IT'S A KNOCK-OUT!
Mickey Blue Eyes
World Cup 2014 has completed the round of sixteen knock-out stage. The eight through are: Brazil, Holland, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, Argentina, Germany and Belgium. Congratulations to them all. This time around the major shocks were the welcome progress of underdogs Colombia and Costa Rica, and, most of all, the United States.
I have seen every World Cup tournament since 1954. Even with all quarter finals to play I can say this is the best of them all, a marvellous vintage of open attacking play and generally first rate refereeing. And that includes the wonderful 1970 tournament and its immortal champions, Brazil, and the greatest player I have ever seen, Edson Arantes Dos Nascimento - Pelè. Add in some outstanding TV pictures from Brazilian directors that bring it all to life and the sum total depicts a sport at the very height of its exhilarating appeal. You never want it to end.
Paradoxically, each knock-out match began in cautious mode, unsurprisingly in view of the stakes. But they all picked up as match time wore on and glory or elimination beckoned. Four games went to extra time and two were decided on penalties. Late player-exhausted drama was the norm.
Brazil's 2-1 defeat of Chile was in European-style quick movement and determinism, the exact opposite of everything we expected of the match. Brazil were lucky to survive when a tremendous Chilean effort smacked the face of the crossbar in the closing seconds of full time - and then repeated their good fortune in a penalty shoot out when Chile's final effort struck the inside of a post and rebounded to safety. The host nation strike me as a good team, though nothing special except for Neymar; as usual they have been accompanied by the most absurd media onanism, exactly the sort of thing that brings so much justified criticism on the game.
Colombia's 2-0 victory over pantomime villain, Uruguay, was welcomed by everybody, particularly the Brazilians who hate and fear their near neighbours in equal measure. Why Uruguay play the way they do is a mystery. They have always produced great and skilful players in tandem with the kind of brutishness that would not be out of place in a Saturday night British ale-house. Luis Suárez is merely typical. Meanwhile, Colombia has produced the surprise player of the tournament so far in quicksilver scorer James Rodriguez, leading scorer at the time of writing.
Next up, more Mexico heartbreak when they conceded two goals to Holland in the final two minutes of a necessarily slow match in oppressive heat and humidity. Mexico was in the lead for eighty-eight minutes of superb team play, and only went down to a penalty after raging melodrama and yet another great goalkeeping display by the Mexican 'keeper, Ochoa. The Dutch simply kept plugging away until the end; superior physical fitness told in the end.
Given their undefeated table-topping group stage achievements Costa Rica made unexpected hard work of defeating Greece 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out after extra time, only gained when the Greeks equalised in the final seconds of normal time. But there is no question Costa Rica are the brightest team of the tournament thus far. Had our Bryan Oviedo played they might have been even better.
Germany struggled to contain a marvellously enthusiastic, talented and under rated Algeria. Then as usual they gradually imposed themselves and sealed it deservedly 2-1 - just - in extra time. I have never understood this nonsense about "German/Teutonic efficiency," a phrase that implies they play coldly and without passion; the fact is they play with fluidity and great skill and do the simple things well. Would that England had the same ability.
Argentina against Switzerland was flat, too niggly and tense, too many fouls, passing unforgivably wretched, too many minor feuds. It was the worst game of the tournament thus far. Switzerland were stolid and uninspired and very strong, Argentina unable to lift their play despite Messi's unflagging efforts. A last minute winner after extra time gave it 1-0 to Argentina. Even then the Swiss hit a post with seconds left and then made a hash of a perfectly placed central free kick.
For USA versus Belgium I rooted for the Americans, who I desperately want to commit all their best (not worst) cultural resources to the game and give it a fillip in North America; but incredibly, there are still some neocon US propagandists who say football is "unpatriotic".....well, hopefully the American people will give the nutters a rigid middle finger. Yanks being Yanks, you just know the best of them will be reluctant to miss out on a World Party. The match was a perfect antidote to the previous Argentina game, real end-to-end stuff, the Yanks almost naive in their approach. Still they created the best chances of the first half and should have been in front at the break. You feared for them in the second half when it was likely superior team fitness would carry the day......except it didn't. It was breathless attack and counter attack yet again from both sides, Tim Howard an inspirational hero, Kevin Mirallas a brilliant substitute. The Yanks should have won it with a point blank opportunity in the last minute. But failed. In extra time it went 2-1 to Belgium. At 2-0 you would have thought it was all over; only the Yanks thought otherwise and incredibly almost made it 2-2. When it was all over my favourite US players were DeMarcus Beasley and Michael Bradley, both of whom plied their trade in Europe before returning to the Americas. But on the night all the Yanks were unexpected heroes who scared the Belgians out of their wits. It was a wonderful, wonderful game, the most exciting of the tournament so far, and you wanted to cheer the Yanks to the echo. Great stuff.
So now the quarter finals line up: Brazil V Colombia, France V Germany, Holland V Costa Rica and Argentina V Belgium. I cannot wait. The Beautiful Game in full, marvellous flow. Bring it on.