From: Alex Cooley and Mark Blyth
To: All Brazil Jockers
Wow – what a couple of days. Big teams playing each other in the World Cup usually produce, well, big games. Certainly, the two “clash of the titans” in 2006 delivered. I was also given an amazing lesson in the contrasting psychology of taking penalties across footballing cultures.
The penalty shootout remains perhaps the most tension-filled and cruelest way to settle a football match and two of this year’s quarterfinals (Germany-Argentina and Portugal-England) demonstrated just how differently winning and losing teams approach the spot kicks. Now, anyone who spouts this junk that the shootout is a “lottery” has obviously lost more than their fair share. And growing up in England, I always just assumed that settling a match on penalties was necessarily a torturous and depressing affair for all fans. How wrong I’ve been!
The Germany-Argentina game was instantly an epic encounter – gone was Germany’s earlier flamboyant attack play; the Argentine midfield pressured the German build-up and killed off the tempo of the game through possession football and short passing. When just after half-time Argentine center back Roberto Ayala powerfully headed home a corner the host’s progression in the tournament was put in serious jeopardy. Argentina expertly held on to the ball and wasted time as the Germans looked toothless. Then out of nowhere, with 10 minutes left, Germany’s jack-in-the-box striker Miroslav Klose sprung forward to nod in a flicked on Ballack freekick. 1-1. The packed crowd at my local bar “Schmidt’s” went ballistic and I bear-hugged about 37 random people. As extra-time drew to a close, everyone seemed more and more upbeat. The Germans had taken an Argentine punch, but had survived and the end of the game was a mere formality.
For the first time in my life I saw a crowd actually cheer the end of extra time as if they had already won. As the shootout progressed everyone rhythmically clapped on every German PK taker. The German kicks were flawless, the Argentine kicks less so and Berlin soon erupted into jubilant celebrations and a cacophony of honking cars, world cup anthems and pretty much everything else that you can imagine. The Argentines were left to brood over a stinging defeat and their manager Pekerman’s questionable substitution pattern, especially his decision to take off playmaker Riquelme and not insert the wunderkind Messi to run at a tiring German defense.
In the evening game the Italians clinically dismantled the overmatched Ukrainians (darn, got close with that one although I still maintain they should have played the Aussies!), setting up a 1982 World Cup final repeat against the Germans in the semis.
The next day I experienced what can only be uncreatively described as the “anti-Germany shootout” with a bunch of England fans. Cooley had predicted a Germany-England final, mainly because the draw was kind to England and they, for once, actually had some decent players at almost every position…oops. Although England mostly controlled the first half of the game and Portugal looked toothless without their suspended playmaker Deco, the match followed an all-too-familiar script for the English. In the second half England’s lone striker hothead Wayne Rooney, just like David Beckham against Argentina in 1998, was red carded for stomping all over a Portuguese defender’s private parts. Afterwards, down a man, England elevated their game as the unfairly maligned Owen Hargreaves heroically ran everywhere, but in the end neither team would have scored even if they had played on for another week.
So, just 24 hours later after the German PK party, the inevitable happened – final whistle and groans from all the En-gur-land fans at our large outdoor beach bar screen and lots of grown men half-staring at the screen through gaps in their hands. Even as Portugal missed two PKs and gave England a golden opportunity to claim their spot in the semifinals, England’s supposedly world class midfield duo bottled their penalties. Rubbish kicks from Lampard and Gerrard as well as a retaken miss by Carragher meant that England scored just 1 penalty in 4 – pathetic. English fan began to sob, as did defender John Terry into David Beckham’s arms. There’s no sugar-coating this one – England lost to a relatively poor side that even gifted them two penalty misses. Absolutely not good enough for a team that aspired to win the tournament.
We had no time to drown our sorrows (..well maybe we squeezed in a bit of drowning) as the main course of the quarterfinals was shortly kicking off – France vs. Team NikeFIFASamba in a repeat of that memorable Paris 1998 final. So we settled into our seats and tuned into the pre-match show.
The rest of the evening was simply delicious. It started with Pele waltzing into the ZDF pre-game show in front of a packed studio of blue and gold jockers clashing their approved thundersticks, and then lip-synching his new loungy “hit” single. After the musical promo he and the ZDF analysts patted each other on the back, reviewed tapes of various Brazilian goals and backheels and predicted a comfortable 2-0 or 2-1 Brazil victory. Everyone agreed that now that the important matches were starting we would see what Ronaldo and his buddies could really do. Back on planet earth, however, once the game kicked off it was obvious that only one team was in control.
The magnificent French just outclassed TeamNikeFIFASamba. Zidane was majestic in midfield, orchestrating passes as if in his prime, cleverly creating spaces and flicking telling balls everywhere, while Ribery terrorized Roberto Carlos down the right side. Carlos was also responsible for marking Henry on a free kick but obviously had more important matters to attend to – in the 57th mintue Henry found himself alone at the far post and thumped in Zidane’s sweetly struck ball and the French had their deserved goal. Although ZZ was singled out as the top player on the pitch, the defensive midfield duo of Viera and Makele produced outstanding performances as they built a wall around the French defense and effortlessly cut off all Brazilian passing lanes. In the end TeamNikeFIFASamba went out with a whimper and was reduced to lobbing in aimless balls into the box as Ronaldo and Ronaldhino whined about the refereeing and flung themselves to the turf in search of free kicks. Not only was this over-hyped bunch of millionaires dispatched in style, we were also mercifully spared a future Berlin fashion trend of Ronaldhino-style headbands with a big “R” on them.
Some seem a bit down on the quality of the tournament, but I thought these Q-finals lived up to the hype – lots of tension, drama and high-quality football. I think its a bit unfair to simply compare the number of goals scored at World Cups across different eras as the defenses and tactics these days are just stifling and the fitness of players so much better than in the past. As with most Q-finals, you win some and lose some, and so I am now officially out of the prediction business even though, of course, I do have a dream final in mind. I will be out of Germany for the semis, but will be back in Berlin under the Brandenburg gate for the final. Best to all and remember to practice those PKs!!