NO QUARTER GIVEN
Mickey Blue Eyes
When US politicians invade matters footy it is a safe bet the game has made significant advances in the United States of Amnesia. Thus, Tim Howard's instant fame for his fine World Cup display against the Belgians, probably soon to be dismissed to the Uncle Sam memory hole. I say "Yankee" deliberately to piss off all the racist, bible-bashing christian fundamentalist crackpots south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the type who think Robert E. Lee gave up the ghost to communism too quickly in 1865. But good luck to all those admirable Home of the Brave citizens who strive against formidable odds to make the Beautiful Game more popular than guns. We hope civilisation reaches the frontier after two hundred years of no-neck redneck mayhem. Where the Beautiful Game is concerned the US may yet end up with broad smiles from sea to shining sea.
So, to the World Cup quarter finals on Friday and Saturday, four European Teams, three South American teams and one Central American team. Sadly, no African, Asian or Oriental teams to make it an even better spread; but success of the latter is only a matter of time, and the sooner the better.
Starting Friday, France V Germany, old enemies, élan de La France rightly miffed at three lethal assaults in seventy years from les Boches, the latter still as irresistible as Bavarians in a controlled fury. Fireworks looked likely despite the boulevardier air of Didier Deschamps and Joachim Loew's infamous nose-picking. Alas, the most rousing part of the game was matchless revolutionary cadence in La Marseillaise : it stirred the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but sadly not the modern French team. Already the vintage 1998 of Zidane, Vieira and Henry et al is a fading memory. Unfortunately this game was similar to Argentina-Switzerland and just as forgettable. Germany scored a neat headed goal from a free kick a little over ten minutes in, after which the French were unable to lift their game beyond tepid inevitability. At the end Didier sauntered off like a downcast Burlington Bertie while Joachim did a schuhplatler. Well, anything is better than a rerun of der Panzerlied. Thankfully we live in better and more peaceful times.
Then, Brazil V Colombia, and the Colombians with no chance according to "expert" pundits at Copacabana beach...as though the location indicates anything other than ignorance of hygiene. (Did you know, a minimum third of people who swim - depends which statistics you look at - pee or worse when they enter the water? I bring you this gem in case you are tempted to join the plunge in what is effectively a very public toilet in the sea or swimming baths). Brazil scored after five minutes when the Colombian defence went to sleep at a left-side corner and an unmarked centre back knocked it home at the far post. The ITV commentary team of Tyldesley-Townsend immediately wet themselves. Brazil swept forward, more intoxicated than classy, Colombia breaking out when they could, James Rodriguez kicked from pillar to post. Frenetic chances came and went. It had more exciting end-to-end action in the first ten minutes than the France game in its entirety, and so it continued until in the second half Luiz of all people got the second with a speculative, stoppable - should have been stopped - central free kick from thirty metres. Rodriguez pulled one back from a penalty but it was too late. Tragically, Neymar, Brazil's only outstanding player, was carried off with a broken vertebra, which has probably ended the host's chance to win the tournament.
Next day, Argentina V Belgium, the latter again featuring the player formerly known as Felli now as, "That big-haired Belgian gett". How soon people forget. It took the Europeans a quarter hour to make any impression, by which time they were behind to a first class opportunist snap volley made from right of the D courtesy of a lucky rebound off a defender after maestro Messi had set it up from midfield. Argentina looked a different proposition for the opening half hour, much better co-ordinated and forceful in midfield than their dull encounter with the Swiss. This time it was Belgium who looked staccato and niggly. When Argentina hit the bar just after half time it looked as though the weary Belgians had shot their load; in fact their only serious threat was on the hour with a fine if missed header from Big Hair, who promptly moved upfront for the remainder of the game. This was followed by a double substitution that smacked of desperation. It made no difference except for the traditional nervy closing five minutes. Argentina went through. As a passing comment it is worth noting the World Cup experience probably means the Premiership will see an entirely different Big Hair next season.
Afterwards, Holland V Costa Rica, a no-brainer Dutch amble, right? Wrong. Both teams played it tight and gambled on counter attacks, which were frequent and edgy enough to prevent it sinking into too predictable stalemate. Costa Rica was every bit as brave and capable as in previous rounds. It could have gone either way until the Dutch stepped up a gear in the final ten minutes and subjected the enemy goal to a furious bombardment that saw the goal frame struck twice and an array of chances go begging. The South Americans were out on their feet and looked ready for an extra time implosion. Either side could have won it in extra time though the Dutch looked more likely. So to penalties, no way to win, no way to lose.....and Holland took it as expected; but at the end they knew they had been danced with. Gallant Costa Rica deserved so much more.
Unsurprisingly, the quarter finals have not had the all-out excitement of previous rounds. There was a lot at stake...so near yet so far...which meant each game followed a similar pattern of early caution followed by a near-frantic closing phase. Nevertheless, the tournament remains untarnished, the best ever, a packed stadium for every match, impeccably behaved crowds enjoying themselves in full voice. It has taken many years to do it after mindless thuggery of the last century, but here we are. Lucky us.
So now the semi finals line up as Germany V Brazil and Argentina V Holland. The Europeans look the best bet. But given the way the tournament has gone you would be foolish to make book on it. Bring it on. Again.