Viva Espana!

12 07 2010

Spain 1-0 Netherlands

And so it ends. After thirty-one days and sixty-four matches played at the highest level we have Spain as worthy World Champions. Thank you Andres Iniesta for scoring while still in extra time. Nobody wants to see the World Cup decided on penalties (except maybe Italy). Thank you to all of you who had a look at the blog (and a bigger thank you to any of you who actually read it). The bad news is that the 2010 World Cup is over. The good news? Euro 2012 is only two short years away.

Goodbye for now,

The World Cup Neutral


Goals a Plenty and Maybe Two Pairs of Golden Boots

11 07 2010

(Toronto FC 1-0 Colorado)

Germany 3-2 Uruguay

The final weekend of the World Cup and for me it started out at the most fitting of venues. I hadn’t been to either of the Toronto FC games during the tournament, but I had my ticket for the game against Colorado under the sun.

BMO Field had its usual full house, but for most this game was part of a bigger picture. Whether it was people getting into the stadium, people walking along the concourse or those in line for food and drinks, thoughts were on where to watch the third place match following the game and which team was going to win the big match on Sunday.

The jersey of choice amongst the crowd was naturally the TFC red, but as it World Cup time a few people came out in their national colours. There was the usual smattering of England jerseys and the woman in the Swiss jersey can look back on her side’s win over Spain. The guy in the Austrian jersey must have been dreaming, but at least you can say it’s red so it fit in around here. The pair in the Xavi and Iniesta Barcelona jerseys showed their loyalty for the final, but without doubt the second most popular team at BMO after the home side were the Dutch as best exemplified by the block of fans in the north grandstand all in the now familiar oranje with van Persie, van Bronkhorst and even an Edgar Davids retro jersey amongst the dozens and dozens that clearly stood out when viewed from the other stands.

My last three appearances to BMO all ended up scoreless draws so when Fuad Ibrahim muscled a shot into the Colorado net in the 61st minute it was an even better sight than usual. The TFC win put me, and thousands of others, in the right frame of mind as we all made our way out quickly to any available TV screen to watch the third place match.

What can you say about the third place match? Two sides that only a few days ago still thought they had a shot at winning the whole thing have to stick around and play each other just for the right to say they finished third. One positive is that unlike the second place team, one team here gets to win their last game of the tournament.

Another plus is that with no pressure on either side and only pride at stake this game has proven to be an entertaining match with its share of goals as this year’s edition proved. It also provided some interest amongst the football fans in these parts as Winnipegger Hector Vergara was manning the sidelines making his fourteenth officiating appearance at the World Cup. We can’t produce a team capable of playing but we have developed one of the best amongst the match officials.

Germany opened the scoring in the 19th minute when Bastian Schweinsteiger fired on net from well outside the area. Fernando Muslera gave up a big juicy rebound to Thomas Mueller to fire home for his fifth, and probably easiest, goal that brought him level with Spain’s David Villa and Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands for the tournament’s leading scorer.

With so little actually at stake in this game Uruguay wasn’t going to defend and play cautiously. In the 28th minute Edinson Cavani struck beautifully from inside the area sliding away as he watched his shot go in against far post to level the score at one.

While the sun gave everyone at BMO a bit if a tan, the rain fell heavily down in Port Elizabeth as the first half came to a close. With the sky opening up so too did the goals. Six minutes after the re-start Diego Forlan continued his outstanding World Cup with a beautiful volley from the top of the box that put Uruguay up 2-1. Like Mueller in the first half, Forlan now had five goals and had really given his campaign for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball a real shot in the arm.

Five minutes later Germany again drew level. Marcell Jansen found himself the only German player in the crease challenging Muslera for the ball. Jansen’s head won the battle and surprised everyone, including himself, by scoring the goal.

With eight minutes to go Germany went back on top. Mesut Oezil delivered a corner into the box that confused the Uruguayan defense. In the ensuing scramble Sami Khedira headed it home for the 3-2 German lead.

In stoppage time the stage was set and the script seemingly written. Uruguay was awarded a free kick dually taken by Forlan. The chance to equalize with the last play of the ninety minutes. The sixth goal that would have given him the outright scoring lead. How did it play out? Forlan came about as close as you can to this fairytale finish, but nailed the crossbar. Alas, it wasn’t to be and the Germans hung on to win it 3-2.

Two weeks ago the world was singing the praises of the South American sides, now with Spain and the Netherlands in the final and Germany winning the third place match it is Europe that swept the podium showing how quickly fortunes can change at a tournament such as this.

An Unfamiliar Goal Scorer and Unfamiliar Territory

7 07 2010

Spain 1-0 Germany

For the second semi-final I decided the Football Factory was as good a location as any for the big occasion. The only problem was that I showed up an hour before kick-off and the place was full. It seemed a Spain-Germany match up with a spot in the World Cup final on the line brought out a large crowd of Spanish, German and general footy fans on this hot and humid afternoon.

A block away Hoops had a few remaining empty seats and thankfully air-conditioning. I took my spot along the bar in front of the mammoth screen they had in the middle of the wall next to several Spanish fans in red jerseys and t-shirts, German fans and a few Dutch supporters who just sat back feeling good knowing that their team was in the big game. They just wanted to see whom they’d be playing on Sunday. With the amount of blackberries out on the bar it would seem more than a few people here had brought the office with them on their ninety or so minute “break”.

The first half saw Spain dominate possession but not necessarily the chances as Iker Casillas for the Spaniards, his German counterpart Manuel Neuer and their respective defenses were called into action repeatedly.

As the second half kicked off it was still anybody’s match to win. The German fans were chatting away in German and English getting more animated with each miss at either end, the Spanish fans were cheering their side on in between sending messages on the blackberries. The Dutch fans sat back and just enjoyed the ride. In the 74th minute Carles Puyol met Xavi’s corner kick with a header off his lion’s mane and Spain had its lead. That was all that was needed as Germany after a flurry of goals eliminated England and Argentina didn’t have the attack necessary. For Puyol his third goal in Spanish colours was a just reward for his ten years of loyal service to the National team.

Two years ago at the European Championships Spain exercised some demons by winning an international tournament after forty-four years of disappointment and failed promise. Now they can exercise whatever demons are still lingering on Sunday when they take on a Dutch side who’s looking to right their own historical wrongs. Whatever the result, the group of World Champions will welcome only its eighth member to the club. Oranje versus La Roja. It’s going to be hot, but if you’ve been around Toronto the past few days I don’t have to tell you what’s hot.

A Blackout on Monday, An Oranje-out on Tuesday

6 07 2010

Netherlands 3-2 Uruguay

Let me first begin by saying if Toronto had to have a blackout it was much better on Monday when it didn’t effect watching the World Cup.

The streets and lanes of Liberty Village looked like the paths leading to the Amsterdam ArenA or De Kuip in Rotterdam on days when the national team is playing. There isn’t a “Dutchtown” or “Little Holland” to speak of in Toronto, but for the duration of the World Cup this area appears to be filling in nicely. As the crowd approached the School Bakery and Café (ground zero for Holland HQ) the music was blaring, the vuvuzelas were droning and the whistles were blowing. It was a mix of tailgating and a national holiday as the hundreds of people all clad in orange jerseys and t-shirts were in full party mode a full ninety minutes before kick off, meaning the place was full. Even members of one of the local TV crews were dressed in orange shirts for the occasion. I was later to learn there were people congregating as early as eight o’clock in the morning so the likelihood of a neutral getting into the crowded party was minimal. Luckily there was an ample supply of bars and restaurants on the surrounding streets handling the waves of orange overflow ready to cheer “Hup Holland!!”

I settled into one of the last open seats at Shoeless Joe’s in time for kickoff. The first goal wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but the scorer certainly was. I saw Giovanni van Bronckhorst in action at the 1998 Scottish League Cup final for Rangers a few months after the 1998 World Cup and if you’d told me then that in 2010 his role with the Dutch national side would increase from substitute then to captain and starting in the back four now I would have said not likely. Never mind that he would still be capable of scoring a goal like he did today in the 18th minute. His beautiful strike from well outside the area just evaded Fernando Muslera’s gloves and just evaded the top corner of the post for a stunning goal that cranked up the decibel level at Shoeless Joe’s quite a bit.

Four minutes before the half and Diego Forlan continued his outstanding tournament. For many, the last thoughts many a football fan around here had of Forlan were of him struggling at Manchester United. He has since resurrected his career at Villarreal and Atletico Madrid in Spain before bringing himself back to prominence in South Africa. From almost as far out as van Bronckhorst, the Uruguayan fired just under the crossbar near the middle of the net for an equalizer of almost equal beauty.

As the second half kicked off this was still very much Uruguay’s match to win. The crowd was slightly quieter, especially after Forlan almost added a second on a deadly free kick on target saved by Maarten Stekelenburg which brought back some of the applause.

Between the 70th and 73rd minutes, the Dutch looked to have put the game away with a pair of goals from their dynamic duo of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Sneijder’s shot from 20 yards out sent the crowd back into euphoria before Robben’s picture perfect header sent them beyond as a third ever final appearance for the Dutch was clearly in sight.

That sight was blurred slightly in a bizarre stoppage time that saw Maximiliano Pereira curl home off a quickly taken free kick and the referee wait a couple minutes after the allotted three minutes before blowing his whistle touching off mad Dutch celebrations here, down the street, across the city and around the world.  The only downside was that we all had to head outside into the scorching heat and humidity away from the air conditioning that was as enjoyable as the goals scored this afternoon.

For Spain it’s a Case of Better Late Than Never

6 07 2010

Spain 1-0 Paraguay

This wasn’t the usual performance from the well-oiled Spanish machine. This wasn’t an opponent expected to reach this stage. Regardless, Spain played Paraguay in a quarterfinal that people will be talking about for some time.

Paraguay was playing in its first ever World Cup quarterfinal, but didn’t let the occasion overwhelm them as they ran Spain ragged. The South Americans did everything but score, although if you ask some spectators, viewers and pundits they would say otherwise when in the 41st minute Nelson Valdez thought he’d given Paraguay the lead only to be called back for offside when replays showed that was not necessarily the case.

As the game was approaching the hour mark it was as though the events were taken over by a scriptwriter. While Paraguay was taking its first corner kick Oscar Cardozo’s arm was tugged until he was brought down in the box by Gerard Pique and the ref pointed to the spot without hesitation. Cardozo stepped up to take the kick and Iker Casillas in the Spanish net guessed the right way and made the save. A slightly dodgy offside call and a rare penalty save. Forces were conspiring to keep this game scoreless.

You might think I’ve lost the plot a bit talking about a conspiracy, but consider what happened with in two minutes on the ensuing counterattack. David Villa was brought down by Antolin Alcaraz in the box (barely, but he was tackled) for a Spanish penalty. Xabi Alonso took his place at the spot and dually hit it home, but no. Pique was thought to have encroached the area before the penalty and a re-take was ordered.  Alonso regrouped, stepped up again and it was Justo Villar’s turn to guess the right way and make the save. Unbelievably we had two penalty saves, a penalty ordered re-taken and that dubious offside. Maybe I’m not crazy thinking it’s some kind of conspiracy. Under half an hour to play and Paraguay was still very much alive.

It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that we got to see the Spanish attack we had seen before and expected to see again. Andres Iniesta delivered a beautiful cross off the side of his foot to a wide-open Pedro who hammered his shot clear off the post. The rebound came right back to David Villa who also nailed the post and saw his shot bounce off the opposite post before crossing the line. It wasn’t easy, but it was a goal. That it would come so late and in those circumstances was a surprise. That the goal was scored by Villa isn’t a surprise at all.

It wasn’t pretty and now Spain has a semifinal date with Germany who won’t let the Spaniards get away with a performance like that. Paraguay goes home and now the South American juggernaut is down to Uruguay. As the knockout stage has evolved, Europe has shifted the balance of power in the tourney. Lets see what the scriptwriters come up with in the semis.

Too Much Too Young Too Fast

4 07 2010

Germany 4-0 Argentina

All things being equal a quarterfinal between Germany and Argentina at the World Cup shouldn’t be an unexpected match up, but this year it was a bit of a surprise. Argentina waited until about the ninth or tenth hour, if not the eleventh, to book their place in South Africa and the German team features several newbies to the national team fresh from a 2009 U21 European Championship, but lacking experience at the full international level.

Germany opened up impressively with a 4-nil trouncing of Australia in their opening match, but for their doubters Australia was an aging team and their best player (Tim Cahill) was red carded so skepticism still lingered. Those doubts didn’t go away when Serbia won 1-nil in their second game. A 1-nil win over Ghana gave Germany the group, but it didn’t give a lot of followers the faith that this was a German team capable of the results of past World Cups.

Ever since Diego Maradona took over the coaching reins of this Argentine side, there have been doubters questioning his credentials as a coach and about his ability to handle a game when his side is trailing and requires a change in tactics.

Argentina got off to a winning start holding off Nigeria 1-nil. They put South Korea to the sword to the tune of 4-1 before wrapping up the group with a 2-nil take down of Greece. With the exception of parts of the game against Nigeria they were in complete control of their matches which is why questions were asked about what could or would Maradona do when he and his side had their backs against he wall.

Besides an abundance of inexperienced players, Germany was also without their captain and arguably their best player in Michael Ballack, So, with Ballack and all that youth what chance did they have? I have written before in this blog about how the former champions of the World Cup keep finding a way to win and with both of these sides it had been that way.  For me it wasn’t a surprise that we had this match up, but for others not so much and when it was all said and done we had answers for one side, but for the other we still had questions.

In the knockout stage Germany got a few people off it’s back with its 4-1 demolition of England, but doubters would still argue what if Lampard’s goal had counted? Argentina took out Mexico 3-1, but what if Tevez’s first goal was called back? Something had to give at this stage.

It only took three minutes for the scoring to start. Thomas Mueller, one of the key contributors to the English slaughter, headed in Bastian Schweinsteiger’s free kick and it was 1-nil to the Germans. A goal by one of the young guns off a set piece by the guy who has more than filled Ballack’s shoes. Germany was doing just fine.

In the 68th minute, Miroslav Klose did what he does best (which is score in a Germany shirt). His last season with Bayern Munich was a disappointment, but he has more than saved his reputation with another fine World Cup goal scoring campaign. Lukas Podolski crossed to the wide-open Klose for a simple walk in on goal and it was 2-nil. People may have had questions about Germany, but when your two forwards have contributed in almost every game like Klose and Podolski have you win. It’s rather simple. Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery and others should watch and learn. That goal by Klose was his 13th all-time at the World Cup moving him past Pele.

Six minutes later, Schweinsteiger moved the ball forward to the goal line before cutting back slightly to find an open Arne Friedrich who scored to make it 3-nil in favour of the Germans.

In the dying minutes of the second half, another of the outstanding youngsters, Mesut Oezil, crossed to Klose in the centre of the crease for a simple chip for his second and Germany’s fourth on the day. A celebration was underway. Klose is now second all-time tied with fellow German goalmeister Gerd Muller with 14 goals in the World Cup, only one back of Brazilian Ronaldo.

Argentina were humbled a day after Brazil’s shock exit and now all the early talk of impressive South America play has all but evaporated. Germany moves on to familiar territory as it is the only country to have played in the past three World Cup semi finals. For those German sports fans under whelmed by the Michael Schumacher comeback in Formula One, there is a successful return to prominence unfolding.

Ghana’s Black Stars Disappear Under Uruguayan Sun’s Glare

3 07 2010

Uruguay 1-1 Ghana

(Uruguay advances 4-2 on penalties)

Uruguay v. Ghana in the quarterfinals seemed both an unexpected match up and a fairly neutral one as neither side has a large support in the city (although as the lone African side remaining Ghana was more likely to pick up some extra supporters). I decided to watch this one at a most neutral of venues, The Football Factory just south of Queen and Bathurst.

This is the place where two women can sit side by side, one in a Brazil jersey and one in a Netherlands jersey, and chat about the next game only hours after one friend’s side knocked out the other.  It’s the place where people bring their own vuvuzleas and blow them until the bartender jokingly says cut it out (I’d say it was about eight seconds). It’s a place where there’s an open stool at the bar and TV screens in every direction. In short it’s the kind of place for this afternoon.

For the first twenty minutes it seemed the crowd was as neutral as I’d expected as neither side scored. Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson added to his resume (since he’ll be looking for a club to play for once the tournament is over) with a save off both members of Uruguay’s dynamic duo of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez.

As the half hour mark approached the loyalties of the crowd became more apparent as each growing chance by the Africans was met with louder and louder applause and cheers from throughout the room as both John Mensah and Asamoah Gyan had shots end up on the wrong side of each post.

At the stroke of half time Ghana scored first. Sulley Muntari curled a shot from about thirty-five yards into the corner deceiving the Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera for a 1-nil Ghana lead. The decibel level shot up and the Ghanaian flags were unfurled. The crowd had a definite loyalty now.

Ten minutes after the re-start Diego Forlan continued his strong tourney (and strong free kicks, swerving one past Kingson) leveling the score with his third of the World Cup. Now the cheers for Ghana were louder. A pair of Peruvian fans joined the proceedings, one in a red jersey and one in white. If they were behind their fellow South Americans they weren’t making it known. They were just getting ready for 2014 I suppose.

The tension continued building as full time came to its dramatic conclusion. Suarez made his contribution, not by scoring but by deciding to play volleyball with Dominic Adiyiah’s shot on net. He was called for the handball and red carded. As stoppage time was coming to a close Asamoah Gyan stepped up to take the ensuing penalty. With what should have ended the game, with the crowd in the bar up on its feet for the final moment, Gyan hit the crossbar sending everybody into stunned disbelief. Suarez’s move, I have to admit was fairly sketchy, looked genius given how things turned out.

Extra time played out as the tension of the second half continued, leading to the unfortunate penalty kicks to decide which Cinderella story continued on to the semi finals. Ghana seemed to rush through their kicks in my opinion resulting in a pair of saves by Mulsera. Uruguay survived a miss on their first kick and scored on their last four to move on while Ghana saw victory in their hands (if not in Suarez’s hands) slip away. For the 1930 and 1950 Champions, their unexpected renaissance continues on as the Football Factory emptied out.