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


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.

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.

David is Villa-fied in Portugal

29 06 2010

Spain 1-0 Portugal

With Japan v. Paraguay taking up another hour thanks to the extra time and penalties, I was behind in my errands. I was looking to head downtown or into Little Portugal for the Spain-Portugal contest, but given that time was of the essence I had to stay in Etobicoke to make it anywhere in time for kick off.

This match up was everything the day’s first game wasn’t. Portugal and Spain have plenty of experience against each other. In recent World Cups both sides have been no strangers to the knockout stages and both sides featured several of the world’s top players. It had intrigue written all over it.

I made it to the Crooked Cue for the start and was immediately met by a table of red clad Spanish exchange students as I sat down. Forget downtown, I’d caught a break in the atmosphere department for this one.  It’s a recurring theme around the city when you’re amongst a powerhouse’s supporters. Football really matters to them. Much like when amongst Portuguese, Brazilian, English and other fans, everything is magnified. Each Portuguese rush was met with panic. Each Spanish attack was met with anticipated yells. Every Spanish corner was met with applause. The English woman quietly enjoying the game in the corner couldn’t help but notice each increasingly louder reaction. One of the girls apologized only to be told not to worry about it as it adds to the occasion.

In the 63rd minute Spain’s clutch goal scorer David Villa struck for his third of the tourney. Off a back heel by Andres Iniesta, Villa shot on net only to have a juicy rebound come back his way. No keeper can stop Villa on back-to-back shots up close and Eduardo was no different. Villa buried his second shot to give Spain a 1-nil lead and the Crooked Cue had a happy table of Spanish fans.

With Cristiano Ronaldo in the Portuguese lineup you’d figure they could find an equalizer, but Portugal have had a strange tournament in that they scored all seven of their goals in their win over North Korea and the only goal they conceded was in the past few minutes. Spain isn’t North Korea and kept Portugal’s attack in check. Now they have a date with Paraguay in the quarterfinals and Etobicoke has a happy group of exchange students.

Spain’s Villa(in) to Opposing Defenders

26 06 2010

Spain 2-1 Chile

Switzerland 0- 0 Honduras

The group stage has come to a close and I’m catching my breath at home for the final pair of games. Spain is taking on Chile with first place on the line in Group H while an occasional glance will be over at Switzerland versus Honduras.

For all the hype regarding Fernando Torres I can’t help but feel he is a flop when playing for the national team. I’ve seen him at his electric best on TV on Saturday mornings for Liverpool, but the star of the show when it’s Spain that’s playing has got to be David Villa. The Euro 2008 Golden Boot winner always seems to step up in the national colours. His two goals against Honduras were works of art, but what he did in the 24th minute in this game was spectacular.

Torres gave chase on a ball sent in by Xabi Alonso, which the Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo committed to.  His clearance fell to Villa from 40 yards out with a wide open net in his sights. The striker, newly signed to Barcelona (here’s a scary thought for defenders next year, Villa and Lionel Messi will be on the same team) chipped a shot that one-hopped into the net for a 1-nil Spanish lead.

In the 37th minute some of the same characters acted out the scene for Spain’s second goal. Alonso passed to Villa who was double teamed in the box. His solution was a cross back to Andres Iniesta (another of his future teammates, can you say early favourites for the Champions’ League title?) who had a wide-open corner to shoot on and Spain was up 2-nil.

Spain was awarded twice on the play as on the rush Marco Estrada had brought down Torres on the beleaguered striker’s run towards goal. Estrada was red carded meaning Spain would have to lead and the man advantage for the rest of the game. It wasn’t looking good for Chile.

The only good news for the South Americans was that the Swiss-Honduran game was scoreless at the half meaning Chile would still move on to the knockout phase.

Two minutes after the re-start, Chile was one back thanks to Rodrigo Millar. His strike on goal deflected of Gerard Pique and tricked Iker Casillas ending up in the back of the net. From this moment on Spain locked it down defensively until the final ten minutes when they simply controlled the ball passing it back and forth amongst themselves. To be honest it felt longer than that as Chile couldn’t re-gain possession and just had to watch this Spanish training drill. At the time the Chileans couldn’t be sure of qualification and were lucky things remained scoreless in the Switzerland-Honduras game. At the final whistle Spain were group winners and it was only after confirming the other score that Chile was sure to be joining them.

Spain has improved in both games since their tepid opener against Switzerland and Villa appears to be on form, which is a dangerous proposition. If Torres finds his form they may end up playing like the favourites we all think they are.

Twice the Pleasure, Twice the Pain

22 06 2010

Spain 2-0 Honduras

Of all the teams coming off disappointing opening matches, none had more explaining to do than Spain. A 1-nil loss to Switzerland had put one of the heavy favourites behind the 8 ball leaving many questions that still needed answers.

Can this team score? Can this team win at the World Cup when it counts? Does this team have any fight? Over the ninety minutes we got a few answers.

With Fernando Torres starting alongside David Villa Spain had its first choice striking partnership and it didn’t take long for their first chance. In the 7th minute Villa unleashed a powerful strike on net that rattled off the woodwork. The net was shaken and so was the Honduran defense as the Spaniards looked like a side waiting to bust out.

Ten minutes later and Spain was on the board thanks to their main man Villa who showed off some world class skill and fancy footwork to fire home a beautiful strike that should end up among the top five goals for this tourney and it was 1-nil or Spain.

In stoppage time Gerard Pique took a ball off the face and collapsed on the field in pain. The viewers and broadcasters thought it was his face. The replay showed otherwise and it was actually a ball off his junk that had him writhing around on the pitch and I can’t blame him.  The English language commentator Dave Woods summed it up best in his play-by-play, “…a little lower than the face. Nonetheless painful.” At the half it was 1-nil. Villa had scored and Pique was back up and standing.

Six minutes after the re-start Villa was on the score sheet for a second time with an outstanding strike from just outside the box that took a deflection into the Honduran net.

For many watching and many in attendance it just felt like Spain was about to get on a wave of momentum and the expectation was that we were about to see a repeat of Portugal and North Korea (or at least Germany and Australia).

In the 54th minute Pique was on the ground for a second time after an errant boot struck his face (and yes, this time it was his face) complete with blood spilling out of his mouth. Just before the one-hour mark Emilio Izaguirre brought down Jesus Navas in the box for the penalty. As if there was any doubt, Vila stepped up to take it and seal his hat trick only for his shot to sail wide keeping the score at 2-nil.

At the final whistle Villa had a pair of goals and a pair of misses. Gerard Piquet had a pair of injuries and Spain had a win. There are still a few questions but they provided a few answers and are back on track heading into the last round of group stage matches. To advance they’ll need a few more goals, a few less misses and might need a few more pains.

This game was watched in the Bloor-Yonge area and I have to say this part of downtown didn’t; seem to be suffering from any World up fever. There were a few people watching the game, but there were no flags and no jerseys. Maybe the people were too focused on work (it is downtown after all) but they have a lot of work to do to catch up with the other neighborhoods. Or maybe downtown needs Canada to do well to celebrate. Hopefully one day we can test that theory.

More Cowbell!!

16 06 2010

Chile 1-0 Honduras

Switzerland 1-0 Spain

It was all Latin encounter when the TV was turned on this morning with Chile taking on Honduras. Outside it was raining like it would in the jungle in Honduras so I was fine watching it without going anywhere. At first glance Honduras versus Chile may not grab everyone’s attention, but for anyone who has visited BMO Field semi-regularly in the last few years this was a game with some interest. If you caught any of Chile’s games there summers ago at the U20 World Cup you may remember a talent side that ended up taking third place. Five of those young stars were fast tracked to the senior national team and on the field in South Africa today. If your interest is more towards Honduras than of course you remember a pair of summers watching the former Toronto FC midfielder Amado Guevara and his mercurial displays. He’d be in the lineup captain the Central Americans.

Besides Guevara my brief knowledge of Honduran soccer was that they reached the World Cup in 1982 and were the final hurdle on Canada’s campaign to qualify for the tournament four years later, It’s nice to see one of those sides had built a strong national side again.

The game kicked off and was played at a decent pace. Chile led in terms of possession and Honduras failed to capitalize on any chances that may have popped up. In the 34th minute some pinball passing by the Chileans created a cross into the Honduran box that was pinballed in of Jean Beausejour. That was all the scoring when the final whistle blew. Chile now has the upper hand on the runners-up spot in Group H since the whole world has basically already given first place to Spain.

Group H (and the entire tournament for that matter) finished its opening games with Switzerland taking on the current European champions from Spain. Besides being European champs, the Spaniards are also a strong favourite to win this World Cup thanks to their form during and after those recent European Championships. Switzerland were, and should have been, firm underdogs going into this match, but if you look at the opening performances of the heavyweights in South Africa you could be allowed to think otherwise.

Argentina had to battle for the full ninety minutes to see off a determined Nigeria. England saw a potential win over the United States slip through Robert Green’s hands. Italy needed a strong second half to salvage a draw with Paraguay and North Korea gave everything it had against Brazil in what ended up being a tight 2-1 victory for the five-time champions rather than a result for the determined Asians. The only side performing to its ability so far amongst the elite was Germany after their 4-0 thrashing of a fairly good Australian side. How would Spain perform?

Is it the unfamiliar setting? Is it pressure? Is it expectations? Is it overconfidence? Or is it that their opposition has been written off for months since the schedule was released so they feel they have nothing to lose at this point that is causing these favourites to play inferior games up until this point? Only the players can answer that, but something is not quite right and Spain fell victim as well.

The Spaniards completely dominated possession and the run of play for the first half, but in a repeat scenario from Brazil from the day before, the teams headed to the locker room scoreless. It would remain that way until the 52nd minute. Yesterday Brazil finally broke free at around this time and scored a goal we all knew was coming, but this time the game was broken open by a Swiss attack and some poor Spanish defending and poor play by usually stalwart keep Iker Casillas. Eren Derdiyok shot on the net only to have it come lose to Gelson Fernandes who put it past the goal line and Switzerland had an unexpected 1-nil lead.

I don’t want to proclaim myself to be some sort of clairvoyant, but I had only just opened up my laptop at this point to type up a few notes about how the favourites were coming up short when this play happened.

Spain brought on recently recovered Fernando Torres in the 61st minute as a substitute, but it wasn’t enough. In the 74th min Derdiyok hit the post and the Swiss almost had a 2-nil cushion. After a generous five minutes of stoppage time the referee blew his whistle for full time and we had our first genuine upset of the tournament. It has to be said Spain have less points than New Zealand and less goals than North Korea. What odds would you have got last week for that scenario? Move over vuvuzelas, the Swiss and their cowbells made some noise today and they may make a little more before the group stage is done.