The World's Blog: Day 20

Did you see that?! If you have not watched it, then do yourself a favor and stop reading this right now; find the game, and watch it! World Cup resumed today in the quarterfinals and drama (as usual) ensued!

Netherlands 2, Brazil 1

My doubt was confirmed as I saw Mathijsen limp off the pitch during warm ups. An already fragile defense was rendered weaker, and as van Marwijk was looking to the bench for fulfillment, my unsettled stomach was indication enough as to the challenge to come – Brazil. The undisputed kings of world football were in form and ready, and despite Dunga’s attempts at modesty during pregame interviews, every sane football connoisseur knew that the stars needed to align for Holland to have even the slightest chance at one more game.

As the whistle for kickoff sounded, I didn’t even want victory. My nerves were so shot that a calm opening to the match was my only desire. Robinho’s 10th minute goal indicated not only that if Holland were going to have a chance at victory they would need to score twice, but also that the Dutch defense was in shambles. The goal required brilliant vision to foresee, but a communication error rendered the strike much easier. The Dutch fell into a panic that lasted 45 minutes.

My greatest fear at half wasn’t defeat, but embarrassment. The Dutch were going to lose. As a cynic, I could not stop imagining Fabiano and Robinho scheming away in the locker room at ways to pick apart Holland’s battered back line. With the coming of the second half, Holland’s past hubris proved not a vice in this instance, but a virtue. Only a profound confidence could guide the Dutch into the improbable.  Holland immediately took to Brazil’s half, and although Robben could not find space on the right flank, Sneijder and van Persie looked synchronized, and space was opening up in Brazil’s defense. The old maxim “the second goal is always the most important” proved true, and Sneijder’s cross/shot crept past Cesar and Melo, and into the net. I didn’t care about the own goal. It was a goal, a Dutch goal, my goal! Now we had ourselves a football match.

As soon as the excitement from Holland’s initial goal was winding down, the unbelievable occurred: another goal. How Kuyt so elegantly found the head of Wesley Sneijder, perhaps I’ll never know. But he did. God must have a Dutch aunt or something. Soon after, Brazil made victory for Holland easier as Melo committed an act of genuine stupidity, as he stomped Robben. Seeing a Juventus player singlehandedly reduce Brazil’s hopes to nothing, I must admit, felt pretty good.

The match concluded in an atypical manner with Holland actually dominating play for the remaining 15 minutes of the match. This was in part due to Brazil’s 10 man squad, but I was proud of the boys regardless. They earned their victory. Whether it was Stekelenburg’s fantastic save off Kaka, Ooijer’s role in stepping up and deducing the Brazilian attack, or Kuyt’s diligent effort to shut down Maicon’s brilliant attack, it all came together in the end. Holland, who hasn’t played a world class opponent since Euro ’08, did what the commentators, the bookies, and the entire world scoffed at: they beat Brazil -- the purists of the beautiful game, the greatest team in the world.

So, let this chapter be part in the long story of the Holland and Brazil rivalry, and may Brazil be Holland’s most worthy opponent once again. But today, it is Holland’s day. A day for the oranje.

Not. Again.

It’s been four years since the unbelievably talented Brazil squad took a premature bow from the World Cup at the hands of eventual runners up France. Four years of salt in the wounds of every Brazilian who watched helplessly as Zidane masterfully disposed of the yellow and green. Today’s encounter with the Dutch was supposed to be another step in turning these last four years of grief into four years of elation. Brazil was to heroically battle its way to the final and proclaim itself king for the next four years, knowing full well it would defend its crown on home soil in 2014.

But soccer is a cruel game, and my start to the day was a sign of things to come. Thanks to my struggles with technology, I was unable to turn the TV on for about 10 minutes into the match. As soon as the all too familiar noise of the vuvuzelas hit my ears, Brazil had already taken the lead through a shamefully easy Robinho goal. I felt a strange mixture of extreme happiness for the lead and searing anger that I missed the goal. There was no time to wallow, however, as the first half was fast and back and forth. The goal calmed Brazilian nerves and allowed them to control the run of play, forcing the Dutch to chase the game. But Brazil wasted a host of chances to double their advantage, and, as it always does, their finishing troubles came back to haunt them.

Sneijder lifted a routine free kick into the area, with Felipe Melo and Julio Cesar both ready to clear it. Perhaps the vuvzelas prevented Melo from hearing the orders that Cesar was certainly screaming, as he went up for the ball and bumped Cesar out of position, allowing the ball to sneak past his head and Cesars outstretched fists and into the net. The Brazilians looked around in disbelief, dazed and confused at the very notion that they were no longer leading a game which had been in their pockets.

Well, okay, these things happen. It’s a World Cup, for crying out loud. You can’t expect to just waltz into the final without any kind of hiccups. You would think a team with Brazil’s pedigree would use the goal as inspiration to show the world what they were truly capable of. Instead, a  team that had been praised for its character and selfless attitude simply fell apart. Soon after, they conceded again and I can only imagine the scene in Brazil. Every bar, every deserted street, every crowded TV, overcome with stunned silence.

But wait a minute. This is Brazil. No other country has won 5 World Cups, or has nearly the soccer legacy that Brazil does. There was still 20 minutes to be played. Plenty of time for an equalizer and perhaps even a winner. Brazil’s roster was loaded with legendary names, many of whom were capable of individual brilliance at a moments notice. Brazil would come back. They had to. But, out of no where, Brazil’s hopes evaporated as Felipe Melo made the most idiotic decision of his soccer career. Perhaps his head still hurt from conceding the own goal earlier, but Melo inexplicably decided to give Robben a nice, extremely intentional stomp to the thigh, in plain view of the referee. The ref had no other option but to show Melo red, and one can only imagine what went through his head as he jogged of the field.

That is when reality began to sink in. Barring a miracle, Brazil was on its way out. But how did this happen? Did they underestimate their opponents? That’s hard to imagine, seeing as how Dunga would not allow it. Perhaps they thought the game was won after scoring so early? The way this team was playing, with every analyst predicting they would lift the trophy, it was rather easy to get ahead of one’s self. I already had plans for the masterful entry I would craft to celebrate Brazil’s sixth championship. I’m sure Luis Fabiano and Robinho were already planning goal celebrations for the final.

It is a sad, sad day in Brazil. When so much of your culture and pride is tied in with your teams performance at the world cup, things can seem rather hopeless when losing a game in this manner. Brazil is littered with gaping jaws, broken hearts, and confused and hurt fans. The four years of waiting will now turn to eight years of waiting, and this cup will forever be remembered for Brazil’s choke and Felipe Melo’s stomp. 

Uruguay 1 (4), Ghana 1 (2)

It is safe to say that no matter how long you or I live, no matter how many futbol matches we watch during the rest of our time on Earth, we will never see another game with an ending quite like this one. If you have not watched it, then do yourself a favor and stop reading this right now; find the game, and watch it from the 117th minute on. This game looked destined to be decided by penalty kicks from the very beginning. In the end it was. But that was only after a very strange detour that was both agony and ecstasy – no matter which flag you were behind.

The Uruguayan striker tandem, Forlan and Suarez, have impressed at every stage of this competition, and today was no exception. Forlan scored the lone goal from the run of play for Uruguay, but it was Suarez who was my man of the match. It was his red card in the 120th minute which conceded a penalty kick to Ghana, and won the match for the Uruguayans (that is the strangest sentence you will ever see written about a World Cup match). This was the biggest World Cup hand ball since Diego Maradona’s famous “hand of god.”

The Ghanaians were bombarding the Uruguayan goal with multiple shots as the last few seconds of extra time ran off the clock. After the keeper cleared a header of the line, Suarez cleared a low shot with his foot. One final shot came in from the Ghanaians – too high to kick away – so Suarez reached up with his hand to stop it from hitting the back of the net. Hand ball in the box, red card, penalty kick, goal, time up, game over, Ghana wins. At least that’s how it would have gone nine and a half times out of ten. Not this time.

Asamoah Gyan, who you may remember him from last week’s super strike to take down the U.S., lined up to take the penalty. If he makes it, Ghana wins, if he misses, penalty shootout. He powered the shot above the keeper and banged it off the crossbar, a la Patrick Ianni. Not since Roberto Baggio have we seen such a horrible choke job in the World Cup. I had gone from hopelessly depressed to ecstatic, now sure that Uruguay would win this game. Could it be possible that my beloved Sounders and La Celeste would both win via penalties in the same week? Thank you Asamoh “Roberto Baggio” Gyan, we couldn’t have done it without you.

But I also have to thank Ghanaian captain John Mensah for learning how to take your spot kicks at the Pat Noonan School of penalty kicks. You might as well have picked up the ball with your hands and walked it over to the keeper to place it in his gloves. Overall, this match had nothing to do with Uruguay. Ghana had several opportunities to win this game and become the first African nation to play in the semi-finals of the World Cup. They blew it…each time. We just happened to be the team that enjoyed the rewards. At first I felt bad, but that soon passed.

Now it is Uruguay and three other teams – all assured of playing two more games. Today taught us that anything can happen. If things go as planned, then in less than two weeks I’ll be writing to you about La Celeste, the dominance of South America, and the third Uruguayan World Cup title – their first since 1950. And Ghana, it will be all thanks to you. However, as Asamoah “Roberto Baggio” Gyan can tell you, things don’t always go according to plan.

Stephen Ishmael

I really tried to watch the final penalty kicks without any prejudice for the Ghana team. I'm still slowly getting over the US lost and I found myself, deep down inside, having a hard time rooting for Ghana. I tried to think about my first couple of blogs where I talked about how Ghana wasn't just playing for themselves but they were playing for the whole continent, but it had very little effect.

But for a split second I found myself starting to cheer for Ghana, but that moment was short lived cause when Uruguay hit that final penalty kick to advance to the last four I wasn't upset. I'm not sure but I wouldn't doubt that a little smile came across my face at that moment either.  

As I watched the Ghanaians lay on the ground crying after the lost, much like they were doing during the US match in an attempt to waste time (sorry I'll put aside my bitterness now), I had a good amount of respect for them. They not only represented their country well but they represented Africa superbly. They came in to their final game with an extreme amount of pressure on their shoulders. The local newspapers here were 100% dedicated to Ghana and to be perfectly honest it was pretty cool to see that. I saw two pictures, one with just the country of Ghana highlighted in the Ghanaian flag and the other one with the whole continent highlighted in the Ghanaian flag. There was immense pressure, but much like they have all tournament they withstood the pressure and almost made it to the last four. 

With so many countries having such a hard time with their citizens getting along with other countrymen, in a place where often tribe is more important than country, it was refreshing to see that, although there might not be peace between or within certain borders, there was a bond between all the countries in Africa on Friday, all cheering on the Black Stars.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, that soccer can bring people together like no other sport, and I have been able to witness firsthand how it can bring a continent together like none other, and for that I'm greatly honored. 

So, as I think back to this World Cup for Ghana I wont think about the teams they played, or what player scored what goal, or even how they advanced. The only thing that will stand out in my mind is that they brought a continent together. Out of all the countries in Africa, the Black Stars were they ones that carried the torch, and I was lucky enough to blog for them! For this opportunity I am extremely grateful and I hope I did the Black Stars of Ghana justice. Cheers!