World Cup Fever: Day and Night
This edition of the World Cup is a goal-fest. We have had more goals scored in the first two rounds than at any other World Cup in recent memory, says Mauktik Kulkarni, summing up the action ahead of the final round of matches in the league stage.
As the World Cup is heating up, big names are getting vanquished and teams that have been flying under the radar have become the talk of the town.
One thing is undeniable: This edition of the World Cup is a goal-fest. We have had more goals scored in the first two rounds than at any other World Cup in recent memory. It is a bit unfortunate that the home side was held goalless by Mexico. But it was not like the fifth day of a Test in which Dhoni employs defensive tactics to kill the match. Rather, the goalless draw brought back memories of Tendulkar’s legendary knock against Steyn in the drawn Test in Cape Town (2011), only to be topped by Kallis’s second innings heroics with a bruised rib to ruin India’s chances of winning an overseas test series.
The virtuoso performance of the Mexican goalkeeper propelled him to instant stardom; some even imagining him as an eight-handed Mexican reincarnation of a Hindu goddess. Guillermo Ochoa single-handedly – or multi-handedly – denied the Brazilian home fans another night of revelry, but the four matches that stood out in the second round were Switzerland-France, Argentina-Iran, Germany-Ghana and Portugal-USA.
Les Blues, as the French are known, were coming off their worst World Cup campaigns in 2010. Anelka, one of the senior members of the squad, openly rebelled against the coach and was sent back home midway through the group stages. The team protested, refused to show up for training, lost to South Africa and flew back home in economy class. By inducting young faces, they have rebuilt the team. But their qualifying record was mixed and the opening win over Honduras was expected. Switzerland was their first real test.
On the other hand, Switzerland has steadily grown in stature over the last decade. Through the 2006 and 2010 World Cup campaigns, they have established themselves as a defensive powerhouse. They managed to create a world record for the most number of World Cup minutes without conceding a goal, taking over the mantle from none other than Italy. It was a test of the young French offense against the well-oiled Swiss defense.
It didn’t take too long for the French to bury the ghosts of 2010. With an attack that can truly be characterized as left, right and center, they left the Swiss defense in tatters. Benzema was the star; coordinating the offense. But perhaps the best goal was the counterattack in which Giroud gave a perfect cross from the left to the stodgy Valbuena steaming in from the right. The only thing that made the goal better was the piggyback celebration. To their credit, even when down by 0-5, the Swiss did not give up. In the true spirit of the game, they scored a couple of brilliant goals in the dying minutes. But Benzema was so intent on dominating that he did not want to stop even after the referee had blown the final whistle.
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Image: France's players celebrate after Moussa Sissoko scored the fifth goal against Switzerland
Photographs: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
The Iranians walked away with heads held high against Argentina
In less than 24 hours, Messi was warming up to play Iran. Ranked 43rd in the world, Iran has already made a statement by qualifying for the World Cup. This was Argentina’s chance to put on a dominating show and enter the knock-out stage as one of the title favorites. They had everything going for them. They had had a perfect qualifying campaign. After complaining about the starting line-up against Bosnia, Messi had gotten the vaunted ‘Fab Four’ offense that he wanted. A score-line of 4-0 or 5-0 would not have surprised anyone. And then, Argentina inexplicably went flat.
The contrast between the French and Argentine offenses was like day and night. Behaving as if the Iranians were going to deliver the match to them on a platter, it looked like Aguero, de Maria, Higuain and Messi were walking around with a sense of entitlement. It does not take a tactical genius to anticipate Iran playing defense and occasionally breaking out with counter attacks. But, at times, the Iranian counter attacks looked more impressive than anything Argentina could put together. No rhythm, no intent, no hustle.
Good headers are part-skill and part-luck, but a floating pass from beyond 20-25 yards gives the player enough time to adjust and minimize the luck factor. The Argentineans didn’t bother to adjust or didn’t even fight for most of the headers. In a way, it was good to see Aguero and Higuain getting substituted in the second half. Messi conjured up magic in the 91st minutes that only he is capable of. But after 90 minutes of sleep-inducing football, the goal can only be categorized as saving grace. The Iranians walked away with their heads held high and the Argentineans have created a lot of headaches for themselves.
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Image: Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates scoring his team's first goal against Iran
Photographs: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Vintage magic by Klose
Within an hour, as if on cue, Germany and Ghana walked out of the tunnel to rescue the game of football. After spanking the 10-man Portugal 4-0 in the opener, title-contender Germany was probably high on confidence. Ghana, on the other hand, had a chip on her shoulder. Gyan and Ghana’s 2010 World Cup quarter-final loss to Uruguay was a tragedy for football fans all over the world except, perhaps, Luis Suarez.
In the dying minutes of extra-time, with Adiyiah’s header destined for the net, Suarez inexplicably used his hands to stop the ball and get red carded. When Gyan missed the resulting penalty kick and Ghana lost the plot in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, the African darlings were denied a semi-final berth on African soil. That sequence is etched in every football fan’s memory.
After losing the first match to the USA this time around, Ghana was out to prove a point. It showed from the first minute of the pulsating encounter. The first half was goalless, but not for lack of action. Germany might have had a sluggish start, but by the middle of the first half, both sides were playing free-flowing football and creating plenty of opportunities.
The floodgates opened in the second half. Germany’s Goetze drew first blood by finishing a perfect pass from Muller. But, before they knew it, beautiful goals by Ayew and Gyan had put Ghana in the driver’s seat. It took frantic substitutions by Loew and the world-record equaling vintage magic by Klose for Germany to earn a draw.
After the ordinary Argentinean efforts, it was reassuring to see both sides attacking till the end.
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Image: Asamoah Gyan (front) celebrates scoring Ghana's second goal with team mates
Photographs: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
'Group of Death' wide open
To ensure that they would not be left out of the discussions, USA and Portugal, the other two teams in the Group of Death, put on a scintillating display of teamwork to settle for a 2-2 draw.
With the help of Ronaldo’s last-minute heroics, Portugal had scraped through the qualifying rounds to earn a World Cup berth. In a moment of sheer eccentricity in the first match against Germany, Pepe has put the Portuguese campaign in jeopardy. Against USA, they were probably fancying their chances of winning with a comfortable goal difference. But Klinsmann has worked wonders for this USA team. And Dempsey is Exhibit #1 of the transformation.
A defensive lapse early in the match made viewers wonder whether USA was ready for the challenge. But the relentless attacks from the right flank by Dempsey & Co. paid off for the USA in the second half.
A blinder from Jermaine Jones put them back on track and, in a display of great teamwork and presence of mind, Dempsey nudged the ball in to take the lead. Ronaldo, the biggest star of football, was found wanting the whole night. However, after missing half-chances and flailing his arms wide one too many times, he delivered a perfect cross when it mattered the most.
In the last minute of injury time, he sent a text-book pass to Varela in front of the goal and salvaged a draw for Portugal. Perhaps Varela can teach the Argentineans a thing or two about headers.
It has thrown the 'Group of Death' wide open and our eyes wide open.
Day and night!
Mauktik Kulkarni is an author, movie-maker, travel buff and sports enthusiast. He will be traveling to Brazil for the World Cup and report for Rediff.com from there during the knock-out stages.
Image: Nani of Portugal (centre) celebrates scoring his team's first goal against USA
Photographs: Christopher Lee/Getty Images