the Paraguayans were much more potent up front, creating several good chances.

In addition to the goals, Enrique Vera and Roque Santa Cruz both went close. The game changers were Vera, who works well as a consistent, versatile midfielder, despite his limited reputation outside of South America, and Lucas Barrios, whose pinpoint pass created Vera’s goal. Barrios’ decision to represent Paraguay looks a good one for both parties, as he would have had trouble breaking into Argentina’s roster considering their wealth of attacking options.

With only a feisty but slow New Zealand side left to play, Paraguay seem clear favorites, if not shoe-ins, to advance. Ideally, I’d like to see Slovakia beat Italy to advance as well. A great tournament for Paraguay so far, an exciting team in a tournament being criticized for the negative play and a dearth of goals. With so little separating teams, the last games of the group stages should be exciting encounters.

Alright, well, now I at least feel a little better. I was pretty down after Slovakia's surprising 1-1 opening-game tie with New Zealand, which I didn't think had a chance of even scoring a goal, much less getting a point in the entire tournament. My mood got even worse after Sunday's uninspired 2-0 loss to Paraguay that seemed to doom Slovakia's chances of advancing out of group play in its first World Cup.

But then, the sun began to shine. No, not in Seattle of course, it's not like it's summer or anything. The sun began to shine on Slovakia.

Yes, my team looked completely unprepared against Paraguay, lazy even. It didn't get a shot on target until stoppage time and its defending was awful. But it doesn't matter! Because as it turns out, New Zealand isn't as horrible as I'd thought, and Italy is way worse!

New Zealand's shocking tie against the Azzuri both made me feel better about Slovakia's tie against the Kiwis, and it kept my team's hopes alive. If Slovakia can somehow managed to beat Italy and Paraguay beats New Zealand, my team still somehow moves on to the knockout stage!

Can Slovakia beat Italy? I don't know, maybe. It would have to play a lot better. But clearly this isn't the Italy we all expected, so there's hope! And at this point, what more do you need? So everyone root for Paraguay and then cross your fingers that Slovakia figures out how to play with effort in the next few days, and then you'll get to keep enjoying my writing!

Italy 1, New Zealand 1

Writing from the shores of Lake Chelan, I was surprised to be met downstairs of the hotel bar at 6:30 AM by several other World Cup fans. Coffee was certainly the drink of choice today as I left my swanky digs to the cleaning lady and sleeping girlfriend. There is no time for relaxation or comfort when football of the global variety is on the telly.

I’m trying to gather my thoughts about Italy’s current predicament. The game was very disappointing for me, and after some initial panic and nausea, I started to see a little more clearly. I need to remind myself that this is still the same old Italy; nearly impossible to beat. Even though two straight ties essentially created a “must win” situation, for whatever reason, I’m still optimistic.

Italy is precisely in the same boat as the United States. Two hard- earned come-from-behind ties by both teams let each control their own World Cup destiny. And, if you like America’s chances, you should like Italy’s even more. I said it before, but let’s not forget, Italy is the reigning champion.

The Azzurri only made one line-up change from the opening match due to Buffon’s injury status. Still waiting on Pirlo’s fitness level to improve, they again were left begging for the final-third magic to transpire. I do have to give the Kiwi’s some credit for another over-achieving performance. The ESPN commentator that suggested the whole of New Zealand must certainly be awake, made me feel quite proud for them.

So even with all of the doom and gloom prognostication picking up momentum, I’m not sure I’d write off Italy just yet. I mean they are actually finding ways to score for once. They are also finding ways to control play, create chances (how about that rocket off of the post), and fight back. Can I have a shout out to a New Zealand off-side call on their only goal? Uh hem, I mean ONLY shot on goal. In two games Italy has only allowed 2 shots on goal. It is preposterous to imagine opposition goals will still keep occurring with these limited chances. During Italy’s championship run in 2006, they only allowed 2 goals total for the tournament. Being notorious slow starters, history predicts balance in the universe will soon find equilibrium.

Maybe it’s the better weather over here, East of Seattle, but I feel only a little nervous over progressing to the second round. Trust me, I’ll still be horrified if we can’t get out of a group that includes New Zealand, Slovakia, and Paraguay, but why panic just yet? There is still much to be optimistic about. Forza Italia or something.

Remember what I said the other day about New Zealand’s draw with Slovakia being our best football result ever? Forget that, because it’s already been beaten by yet another 1-1 draw, this time against reigning World Champions, Italy.

Instead of having to wait a nervous 93 minutes for a goal, today it took us only seven minutes to strike. Shane Smeltz pounced on a free kick that bounced off a defender to give us an incredible 1-0 lead. There was definitely some doubt about whether he was onside or not, but iffy offside goals are part and parcel of football.

What led to Italy’s goal is also part of football, but it’s a part that needs to be eradicated from the game. De Rossi was having his shirt slightly pulled by Tommy Smith while a free kick was delivered, and suddenly De Rossi fell as though he’d had his legs cut out from under him by an invisible car, allowing Italy to draw level with a well taken penalty. FIFA ended up awarding De Rossi the Man of The Match award, which is probably fair enough given the quality of that performance.

After that, New Zealand really crawled into their shells. The amount of space we gave the Italians to attack was only matched by the 73 place difference between the two countries in the FIFA world rankings.

The Italians completely dominated the second half as well, to the point where I was just waiting for the inevitable Italian goal, but brave scrambling defence and brilliant goalkeeping from Mark Paston refused to allow the Italians another goal – or even the chance to dive for another penalty.

Nearly two hours after full time, it’s still not sinking in. I’ve still got a headache from the tension and the nervous sweats are still going. It’s after 5am and I have no idea when I’ll unwind enough to sleep. But yet again, for a country with only 25 professional players (and still amateurs in our World Cup squad), we’ve done the incredible. Amazingly, we’re still alive in this World Cup – nobody could have picked that to be the situation two games into our campaign.

Hopefully these performances, no matter what happens against Paraguay, will finally put to rest all of the ridiculous comments about New Zealand being a rubbish football country, because they’re wrong. Now, more than ever, we deserve to be here.

Brazil 3, Ivory Coast 1

This date had been circled months in advance on the calendars of soccer fans all over the world. The draw that pitted Brazil and Ivory Coast in the group of death together ensured a mouth watering matchup between two supremely talented sides, one of the more tantalizing meetings in group play. The encounter had all the makings of a must see match – star power capable of magic on both sides, one team desperately seeking points, the other searching for a dominating performance to appease their ever demanding fans.

The game started off rather slow – much slower than a casual fan would have expected. Ivory Coast happily settled for a draw in their opener against Portugal, but now needed points to ensure a spot in the next round. The team that relied so much on attacking in qualifying was content to sit back and absorb pressure from Brazil, who, despite their opening win, had not yet been able to perform as an efficient unit in the manner their tactician wanted.

Brazil found their feet, and soon found their way on the scoreboard through O Fabuloso,Luis Fabiano. The goal settled the players and, perhaps more importantly, the fans; the vuvuzelas were drowned out for the first time by an impromptu samba concert in the stands. The soundtrack brought out the jogo bonito, as the Brazilians danced about the field holding possession in beautiful fashion. Fabiano again found himself on the scoresheet, using a few fantastic touches, and perhaps a hint of hand, to score a marvelous goal.

After the second tally, the game opened up and Brazil looked in control. It would not be long until Elano added the third, all but deciding the encounter. The clearly frustrated Ivorians abandoned their quest for points, and instead found solace in delivering crunching tackles on their Brazilian opponents.

Their physical play disrupted Brazilian possession and they were soon rewarded, with Drogba losing Felipe Melo on a run into the middle, slotting home a delicious cross with his head. Rather than attacking the goal, however, the Ivorians seemed more content in attacking the Brazilians, as they piled on harsh challenge after harsh challenge – one sending Elano limping to the dressing room.

The game ended on an uglier note than it should have, with Kaka being shown a second yellow after an innocuous elbow on Keita. Keita instigated the contact, running into Kakas elbow with his chest, and clutching his face in a motionless hump as his both teams found themselves in a fray. The casual American intrigued by the world cup will find himself disgusted by the not so beautiful soccer which played out towards the end.

Brazil will be satisfied with their performance – the offense produced three beautiful goals, the defense mostly marshaled the talismanic Didier Drogba, and the three points were enough to send them into the next round. The delirium in the crowd at the viewing party in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro was on full display. The victory was not without a cost, as Kaka will miss the next match from the bookings, and Elano’s World cup is in jeopardy after a harsh studs up challenge.

The fans will be satisfied – they witnessed goals, some open ended, attacking soccer, and just the amount of drama that such a tantalizing match up deserves. 

Brazil 3, Ivory Coast 1. Yes, the official scoreboard might point out that the Elephants allowed three balls into their net, and that Brazil were their opponents. But don’t let that deceive you. While the team in yellow had about 15 total minutes of lovely attacking football, for the remaining 75 they seemed content to sit back, control, and embellish fouls. Plus Luis Fabiano pulled an Henry on Brazil’s second goal.

To be fair, the other two goals were gorgeous and legitimate. And the Ivorian attack was out of sync and not particularly threatening, aside from one moment when Brazil somehow conspired to not mark the best striker in the world. Drogba probably hasn’t been that open since U-18 ball.

During the broadcast ESPN commentator Efan Ekoku said Ivory Coast weren’t trying to attack. Of course, Efan Ekoku is wrong about everything, ever. They were trying. Brazil just happens to be really really good.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the game was the end, when the Ivorians became chippy, hard fouls started flying, and Kaka was sent off. Officially he received a second yellow for elbowing Kader Keita in the chest. (Although Keita must have been confused, because he thought his face had been irreparably damaged.) But since there wasn’t much of a foul, I’m going with Kaka was sent off for being annoying.

Still, Ivory Coast were outclassed and they deserved the loss. Now they’ll need serious help to have a chance to advance. But in this crazy World Cup, who knows. North Korea could beat them by three.