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.


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.

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.

Once a Winner, Always a Winner

27 06 2010

Uruguay 2-1 South Korea

In terms of winning the World Cup, it seems to be a closed shop. To this point only seven countries can lay claim to the title of World Champions. All seven of those former champions qualified for this tournament, but with heavy favourites Spain in the mix there has been a thought that the club may open it up to a new member. This argument could gain steam thanks to France and Italy bowing out early clearing up a few roadblocks to glory.  If that’s the case then I suppose Uruguay didn’t get the memo.

Uruguay was the first of the exclusive seven to claim the world title winning the inaugural tourney on home soil in 1930 (to go along with Olympic goad medals in 1924 and ’28). They were head and shoulders above the rest of the world and as Brazil, Argentina, Italy and others caught up they remained amongst the elite winning a second World Cup in 1950.  Through out the 50’s and 60’s Uruguay’s top club Penerol was every bit a good as Real Madrid, Benfica, Inter and the other European giants of the era.

By 1970 Uruguay could still field a side capable of making the quarterfinals, but the decline was underway. The next twenty years saw qualification, but early exits. Then it was a trip into the wilderness as they missed out on three out of four World Cups with only a group stage appearance in 2002 to show for their efforts.

Since that win sixty years ago Germany have three titles, Brazil a record five, Argentina have a pair of wins and England and France have lifted the trophy and have looked more of the threats to lift it again before Uruguay. For generations of fans Uruguay’s accomplishments are getting lost. As Spain, Portugal and even the United States are making noise knocking on the doors of the elites, Uruguay has staged an unlikely reappearance in football’s limelight. They were the last team to qualify (needing a disputed late goal against Costa Rica in a playoff) and were certainly not considered a favourite. A somewhat quiet draw in their opener against France didn’t help their cause either. Since then there has been a bit of momentum growing in their camp as they played in their first game in the knockout phase in twenty years.

Uruguay’s main strength coming into the tournament was their forward pairing of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. Forlan was a sensation in scoring a pair of goals against South Africa when they first started to show their intentions. Suarez found the back of the net against Mexico so they were both pulling their weight. Against the South Koreans they teamed up in the 8th minute for the opener. Forlan’s cross in the box brought Jung Sung-Ryong off his line. Both halves of the Korean central defense also stayed out of position leaving Suarez way too open for a player onside. He had the whole net and tonnes of time to slot it in for the one-nil lead.

The Koreans sent the next hour putting in a solid effort to show for it when Lee Chung-Yong was rewarded heading home Ki Sung-Yueng’s free-kick due to Fernando Muslera was also off his line.

It the 80th minute goal keeping fundamentals didn’t help against Suarez. Off Forlan’s corner Suarez curled the shot beautifully into the top corner for what has to be a top five goal of the World Cup. This was the kind of performance a top striker should have. Franck Ribery, Wayne Rooney and others should take notes. 2-1 is how it ended and Uruguay is off to the quarterfinals for the first time in forty years looking every bit the side that reached those heights on a regular basis. If you were a betting man (or woman) before the tournament began you probably would have put money on one of the previous winners, probably just not this one. Like I said the club of former World Cup winners is a closed shop and Uruguay is trying its hardest to keep it that way.

Au Revoir Can’t Come Soon Enough

22 06 2010

Uruguay 1-0 Mexico

South Africa 2-1 France

Thanks to some dodgy dealings between Austria and West Germany back in 1982 (West Germany took the lead after ten minutes and the two sides spent the next eighty minutes passing the ball around aimlessly guaranteeing both sides qualified for the second round, denying Algeria the chance since they’re final game had already been played) we now have simultaneous kickoffs for the final matches in a group.

This meant a busy day in front of the television and the computer taking in a lot of football. Interestingly enough, one of those final group games today featured a scenario similar to that of the West Germans and Austrians twenty-eight years ago. Uruguay kicked off against Mexico in the knowledge that a draw would put both sides through to the round of 16.

Early on the pace of the match resembled a hockey game with attack and counterattack creating chances at both end in quick succession. Maybe it was the fact that Mexico was hoping to win and avoid a likely match up with against Argentina in the next round or there was just a certain amount of pride, but you couldn’t say that both teams were going through the motions for the draw.

Two minutes from the halftime whistle Luis Suarez headed home an Edinson Cavani cross and Uruguay had the lead. The second half settled into a comfort zone as it looked like Uruguay was content with the one goal lead and defended for the remainder of the game. The South Americans celebrated at the final whistle in the knowledge that Group A was theirs.

The Cuauhtemoc Blanco comeback continued as he was given a start for Mexico and named captain for the match. Unfortunately he couldn’t produce the magic from the first two games and couldn’t last the whole ninety, but the Mexican wave rolls on into the Round of 16 so there will be another chance.

Meanwhile the French misadventure came to its merciful end, but so too did the run of the hosts.  In Raymond Domenech’s last game in charge of France they fell 2-1 and bow out of a tournament ending a long goodbye that got weirder and weirder with each chapter.

Domenech led France to a group stage exit at Euro 2008 and even though popular opinion wished he’d have exited as well, he kept his job. In qualifying for the World Cup, France struggled and squeaked into the playoffs finishing second to Serbia. They drew Ireland in those playoffs and had to survive by the skin of their teeth (or at least the skin on their hands) None of these performances helped gain any confidence towards Demenech but he still kept the job. Amid his growing disapproval he announced his resignation once the World Cup was over. Now France had a lame duck coach (and a mediocre lame duck coach at that) yet he still got to keep the job.

A sleepy opening draw against Uruguay followed by a miserable loss to Mexico added to growing dissent within the team and a Nicolas Anelka suspension and yet he still remained coach. What was France expecting to happen today?

Nicolas Anelka has always been a great goal scorer, but temperamental. At Arsenal he was nicknamed Le Sulk. At Real Madrid he was suspended for 45 days after he just refused to continue training one day. He’s always been an enfant terrible but he keeps getting second (or third or fourth) chances. Like keeping Domenech around, what did France think would happen?

Mercifully Bongani Khumalo and Katlego Mphela scored in the first half for South Africa and held on after Florent Malouda pulled one back in the 70th minute but a one goal win wasn’t enough to send Bafana Bafana through and now they have the indignity of being the only hosts to not advance out of the group stage. As a Canadian I can sort of sympathize as we had this stigma regarding our lack of gold medals after hosting two Olympics (thankfully that futility ended in February). As a country we survived so it’s not the end of the world South Africa.

South Africa is Feeling Forlan

16 06 2010

Uruguay 3-0 South Africa

I start with a brief aside. On the subway as I headed downtown for the afternoon game and I kid you not I’m seated between a Chilean fan holding his jersey in his hands and a Swiss fan proudly sporting a national team t-shirt. Every game matters a whole lot to somebody somewhere in this city, which might make it the best place outside of the host country to experience the World Cup I think.

Group A kicked off its second round of games following Switzerland’s upset of Spain with Uruguay taking on South Africa with plenty at stake. Both Group A matches on the opening day ended in draws so there was still lots to play for regarding positioning in this encounter. Having seen the favourites in the tourney play out to various levels of average resulting in draws, tight victories or in Spain’s case a loss, both sides would have felt a strong performance could be in the cards. Unfortunately for the hosts, Uruguay was more on bored with this theory as they ran roughshod over Bafana Bafana 3-0 and threw down the gauntlet in terms of asserting their force over the group after last Friday’s feeling out period.

Diego Forlan stepped up as few elite players have done at this point scoring an early candidate for goal of the tournament thanks to a beautiful strike that only stopped when it rippled the top left corner of the net. While Spain, Portugal, Cote d’Ivoire had failed to score and Brazil and Argentina had relied on goals from secondary sources, it was the Uruguayans who looked to their talisman and he answered.

In the second half Uruguay benefited from a generous call from the referee. South Africa’s keeper Itumeleng Khune challenged the Uruguayan Luis Suarez and yes his studs were up. Yes the foul was in the box and yes there was contact, but only just. It was deemed worthy of a red card and a penalty was awarded. I’m not so sure, but that was the referee’s call. You have to feel for the substitute keeper in this situation. He’s brought on in the middle of the action, he’s cold and his first shot is almost always a penalty. Welcome to the game son. Moneeb Josephs dutifully took his spot on the line and Forlan buried the penalty for his second (and Uruguay’s second) of the day. South Africa was beaten but Uruguay managed to rub a little salt into the wound with a third goal in stoppage time courtesy of Alvaro Pereira. Now the hosts face an uphill struggle if they are to progress. We’ll have to see what happens between France and Mexico tomorrow and we’ll have to see if there is any magic in those vuvuzelas for Bafana Bafana if they are to take a place in the knockout phase.

There may have only been a couple dozen people at the James Joyce Pub on Bloor Street (where their classic burger and pan fries at $4.00 may be the best food value if you’re watching games downtown), but one woman in attendance was from Uruguay. Although she could only stay for the first half she made her presence felt. Like I said, every game matters a whole lot to somebody somewhere in this city.

A Tale of Two Draws

12 06 2010

South Africa 1-1 Mexico

Uruguay 0-0 France

In football the difference between a scoreless draw and one in which there were goals scored is enormous. Case in point, the two results from today that opened up the 2010 World Cup.  South Africa and Mexico had me interested right up until the final whistle. This might have had something to do with Siphiwe Tshabalala’s beautiful 55ht minute goal to open the tournament’s scoring. It might also have has something to do with the fact that later on at 1-1 both sides were pressing on for that go-ahead goal and either side looked like it could happen (in South Africa’s case it was a near miss in the 90th minute as Katlego Mphela beat Oscar Perez but couldn’t beat the post for what would have been a “miracle on grass” finish). Given South Africa’s passion and Mexico’s possession on the field I felt a draw was a fair result. The day’s second game between France and Uruguay became bogged down at some point and played itself out with a draw seemingly inevitable.

Back a couple of seasons ago Toronto FC played host to the rain and the San Jose Earthquakes. On a dreary afternoon both sides slogged out a scoreless draw that left many in attendance hoping for a whole lot more (and a sunnier forecast for the next day).  Flash forward a few weeks at it was the New England Revolution’s turn to pay BMO Field a visit. On a balmy evening TFC and the Revs played out a 1-1 draw for 90 thrilling minutes with intensity not too far off from that on the field of the impressive Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg today.  Much like the Mexicans and South Africans, both sides went full out trying to score the winner. Later that week Canada and Jamaica were involved in a qualifier for this very tournament on the same pitch. Again it was 1-1 and again there was intensity and thrill-a-minute football (maybe if one of those sides had scored a winner the might have had some momentum and even qualified for the World Cup?).

Two players that impressed me today were South Africa’s goalkeeper Itumelong Khuwe and Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Khuwe came up huge with a pair of highlight saves that went a long way in keeping this game a draw. Blanco came on as a substitute in the 69th minute and quarterbacked the attack from the midfield with some quality service. Rafael Marquez’s 79th minute equalizer originated from Blanco’s delivery. His appearance sparked the Mexicans and if he can last a half or more in his 37 year old legs Mexico might think of starting him in their next game.

Given that France and Uruguay played out a match with so few chances both Mexico and South Africa will feel they have a shot to grab a hold of this group in the days ahead.