Sunday, July 11, 2010

"The reign in Spain falls mainly on the plain..."

... and they all lived happily ever after.
Thrillingly enjoyable as this entire tournament has been, one worry nagged away as the days, hours, minutes dwindled before the final kick-off.
All memories could be spoiled, or at least slightly tainted… should Spain somehow contrive, yet again, not to triumph.

Okay, an admission: that’s just a cut-and-paste job, from my final reflections on the Euro 2008 final, though sentiments remain the same two years on.
Perhaps the Spanish, while by far the classiest and finest team here, have been a little more halting – even frustrating – en route to becoming world champions for the first time.
Like France in 2000, the last team to combine both world and European titles, the performances second time around have been a little slow-ish at points – but eventually relentless, inarguable and of the glossiest high-quality finish.
Yet it took yet another late rescue by the cherishable Andres Iniesta tonight to save us from a fate far worse than had, say, Germany somehow won in Vienna two years ago.
Heading into the final minutes of extra-time, at the end of a disappointing if not unwatchable World Cup final, the horrible prospect of the depressing Dutch stealing victory on penalties loomed large.
Joachim Low’s 2008 European Championship team were nowhere near so refreshing and at least pulse-racingly counter-attacking at this summer’s model.
Yet it would have seemed a travesty had they taken the European crown, just because Spain were such a pleasure to watch, envy but savour.
Bert van Marwijk’s Dutch team tonight, however, made Germany 2008 look like the Corinthian Casuals by comparison – a brutal, mean-spirited side with little intention to win by fair means instead of foul.
In fact, they didn’t seem too anxious about winning at all, save for the occasional dangerous break by Arjen Robben against an understandably-nervous Spanish defence.
Whizzkid Dutch substitute Eljero Elia, who played with an enjoyably breezy spirit in his first cameo against Denmark, was reduced to trudging back into his own half in desperate search of the ball tonight.
As for the Dutch clogs ... too many to mention, let alone for Howard Webb to keep immaculate track of, and he and his officials found themselves booed by both sets of fans.
Perhaps he could have stamped his authority – rather more constructively than the stamp of Dutch boots – earlier in the game, the very first minute indeed and the first violent rake by Robin van Persie.
The sudden spate of yellow cards he flashed midway through the first half might have been an attempt to let both sides know he’d stand no more nonsense – but if intended to calm any tetchiness, the effort backfired.
Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong could both have been off by half-time for their inexplicably reckless offences, and presumably they might well have been in a run-of-the-mill Premiership match.
Sending them off tonight would probably, though, have provoked protests that Webb had prematurely ‘ruined’ the biggest fixture in world football.
He had a tough task, and perhaps made himself look uncertain and manipulable in the eyes of some players – but it is the players themselves, the Dutch specifically, who should reflect with shame on a bad night out.
Little wonder Van Marwijk was so reluctant to talk tactics in the build-up to the final.
Thankfully, Spanish style triumphed in the end – and that it was the ever-modest Iniesta, as against Chelsea two years ago, who proved elusive enough before popping up in the right place. At the right time too, managing the latest ever winning strike in World Cup final history.
Diego Forlan has just been announced as winner of the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player, a split vote beneficiary of the failure by the likes of Villa or Sneijder to dominate this evening.
The pair of holding midfielders persisted with Vicente del Bosque again tonight perhaps meant Villa was a little too isolated at times.
Spanish composure and passing around midfield is delectable as ever, and Xavi’s probing, movement and simple creativity confirmed for him my Golden Ball vote (no doubt he’s delighted).
Yet after an exhilarating opening 20 minutes, in which Spain seemed determined to confront bored critics by playing their usual way but a few gears faster, the actual penetrative service to the striker dried up a little.
No doubt the Dutch ‘tactics’ made it difficult for the Spanish to advance, whether through that narrow, cramped block around the defence – or the persistent, disruptive fouling, by turns petty and menacing.
Despite missing one extra-time sitter after replacing Alonso, Cesc Fabregas did at least increase Spanish influence further up the pitch – making a mark for the first time in his (tentative) tournament, and helping move the ball between Holland’s rigid defensive lines.
The winner, when it came, brought instinctive cries of delight and relief even across the Press box, tears from Iker Casillas and a fittingly ‘job-well-done’ conclusion to South Africa’s showcase.
The closing ceremony beforehand had been entertaining – and entertainingly concise – with its trudging white elephants (a risky image, in one of the huge new stadia), and the inevitable Shakira.
Though someone might have advised her on how to dress more aptly, considering just how chilly this evenings here turn.
The hoarsest cheers, of course, were for very special guest Nelson Mandela, who hardly looked like a man under duress as he took a scoot around the pitch in a car, and dapper Russian hat.
Relief, and joy, and admiration, and relief again were resounded across this spectacular Soccer City stadium as he made his World Cup debut at the last – before hurrying home to watch the game on television.
A wise man, perhaps, as it turned out – he might even have been tempted to start hopping the channels.
Drab as the first 90 minutes certainly were, the final was eventually compelling enough – though the Dutch violence was off-putting, and the quality of passing and especially finishing not quite up to hopes and expectations for such a grand occasion.
Yet no one appeared to care very much as the Spanish got through a clumsy trophy presentation by Sepp Blatter and sent the cup, like the fireworks, rocketing skywards above Iker Casillas’ ever-reliable arms.

Amid the exploding showers of golden glitter, the air was also heavy with dawning revelations.
Yes, just now someone’s only gone and won the World Cup. No matter how heavily-trailed and much-anticipated the moment, an immense lurch from one era to another can indeed be captured and and absorbed in one melodramatic moment.
And yes, this particular show’s now over – the planning, the partying, the fretting, the forecasting, the concerns and the carnival, the expecting and the enjoying.
The beautifully aptly-named Soccer City, so long – it’s been beyond a pleasure.
Some treasures of people put this party on – and yes, once more in the end, some good guys won.

"This time for Africa..."

WHATEVER you might have heard, not all South Africans brought vuvuzelas to games - even if sometimes they’ve felt as must-have as a pair of holding midfielders.
One odd stadium sight was a jitterbug fan in Bloemfontein, manically parping on a referee’s whistle while furiously flourishing a red card in bemused spectators’ faces.
And wearing a placard on a string around his neck, and a customised T-shirt, both begging God’s blessing upon Sepp Blatter for bringing the World Cup to South Africa.
Not for this fan the bootleg clothing produced elsewhere, bearing slogans such as ‘Fick Fufa’ or ‘MAFIFA: we own the game’ in protest at world football’s governing body and its often-clumsy commercial might.
No, he was purely, evangelically grateful to have the World Cup brought to his country, one for so long justly scorned for its retrograde racism - yet more recently suspected of not quite being fit for modern convenience.
Like the whistle-blasting Blatter fan – by turns irritating yet endearing – this has been a tournament of, if not necessarily contradictions, then at least a bemusing blend of rights and wrongs.
After the – warning, crashing cliché ahead – pristine efficiency of Germany’s World Cup four years ago, with its super-connected rail routes and throbbing city centres, South Africa 2010 was always going to be a more ramshackle and uncertain experience.
That charm and sheer difference was, of course, a large part of the attraction in what was admittedly a daring and courageous decision by Fifa – and for which the determined Sepp himself deserves credit.
Staging Africa’s first World Cup has proved more than merely symbolic, though that symbolism itself can breed not only national confidence but inward investment and beneficial social change.
Even the most ardent football fan, however, must have felt some jarring discomfort at times.
Say, when shuttling to extravagantly-built or revamped World Cup stadia past the sprawling, tented townships fogged in dual carriageway dirt – shuffled away from the logo-soaked safe tourist centres, yet not always quite out of sight.
This remains a country where rife corruption remains, to the benefit of well-connected business and political elites – both white and black – while too many schools, sanitation and above all public housing remain squalidly neglected.
Unemployment has risen to 25.2 per cent – soon to soar even further as the World Cup construction boom crumbles – while an estimated one in five people are living with HIV, hardly helped by years of healthcare under-funding and Aids denialism on high.
Tournament organisers have spent the weekend acclaiming crime rates lower than expected, despite a handful of high-profile thefts suffered by tourists, journalists and even squads such as England’s and Spain’s.
Much pre-World Cup doom-mongering about rampant gangs, dozens of murders a day and at the very least a pickpocket on every corner went well over the top, as events – or non-events – have now shown.
Most visitors have been kept not just well aware of what precautions to take, but also well away from the ‘no-go zones’ which South Africa’s middle-class, gated communities prefer to pretend not to notice.
Those criminals who have been caught have been both prosecuted and punished in quickfire, no-holds-barred fashion.
The mobile ‘World Cup courts’ established at Fifa’s behest have been handing out summary sentences of several years in jail for even minors thefts, such as swiping someone’s mobile phone or branded umbrella.
While there has been some unease about South Africa’s government changing and introducing its own laws to please Fifa, the crackdown has been widely welcomed – and the ‘World Cup courts’ look set to stay once the football has long finished.
Fifa and the tournament’s organising committee have scored their own own goals at times, too.
Aside from Blatter’s dilly-dallying over goal-line technology, no flip-flop was perhaps more needlessly embarrassing than the affair of the Bavaria Beer girls and their orange miniskirts.
Here, illustrated in conveniently photogenic form, was the counter-intuitive compulsion in Fifa and their lucrative official sponsors to not just make a decent buck from the World Cup – but seek to crush anyone with the audacity to hop on board the bandwagon.
The renegade brewer itself hardly suffered, knowing (almost) all publicity is good publicity.
But little similar solace came the way of those street-traders, native cooks or factory workers who had hoped to actually contribute and cash in on a World Cup in their own backyard for a change.
In all the fuss over the vuvuzela as the emblem of South Africa’s World Cup, green-tinged leopard mascot Zakumi has been shoved to the sidelines.
It’s perhaps even more emblematic that, far from being the must-buy toy souvenir of the tournament both here and overseas, Zakumi has been most ubiquitous as a corporate schill in adverts for Visa and telecoms giant MTN.
On the eve of the tournament, Fifa proudly announced annual profits smashing the $1million barrier for the first time, and will pocket an estimated £2.1billion from South Africa’s World Cup.
It’s hard to argue when such revenues come from marketing and TV firms who know all too well just how eagerly and vastly a worldwide audience devours a World Cup.
Then again, the football governing body’s profits are about half as much as the price paid by South African taxpayers to host Fifa’s party.
Tourist body estimates this weekend tentatively suggest foreign visitors might have pumped £1billion back into the local economy thanks to this summer’s football festival.
Such sustenance will certainly come in handy – if redirected properly – as a post-World Cup hangover of further job losses looms, especially with fears of renewed xenophobic violence in the air.
But while those who toiled to complete the vital infrastructure (just about) in time may now find themselves cast aside, albeit having scored a couple of free World Cup match tickets, at least their contributions have been literally set in stone.
World Cup-aided infrastructure is now in place, including improved highways, dazzling stadia which will have to fend off ‘white elephant warnings, and the over-budget – and almost-finished – Pretoria-Johannesburg ‘Gautrain’ railway, to be enjoyed by business commuters at least.
Schools and healthcare projects will also have been boosted, if not by direct government funding then the grass-roots efforts of voluntary organisations perhaps spurred on by the World Cup spotlight.
Such benefits come with price-tags attached – yet calculating this World Cup’s success in cold hard cash sums alone seems too reductive by far.
Trying to calculate at all, in fact, ignores the vast intangible feelgood factor involved – not simply for these five weeks of celebration, or ‘Ayoba’, but the long-lasting impact of having staged this tournament, made this statement.
The end-of-tournament report card could be written in purely ‘negative positives’, so to speak.
After all the hype, there was no al-Qaeda attack. Foreign visitors were not slaughtered in scores, whether by terrorists or more mundane local murderers. All venues were ready on time, none collapsing – only occasionally looking a little too under-filled.
The worst security mishap was not some explosive outrage, but an England fan stumbling his way to the toilet and somehow confronting team mascot David Beckham and his abject pals – an omen of just how easy German forwards would find breaking through the England defence.
And no players fell prey to the rumoured snake with enough venom in his tongue to do for two 23-man squads, as some tabloid reports hysterically predicted – though perhaps only for the sake of a ‘They think it’s all cobra’ headline.
(At the time of my writing this, anyway – apologies if the Dutch and Spanish squads have perished by poison overnight.)
Yet patronisingly judging South Africa 2010 by what mercifully hasn’t happened doesn’t feel quite right either.
A common refrain from locals, both black and white, has been how ‘unifying’ the experience has felt – some even going so far as to put it above Nelson Mandela’s release and the official anointing of a new ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Despite the vast advances in just two decades, attempts to pin down a shared South African identity appear to have frustrated many – until now.
Much has been written about football being the game of South Africa’s black majority, snubbed by the white community favouring rugby instead.
Rugby had its Invictus breakthrough with the 1995 rugby World Cup and Mandela’s determination to make it an occasion for all.
Only now, however, might football be gaining a reciprocal effect.
In new football stadia or borrowed rugby arenas, eager faces of all colours have worn makarapa helmets or novelty glasses, or been found on the end of blasting/blasted vuvuzelas.
As it should be, of course, but still surprising to some South Africans themselves.
‘Shapa Bafana Bafana’ was the rallying cry at the start of the tournament and the eruption of joy when Siphiwe Tshabalala opening this World Cup’s goalscoring – only the fifth time the hosts have ever done so – will linger long in the memory. In the eardrums, it’s maybe only now beginning to fade.
The 3-0 defeat to Uruguay came as a shock to the local system, and newspaper letter-writers still seem fiercely divided over whether Carlos Alberto Parreira deserves sympathy or scorn for not quite making the second round.
That first-round exit is a piece of unwanted history for the hosts, though the USA had worse results in 1994 only to squeak through to the knock-out stages under different rules.
But the Bloemfontein victory over France offered some valediction, as did the vivacity with which flags were still hoisted high – whether South Africa’s or, in the fellow-feeling days ahead, Ghana’s.
The South African players’ open-top bus tour through the crammed streets of Sandton, the day before the big kick-off, might have felt a little hubristic – or, conversely, unambitious, in acknowledging this might prove just ‘as good as it gets’.
Yet it did make a point, from the very start, of trying to bring the World Cup party to the people, a communal spirit so stubbornly resisted by the English camp in their Rustenburg luxury isolation.
Perhaps if England’s sulks had made more of an effort to engage with actual South Africa, Wayne Rooney might not have made such a churlish fool of himself with his boo-boy-baiting tantrum.
Maybe they might not have performed any more coherently, but then, Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk has made much of his team’s throbbing Johannesburg base – while managing to stick around until today’s Soccer City showdown, inflammable egos (so far) kept in check.
This chilly winter World Cup has offered the warmest of welcomes – everywhere smiles, politeness and enthusiasm to just chat about anything, just so long as it’s football.
Even those on security duty at the stadia themselves have been hail-fellow-well-met – for the most part, anyway – whether those under-contract, under-paid stewards or the police hordes brought in at times as replacements.
The walk-outs at four stadia – Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, Durban’s Moses Mabhida, Cape Town’s Green Point and Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay – actually made negligible difference to those making their way in and out of matches.
The most damaging impact was on the exploited staff themselves, paid even less than the meagre amounts first promised.
Again, the affair said little for billion-dollar boasters Fifa, who depressingly battled harder to pass the buck than step in and speak up for those toiling to keep their own show on the road.
Hard-working ordinary Africans, that is, those supposed to be this World Cup’s biggest winners – or, at least, the most gratified.
But just try taking away from what’s been done – what’s been, above all, fun. Three million people have made it through the turnstiles and helped make this a World Cup experience to remember and cherish.
A World Cup experience that really has been like no other.
Some 700million worldwide should tune in to tonight’s climax, many of whom may have gained only limited impression of what it’s meant to be here, or have the World Cup here, beyond that inevitable, incessant soundtrack drone.
For many, the World Cup will live on most in TV replays of Forlan, Villa or even unlucky Lampard strikes, or raging debates about where England, Italy or Brazil go from here, whether 4-4-2 can rise again or how to play like Spain rather than Switzerland.
But as pumped-up politicians here set set ambitious sights on the 2020 or 2024 Olympics, while London senses all attention now turning to our own, South Africa can reflect with relief on this summer’s refreshing success.
For all the fears, South Africa 2010 has been a declaration of not just competence but confidence, an exhilirating setting for that most seriously frivolous and frivolously serious pursuit of all: football.
And now that real referee’s whistle has finally blown, Sepp, Fifa and the World Cup-watching world can give some thanks back to South Africa for that.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"And so, the end is near..."

A few flippant thoughts/awards - more serious(-ish) reflections to come...

Best goal: Siphiwe Tshabalala’s tournament opener set the vibrant tone, even if Kagisho Dikgacoi soon abandoned the intricate through-passing for simply kicking people.
Best shot: David Villa’s opportunistic curler against Chile, Carlos Tevez’s (onside) effort versus Mexico, or Wesley Sneijder’s semi-final strike that didn’t go in – but did wallop into his pal Robin van Persie.
Worst miss: Durban-born Chilean Mark Gonzalez’s gravity-defying loft with the scores 0-0 against Spain, finishing worthy of the ‘Bafana Bafana’ instead.

Coaches most in need of a decent night’s sleep: Honours even between Slovakia’s Vladimir Weiss, Ghana’s Milovan Rajevac and Paraguay’s Gerard Martino, each looking like they’ve lived a hard life – or at least hard living the night before. Punchy Weiss even invited a journalist outside, Rajevac appears a contender to play Rigsby in a Rising Damp remake, and Martino rivals for Jose Antonio Camacho as ‘World’s Sweatiest Manager’.

Best stadium: The spectacularly modern Moses Mabhida in Durban or the grittily old-fashioned Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
Worst stadium: The Royal Bafokeng in Rustenburg – maybe it’s the surrounding roads and their puncture-causing potholes. Or the surrounding athletics track and the distance from the pitch. Or just the ordeal of watching England play the USA.

Best vuvuzela use: The fan watching Cameroon-Denmark who somehow managed to make his sound like the ominous stabs of saxophone from Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver soundtrack.
Worst vuvuzela use: The Argentine hooligans caught using theirs to store grenades.

Least likely midfield destroyer: Ghana’s hard-working – if hardly intimidating – Anthony Annan. Looking like you might as well play Lionel Messi or Shaun Wright-Phillips in the holding role., And you won’t often find those two together in the same sentence.

Best parkers of the bus: Switzerland, obviously. Though the South African team coach that got stuck in Sandton traffic, almost delaying the opening match, came close.

Most misleading omen: The incessant airings of ‘God Save The Queen’ in the empty Soccer City stadium, a day before the tournament began.
Most out-of-touch officials: Fifa delegates meeting on the eve of the tournament tried testing their electronic voting pads with the simple question, are Italy the defending world champions? Seven voted no. Though by the end of the first round, it was easy to forget – or at least hard to believe.

Impartial punditry: The US journalist in the Rustenburg media centre before his compatriots kicked off against America - tucking into a sandwich while wearing full Captain America costume.

Most baffling imagery: Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning midfield craftsman Gerson condemned Dunga, saying: ‘He couldn’t train a team of bottle-tops.’ What?

Worst penalty run-up: John Mensah, the struggling gait of an arthritic.
Best penalty run-up: Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the long-distance surge of a fast bowler.
Finest-quality penalties: The shoot-out between Miss World contestants representing the eight quarter-finalists, swapping world peace for World Cup aspirations. Or else, (almost) all those taken by Japan and Paraguay - pity about the 120 minutes beforehand.

Most popular substitutes: Blanco, Stephen Appiah, and Cesc Fabregas, cheered wildly for each cameo.
Least popular substitutes: Thierry Henry, booed roundly in Bloemfontein – even though the place’s alternative name, Mangaung, does mean ‘land of the cheetahs’.

Clearest refereeing decision actually given correctly: Argentina’s disallowed goal against Germany, with almost as many players caught offside as Maradona picked during qualifiers. Or the several handballs given against a Serbia team who appeared to believe we were playing ‘rush-goalie’.

Moral dilemma man of the moment: Luis Suarez. Not necessarily for his handball – and revelries – against Ghana, but his reckless leap into the photographers’ pit after scoring against South Korea. Yes, someone could have been scalped – but then again, they were only snappers.

Richest hypocrites: Diego Maradona complaining about Luis Fabiano’s handball, Dunga whingeing about Ivory Coast’s persistent fouling, and Bastian Schweinsteiger raising eyebrows at Argentine play-acting.

Modesty blazers: Felipe Melo, daftly nonchalant even after single-handedly (and single-headedly, and single-stamping-footedly) destroying his own team Brazil – insisting he would have deserved ten out of ten had Brazil gone on to win, but was adjusting himself down to a (still-generous) six.
Or Nicolas Bendtner, who got very uppity at Sebastian Bassong almost tugging his shirt off. Presumably because he prefers publicly undressing himself.

England’s success of the tournament: Michael Dawson. While team-mates griped about being bored, he actually got out and about and visited local townships and a deprived youngster he sponsored. When not sitting happily in his hotel room, contented with colouring books.
England’s failure of the tournament: Amid a crowded field, expectations multiplied by abjectness must mean Wayne Rooney. It’s nice to see your own players boring you.
England’s gravest mistake: Taking too few Tottenham players – Jermain Defoe’s goal against Slovenia was Spurs’ 184th for England, more than any other club. The six in the squad could and should have been bolstered by the likes of Huddlestone. Jenas. Woodgate. Hoddle, Roberts, Perryman, Peters, Chas, Dave…

Saddest shadows of their former fab(io) selves: Cannavaro and Capello, neither one any longer quite so cool and composed.
Breaths of fresh air: Thomas Müller, a Platt-style poacher who also showed the baffling good grace to shake hands with the ref who had foolishly ruled him out of the semi-final. Slovakia’s troublesome target-man Robert Vittek, who left Italy clueless – only to be left clubless by former employers Lille. Japan’s Jabulani-taming Keisuke Honda.

Fashion statements of the season: Ghana’s Melchester Rovers tribute kit, those orange miniskirts, or the anti-authority T-shirts bearing slogans such as ‘Fick Fufa’ or ‘MafiFa: We own the game’.

Jauntiest anthems: The trilling trumpets of Brazil’s, or the emphatic climax to Paraguay’s, the kind that really does demand fireworks – and picnic hampers – on a summer’s evening in the park.

Hissiest fit: Perhaps the dust-up a mere 15 seconds into USA-Slovenia, prompted by an errant Clint Dempsey elbow. Or else Garth Crooks’s petulant prima donna act, when trying to wrench Howard Webb from a pack of print hacks.

Cheekiest chutzpah: The Argentine hooligans – yes, more – who were staying at a Christian studies college in Pretoria before being raided and deported. Or the Argentine centre-back Martin Demichelis, taunting John Terry by saying he wouldn’t be allowed home if he defended as the ex-England captain had done against Germany. After Demichelis’ own performance against the same opposition, his plane’s presumably still hovering, the pilot told to go round (the world) again.

Shoddiest pre-World Cup predictions: Brazil to win, Italy to reach the final, and North Korea to hold Portugal goalless... At least David Villa could still win the Golden Boot – though not with two separate hat-tricks, as I had also suggested.

Best games: Slovakia 3 Italy 2, Ghana 1 Uruguay 1, Spain 1 Germany 0. And Denmark 2 Cameroon 1, proof a game can be awesome despite – or perhaps due to – both teams being awful.
Biggest regrets: Not being able to attend Argentina games. Being able to attend England games. The fact it’s now almost all over.

Team of the tournament (elite): Neuer (Germany); Lahm (Germany), Heitinga (Netherlands), Puyol (Spain), Fucile (Uruguay); Müller (Germany), Schweinsteiger (Germany), Sneijder (Netherlands); Iniesta (Spain), Forlan (Uruguay), Villa (Spain).
Almost team of the tournament (second tier): Kingson (Ghana); Maicon (Brazil), Nelsen (New Zealand), Carvalho (Portugal), Salcido (Mexico); Donovan (USA), Annan (Ghana), Vidal (Chile); Messi (Argentina), Vittek (Slovakia), Robinho (Brazil).
Anti-team of the tournament: Chaouchi (Algeria); Cha Du-Ri (South Korea), Mokoena (South Africa), Bassong (Cameroon), Evra (France); Barry (England); Kewell (Australia), Marchisio (Italy), Felipe Melo (Brazil); Rooney (England), Anelka (Brazil).

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"I'm the Durban spaceman, baby..."

ANDRES Iniesta had predicted this would be a ‘beautiful battle’, but perhaps the interpreter should have translated that as ‘attractive attrition’.
Seldom can wearing an opponent relentlessly down be as compelling as Spain make it, despite what a tentatively-restless backlash from some quarters might be suggesting.
Another 1-0 win, with the goal coming late, tonight put Spain into their first World Cup final – ensuring a new name would be on the trophy at the end of their game against the Netherlands on Sunday.
Yet unlike previous underwhelming performances this summer, this win over Germany – the second half especially – suggested tiki-taka is finally ticking over just right.
The goal that put Spain in their first World Cup final might have been rather basic, when it came.
Carles Puyol’s header was about as emphatic as can be, walloping the ball into the net and almost sending opponents – and team-mates – splaying all the way with it.
A few late crosses aside, Germany had little answer – either to the goal or Spain’s overall control.
Vicente del Bosque’s side looked classy and composed all over, with Sergio Busquets getting everywhere – but always usefully, this time – and Xavi gradually re-locating his range.
Germany’s counter-attacking was contained, with Lahm and Boateng kept pinned back and Ozil either kept isolated between Klose and the four-man midfield or else pickpocketed by the busy Busquets.
At times this summer Spain’s lovely passing has lacked a little joy – as if, while retaining the first ‘slow-slow’ part, they’d mislaid somehow the following ‘quick-quick’ bit.
That looked again the case during the first half, though the passing was mostly shorter and a little less sloppy in earlier matches.
Pedro’s inclusion for the infirm and out-of-form Fernando Torres suggested a little more width in the Spanish attack, and he did keep dizzyingly switching positions with both Andres Iniesta and David Villa up-front.
Yet the Spanish midfield and attack were willing to pack tight for much of the time too, especially whenever Germany tried to break out from their own defence.
The German full-backs had little space to manoeuvre, Piotr Trochowski contributed little – certainly none of the prolific peskiness of Thomas Mueller – and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s compound role tonight involved plenty more tackling than attacking.
Villa could be seen losing his rag as Xavi, Iniesta or Pedro would fail by inches to quite find the right through-pass, but the second half brought a little more pace and precision.
And two thrilling minutes on the hour mark could have brought Spain three goals, the high-point being Xabi Alonso’s backheel, Iniesta’s nimble dribble and the agonising whistle of ball just beyond Villa’s studs.
Here was football no longer simply easy on the eye, and fodder for the brain – but also enough to send the heart surging into the mouth.
Which now waters at the thought of a truly colourful Sunday ahead.
Following, of course, Saturday’s contractual obligation, that at least gives retro-philes a Seventies World Cup rematch after all - just not a repeat of the ’74 final, but the third-place play-off from four years earlier.
By contrast, the Spanish and Dutch have never clashed at a World Cup before – perhaps apt, when hearing the King of Spain tributes in the Netherlands’ national anthem.
Spain’s, of course, is lyric-less – despite witless wordsmiths’ valiant efforts in recent years.
But if their players can improve even on tonight’s slick display, then Wesley Sneijder will have to be at his decisive best – or Mark Van Bommel his destructive worst – if the Dutch aren’t to be the ones struck dumb.

"Beside the seaside, beside the sea..."

THE ATTRACTIVE arch under which Spain and Germany play tonight makes Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium a little like Wembley.
The three years flat in which the city’s old venue was knocked down and the new one knocked up rather ends the resemblance.
It was a bit of a frantic rush job to top them out in time, but South Africa’s World Cup stadia have proved finer – and longer-lasting – performers than the host nation’s players.
The big question now is: how can they be filled in future?
After all, it’s been trouble enough filling them for World Cup semi-finals – though any orange seats empty this Sunday should at least blend in with the crowd.
Soccer City in Johannesburg is already planning for a future that involves not just international football, but domestic rugby.
The country’s most popular rugby club, the Blue Bulls, contested one pre-World Cup match in the stadium.
In return, the national ‘Bafana Bafana’ football team prepared for the competition with a friendly at the Blue Bulls’ apparently-iconic home, Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld.
Now the national rugby heroes, the Springboks, are lining up a Soccer City clash with New Zealand's All Blacks next month - perhaps bringing with them the ‘penalty goals’ some felt should have been awarded there when Luis Suarez handballed.
Compared to the sleek yet slightly insipid new stadia at Polokwane and Rustenburg, the old-fashioned rugby grounds ‘borrowed’ for this tournament have offered some of the most exciting vibes.
Wasted on rugby, really.
Loftus Versfeld and Johannesburg’s Ellis Park may lack modernistic elegance, but do boast bulk, straight lines and intensity.
Plus, they don’t double up with already-existing oval-ball strongholds, unlike the controversial new – but Table Mountain-friendly - World Cup stadium in Cape Town and its neglected neighbour Newlands.
The Moses Mabhida, on the other hand, is both spectacular and spine-tingling - while also fitting into a coherent forward plan for sporting showcases.
The ground sits just across the road from international rugby and athletics venues, part of the Kings Park sporting complex – and just a few Kevin Pietersen slogs from the Sahara Stadium that staged the 2003 cricket World Cup.
Little wonder that now a newly-confident South Africa is talking up an Olympics bid, Durban looks the most likely local candidate for 2020 or 2024.
That cluster of top-class sporting venues is even more compact than Stratford’s 2012 Olympic park (and without the threat of West Ham wanting to squat).
And while Brazil’s footballers have this month found themselves playing at 3C in Johannesburg and 25C in Cape Town, Durban in August is one of the surer bets for August Olympic sunshine.
Even if today’s unseasonally snippy winds and grey drizzle made the genteel architecture and palm-lined seafront feel less like Marine Parade, Durban - more Marine Parade, Worthing.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"Gold against the soul..."

AFTER the curse of ‘Goldenballs’ might have struck his England pals – and Andy Murray – a different Golden Ball jinx looms over those in Soccer City this Sunday.
At the last three World Cups, the man voted best player has suffered a memorably forgettable final – making Fifa’s post-match announcement more poignant than triumphant.
In 1998, it was Ronaldo, suffering a fit before his Brazil offered pitiful resistance to the French.
Four years later he thrived as Germany’s Golden Ball – and Golden Gloves – winning goalkeeper Oliver Kahn turned butterfingers at the last.
And in 2006 Zinedine Zidane, having hauled even a Raymond Domenech-led France to the final, then butted them back out of the reckoning against Italy.
The rush to anoint this summer’s stand-out star has been frenetic from the start.
Pity poor Keisuke Honda, Alexis Sanchez or even Lionel Messi, as early bouquets brutally withered in popular consensus – or the unpopular Press.
Germany, whatever Wednesday night’s result, can at least count on a second successive prize for best young player.
Four years ago Lukas Podolski’s three goals, glimmers of brilliance and home favouritism put him above a scratchy field of Antonio Valencia, Cristiano Ronaldo and, er, that’s about it.
This time he and 25-year-old, 78-cap Bastian Schweinsteiger are almost gnarly elder statesmen in a German side faced with slicing the statuette in half for Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil.
But Mueller’s absence this evening is doubly unfortunate –semi-finals are the games that help clinch the bigger, round baubles, good news for Schweinsteiger or Spain’s David Villa.
Better news for Wesley Sneijder, who may have again been quiet for patches of tonight’s win over Uruguay – despite starting the first half of the first half in startlingly tenacious, pressing mood – but got good and slightly lucky with another crucial goal.
(Nice of his pal Robin van Persie to leave the ball, as it passed … if that’s indeed what he meant. Or if indeed it was legal. Both points debatable.)
Sadder news for Diego Forlan, whose passing looked a little off at times this evening, but who cut a dashing figure throughout even while shoved further forward and deprived of Luis Suarez – and scored with another swooshing shot, aided a little by a goalkeeper’s limp wrist.
Alternative contenders who seem surprisingly popular here in South Africa include usually-unfashionable full-backs such as Germany’s hollow-eyed Philipp Lahm or Spain’s wild-eyed Sergio Ramos.
He was a rare subdued Spaniard at Euro 2008, but has been a rampaging asset here – pause for thought, perhaps, for even Jose Mourinho as he ponders shifting him back into the middle in Madrid.
Other outsiders could yet include Iker Casillas, after that penalty save against Paraguay proved Sara Carbanero’s not his only impressive catch.
But he’d presumably prefer to lift another gold prize instead – and show he can do what Oliver Kahn couldn’t.
Today’s long drive south to Durban – from bitter to balmy, scorched fields to verdant valleys, mountainous heights to ear-popping sea level – evoked more memories of that 2006 tournament.
If only because after passing familiar-sounding places such as Heidelberg or Frankfort, Durban city centre was decked in German flags and welcomes of ‘Wilkommen’.
Perhaps every other team received similar tribute, though the only others still fluttering were for South Africa itself and long-departed Japan.
Viel Glück, perhaps, for Germany and ominous for those like myself who could happily watch Spain pass the phonebook.
Yet while Joachim Löw might cling to that treasured blue sweater – though tentacled turncoat Paul The Octopus now snubs his adopted Vaterland - tactics and technique should tonight mean more than signs and lucky charms.
Whoever does make the final, however, should maybe cross their fingers they can dodge that Golden Ball – let alone bump into doom-laden David Beckham.

Monday, July 05, 2010

"Monday Monday, can't trust that day..."

THE WORLD may not end when the World Cup does, but even the tournament’s chief evangelist fears a hefty hangover could kick in next Monday morning.
And not just for those enjoying the special ‘locals’ prices’ in South Africa’s throbbing pubs and bars.
In city centres such as Pretoria and Johannesburg, foreigners are typically being charged three times as much for their drinks throughout the World Cup.
Locals, on the other hand, have been gifted ‘loyalty cards’, allowing them to escape any World Cup mark-up.
In keeping with the event’s hail-fellow-well-met vibe, however, many simply lend them to foreign guests at the bar – though with crucial words of advice.
It’s not enough to simply flourish a magic ticket – you have to be wise enough to order in Afrikaans.
Providing a warm welcome to the world has been no problem, but cannily and understandably cashing in at the same time has proved more of a challenge.
Estimates of World Cup visitor numbers, economic benefits and newly-created jobs have been flying around as haphazardly as a first-week Jabulani, and varying as dramatically as a Paraguayan team-sheet.
Latest claims suggest 1million new people entered the country in the last three months, up 25 per cent on the same period last year.
Yet those here just for the football are thought to number just 300,000 or so, forecasts having steadily fallen from the original 500,000 expected.
Pre-World Cup predictions had suggested 415,000 new jobs would be created and £4.8billion raised.
The South African government’s own £4billion infrastructure investment programme has inevitably been given a World Cup focus.
The transport, telecoms and security benefits should at least prove longer-lasting – and better-used – than the more remote and over-sized new stadia such as Nelspruit or Polokwane.
And the competition has certainly done much for the country’s confidence and morale, providing an intangible feelgood factor that has inevitably fuelled talk of a Durban Olympics bid for 2020 or 2024.
But Monday morning could bring an emotional comedown, even ahead of the damaging practical effects of the World Cup circus packing up and jetting off.
Even Danny Jordaan, the organising committee’s chief executive and leading campaigner for a South African World Cup since 1994, admits: ‘For a while we will be depressed.
‘But we can hold our heads high, knowing we have surpassed all expectations.’
Amid the more eye-popping warnings from campaigners, thousands could be added to the country’s already-growing jobless lists as the World Cup bubble bursts.
And senior politicians – including United Nations leaders and the Nelson Mandela Foundation – fear mounting unrest and rivalry for work could spark a new wave of deadly xenophobic attacks.
Many people have been working on fixed-term projects such as the new World Cup stadia only just finished in time or the £2.2billion Johannesburg-Pretoria ‘Gautrain’ railway.
There have already been complaints about local firms being frozen out of producing memorabilia, with contracts instead going overseas.
Street vendors have also faced crackdowns due to deals with sponsors including Budweiser and Adidas.
Yet not everyone will be frantically pounding calculators, working out just how beneficial this tournament might have been beyond ‘merely’ the (eventually) exciting football.
Football’s world governing body Fifa knows it should pocket £2.1billion in profits, having already boasted of sitting on a £131million surplus.
Trebles all round!


PARIS Hilton can perhaps count herself lucky – some coming before the ruthless ‘World Cup courts’ have been handed lengthy jail sentences for even ‘minor’ offences such as possessing the drug ‘dagga’.
Then again, it was quite some feat for anyone or thing in the Port Elizabeth stadium that day to prove even dumber – and higher – than Robin Van Persie’s free-kick.
Some suggest what really got Jennifer Rovero into trouble is the fact dagga just isn’t an approved Official Sponsor drug of the 2010 FIFA World Cup ™.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

"Do you remember Walter...?"

THE FIRST England manager – but, alas, not the last – to lead a woeful World Cup campaign had it easy, Fabio Capello might well moan.
So little was thought of Walter Winterbottom, one paper mentioned him just twice during the 1950 tournament.
Once when he advised his players to take afternoon naps, once when he checked hotel chefs could serve steak-and-kidney pudding.
England’s performances this summer can hardly have been less stodgy.
Yet Capello is not the only coach now commanding more column inches than his players have had hot dinners.
The cult of the manager scales new peaks - perhaps aptly, when such superstars as Rooney, Ronaldo and Kaka have been as anonymous as cartoon mascot Zakumi.
At least the leopard can blame vuvuzelas for stealing his symbolic South African thunder.
This World Cup has boasted perhaps the most experienced and prize-laden line-up of coaches, from the trophy-hoarding likes of Capello, Lippi and Hitzfeld to airmile-collectors Le Guen, Queiroz and Eriksson.
Yet after Raymond Domenech’s rudeness, Marcelo Lippi’s melodramatic mea culpa and Matjaz Kek’s press conference punchiness, the four left standing are among the least obtrusive of the lot.
At his second World Cup, Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez – once Capello’s unfortunate and all-too-brief Milan successor - has been coldly ruthless in killing off not just one but two African challenges.
In those mad final moments against Ghana – sorry, ‘BaGhana BaGhana’ - on Friday, he kept somehow calm amid the most fearsome racket outside Rafael Nadal’s left hand.
His shuttling of the transformed Diego Forlan between poacher and playmaker roles has been inspired, while midfield toilers Perez and Arevalo back up the style – and guile – of Luis Suarez.
Spain’s hangdog Vicente del Bosque – a Champions League double-winning Real Madrid reject – might just be the politest coach here, perhaps why he’s now being linked with Japan.
Not only is he sharing the cameo roles between all of his substitutes, he still insists Fernando Torres is both fit and in-form.
No such delicacy from Holland’s Bert van Marwijk, a grizzled misery whenever dragged away from tinkling the ivories in his hotel lobby.
Yet he has achieved a near-miracle by dragging functional and – just about – unified performances from another traditionally-fractious Dutch squad.
Almost as mysterious is how his son-in-law Mark Van Bommel escaped a second World Cup booking, enjoying the good fortune denied Germany’s Thomas Muller.
Of the semi-final four, Germany’s Joachim Low is the most media-savvy ‘star’ – not something foreseen in unspectacular slogs with clubs in Austria and Turkey.
The suave German coach – well, as suave as cardigan-wearer can be – bears his worldliness rather better than Ghana’s Milovan Rajevac or Paraguay’s Gerardo Martino, men who look to have lived hard lives.
Not just hard lives, but a heavy night before – with Rajevac looking rather like Rising Damp’s Rigsby and Martino rivalling Jose Antonio Camacho as ‘World’s Sweatiest Manager’.
Tabarez may be dubbed the ‘Maestro’, for his schoolteacher previous.
But Low can bear the air of a slightly-smug, just-about-patient lecturer, explaining his schemes to split England’s leaden centre-backs apart or repeatedly tear down Argentina’s right like identifying a computer game glitch.
Curious to recall Capello came into the World Cup with a lavish new contract, while German talks were put icily on ice – the then-unloved Low condemned for alleged greed.
Some reports suggest his contract technically expired last Wednesday, making Saturday’s Argentina annihilation one he provided auf dem Haus.
Not a bad bargaining chip to play against the German FA, who got lucky themselves when landed with Jurgen Klinsmann’s little-heralded assistant six years ago.
If there is, though, no German reunification for Low and his own FA chiefs, perhaps ours might consider a job offer come August.
Doing so might not make us any better – but, after seeing the effect even on Capello, it might be our best hope of making Germans worse.
Even if poor neglected Walter, way back when, might have found such stuff impossible to swallow.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

"Mit der Bang, mit der Boom, mit der Bing-Bang Bing-Bang Boom..."

SO it was nothing like anything before, after all.
None of the closeness of, in their different ways, 1986 or four years later – even if today’s game was settled by Klose.
No chance for Messi to squeeze a match-winning performance out of himself – or the German defence – as Maradona had ultimately done 24 years ago.
Nor the kind of Argentine self-combustion, or German drabness, that characterised the turning of the tables four years later.
Argentina even took today’s 4-0 quarter-final trouncing with good grace, Maradona raging but perhaps mostly at himself – Messi sunk in sad resignation, before sobbing behind closed dressing-room doors.
But it was the way Germany performed such a demolition job that was both brutal and unique – unless you were to count, say, last Sunday’s dismantling of England.
This was another devastating display by Joachim Low’s renovated, re-energised side, doing the unpicking of Argentina that many had forecast – but not in quite such an exhilarating fashion.
Perhaps it was the early goal that was most important, slackness from Nicholas Otamendi – for the first but not the last time today, alas – allowing young-man-of-the-moment Thomas Muller to glance Germany into the lead.
How they might recover from going behind is a challenge for Spain or (presumably not) Paraguay to discover.
Yet for all the Argentine pressure to respond, the probing of Messi or the usual lung-busting from Tevez, the German defence proved impregnable throughout.
Messi was restricted to daftly-lofted, long range shots, while Di Maria stayed bafflingly isolated out on the right – barely given a run down his more natural left, though even there he might well have been stymised by the impeccable Philipp Lahm.
As against England, a 15-20-minute spell at the start of the second half looked the most likely time for an equaliser, but Germany remained stout – parking the VW camper van, perhaps?
Mertesacker and Friedrich hardly allowed any space behind them, while Schweinsteiger and Khedira maintained a kind of forcefield in front – and confident young ‘keeper Manuel Neuer gave an uncompromising wallop to any cross coming his way.
Schweinsteiger was, as against England, immense – performing both a composed role as a defensive shield, ushering the ball out of defence and into attack with briskness, and again occasionally remembering he used to be a pretty decent winger.
The slithering run through the Argentine defence, to tee up Germany’s third for Friedrich, was Messi-esquely irresistible – even if said Argentine defence included the lesser-tackling likes of Higuain and Di Maria.
Even when Argentina were battering at Germany’s door without the merest shaving slicing off, Maradona was maybe to slow to refresh his own, increasingly tired-looking team.
Milito was about to come on, perhaps for a blunt-again Higuain, only for Podolski’s scything run and Klose’s poached finish to double Germany’s lead – and effectively settle the game.
Pastore was eventually given 20 minutes to add to his meagre 16 before now, while Veron stayed on the bench throughout – presumably injured, especially since his presence had allegedly helped keep Cambiasso and Zanetti cast out of the squad.
But by the end, Argentina looked and were well-beaten, suffocated at one end and exposed at the other by a German team high on high-energy youth and vigour, counter-attacking cleverness – and unselfish teamwork.
Spain look about the most likely – or even the only – side who could outpass and outclass them. Simply by denying even these Germans the ball, especially with Muller so harshly suspended.
Schweinsteiger’s passing stats from today – just 52 from 84 were actually completed – are somewhat surprising, much less impressive or describe than his overall performance really proved to be.
No such supposed ‘slacking’ is likely from Spain. But now it’s Germany setting a very high standard, not necessarily for dominating possession but doing the most ruthless things with the ball.
Ruthless and efficient, those hoary old clichés – but undoubtedly attractive as well.

"And now you're gonna believe us, we've got the Argentinas..."

IF YOU’RE only ever going to play two minutes of World Cup football, then Marcelo Trobbiano’s might be hard to beat.
He may not have scored the winner when appearing – briefly – for Argentina, in their 3-2 victory over West Germany in the 1986 final (the first I remember watching, aptly rapt).
In fact, he was replacing the man who had just scampered on to Diego Maradona’s needle-threaded through-ball to restore, this time decisively, Argentina’s lead.
But with the West Germans finally flagging, with no hope of clawing their way back into the match once more, Trobbiani could come on for the last two minutes of stoppage-time – just, well, to be there.
And while the one touch of the ball he did manage wasn’t the winner, or even a goal, or even an assist, it was simply stylish.
Just for being a backheel, the insouciance of a man who – having failed to feature in any of the preceding six matches – knows by just walking on to the pitch he’s strode into history. However glancingly.
Today’s quarter-final between Argentina and Germany has become the must-see match of the tournament so far, especially with Maradona not at the helm – however quixotically – of an Argentina team who have gone from abysmal in the qualifiers to rampant in the tournament itself.
Germany may have been a refreshing pleasure to watch so far, at least against Australia and England when Mesut Ozil has been dodging the attempts of defence or midfielder markers to tie him down or freeze him out. His passing and shooting have both been deft, but even without touching the ball he’s made opponents look leaden.
Plenty of credit, too, to Low’s mid-Euro 2008 rethink, the 4-2-3-1 revamp that so unsettled Portugal in the quarter-finals - now boosted further by Michael Ballack’s absence and the maturing of Bastian Schweinsteiger in a controlling new role.
Yet if any holding midfield enforcer is to keep Ozul quiet, then it should be Javier Mascherano – another dedicated yellow card-collector, but an expert reader of opposing attacks.
Like Butch Cassidy – he got vision, and the rest of the world (cup)’s wearing bifocals. Especially such squinters as, say, Vince Grella or Gareth Barry. Even Anthony Annan, industrious as ever, let Ozul slip his shackles for one punished moment.
While Ozil might be expected to dovetail with Muller down the wings, Messi this tournament has been more often picking up the ball in central positions – and with plenty of the pitch ahead of him.
Whether Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira can not only keep him tightly enough constrained – and who better to wriggle free, but Messi – could be crucial.
Especially since, behind them, Friedrich and Mertesacker have looked vulnerable when exposed – and will also have the likes of Tevez and Higuain to trouble them anyway, whether the defence is being turned or being dragged wide.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of my childhood bedroom – how spoilt my brother and I must have been, I realise – watching that 1986 final, even the eight-year-old mini-me could appreciate the villainous Maradona by then.
We’d already seen him close at, er, hand, having such ball-juggling fun in a Spurs shirt for Ossie Ardiles’s White Hart Lane testimonial the previous year.
He remains exhilarating to watch, whether demanding a football dance to his command, or compelling a Press pack to virtually eat out of that famous hand.
Just some of the 1986 final’s compelling competitiveness, lurching momentum, and irresistible flow of a football would be a treat today – hey, just half of last night’s drama should be enough to exhaust.
Let’s just draw a discreet veil over one rematch, that 1990 climax that was anything but. No one, not even Andreas Brehme’s nearest and dearest, could surely bear to see something like that again...

Friday, July 02, 2010

Blame it on the Black Stars...

WELL, where do you begin with all that? Probably at the end, a very good place to start.
Or, at least, what should have been the end, but wasn’t quite.
The penalty box pinball, the Luis Suarez handball on the goal-line, Luis Suarez’s post-red card tears on the touchline, Luis Suarez’s post-penalty turn and air-punching and cheers halfway down the tunnel, after Asamoah Gyan’s penalty lofts up on to the crossbar and over.
All this in stoppage-time of extra-time in a World Cup quarter-final in the World Cup’s heartland stadium.
And all this accompanied by the most fearsome, awesome din, within the red-hot ‘calabash’ – or should that be, cauldron? – Soccer City.
Tonight, perhaps even more so than any of the three South Africa matches, the vuvuzelas really came into their own as ‘BaGhana BaGhana’ came so close to becoming the continent’s first World Cup semi-finalists.
Ah, but alas, someone must have stuffed the wrong final page into the script for tonight – for Ghana, for apparently Africa and certainly the 80,000+ here tonight cheering any Uruguayan error with as much hearty passion as they bestowed on Ghana’s positive play.
For the third time this tournament, Ghana were gifted a penalty due to handball, with Suarez proving as generous as Serbia’s Kuzmanovic and Australia’s Kewell.
Yet it was third time unlucky for Gyan, who may now sadly face rather more of the barracking back home in Ghana that almost prompted his international retirement two years ago.
He deserves admiration for, just a few minutes later, lofting a very similar spot-kick high into the net to level the shoot-out at 1-1.
Unfortunately, his captain John Mensah would then be audacious in his own way – but, despite the name, rather dumb – with a stodgy one-paced run-up and unconvincing prod straight at Fernando Muslera.
Maxi Pereira’s next spot-kick for Uruguay was as bad, but just differently, with a satellite-endangering effort, compared to which Chris Waddle’s was a daisy-cutter.
Yet it was then, oh dear, Odiyiah, and Inter Milan rookie Dominic saw his shot saved by Muslera, and phew, Abreu, as lumbering, lanky Sebastian gave Uruguay victory with that rare thing: a “Panenka” which was actually sad to see.
Ah, but the match itself … well, it was just a bit better than the ordeal which dragged all the way through to this tournament’s previous penalty shoot-out, the turgid clash between Japan and Paraguay.
Suarez’s selfless act at the death came after 120 minutes of selfishness at the other end, too often snatching at half-chances when colleagues might have been better positioned – or simply blasting witlessly at Richard Kingson or high and wide.
Yet Ghana too had their opportunities, often rather more clear-cut than Uruguay’s, especially after a first half-hour in which they looked in danger of being over-run and outclassed by the ever-probing Diego Forlan.
After being so impressed by the diligent Anthony Annan before now, it was a little dismaying to see him so sloppy in both passing and ball control this evening.
Both he and his team-mates looked a little nervy, perhaps feeling not the ‘ayoba’ but the weight of expectation – or, at least, ardent pan-African hope – now piled upon them.
Yet the sudden surge out of nowhere by Isaac Vorsah at a corner, when he thudded a header wide that should really have hit the target, appeared to inspire Ghana and inject them with confidence.
Kevin-Prince Boateng, especially, who responded to that miss with arm-pumping gestures either to his colleagues – or the crowd – and then a driving run that almost created the opener for Gyan.
Sulley Muntari’s blasé turn and sweeping shot past Muslera from about 40 yards ended the first half startlingly – though this was, of course, merely a taste of climactic action to come.
Forlan, conducting the game with such composure throughout, swirled in a typically elegant equaliser not long into the second half, and always looked dangerous – whether floating through midfield or fluttering wide and on the tip of offside.
Substitute playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro also enjoyed a rather more productive cameo than against France – then again, it could hardly be worse.
He provided neat and precises touches as Uruguay battled to weather Ghana’s extra-time storm, which at times had the four front players bombing forward as if racing each other to reach Muslera first.
Extra-time was end-to-end indeed, though Ghana had the stronger of the last five minutes, backed by a crazy crescendo of vuvuzela din from all those draped or painted in Ghana colours and brandishing banners urging them to ‘Make Africa proud’.
It was only when Abreu’s penalty dropped daintily in that the stadium seemed to empty, in an instant, of both sound and population, as this particular African dream died.
By the time the final rolls around, ‘ayoba’ should reassert itself and the distinctive host nation flavouring prioritised above pan-continental loyalties – but tonight there was a touching desperation to the belief invested in a neighbour.
Uruguay perhaps deserved a little more acclaim than merely the pantomime jeers and whistles greeting their every injury, but they had their part to play tonight – it just proved to be party-pooping done with both style … and guile.
Even as he misses the semi-final through suspension, Suarez certainly got away with it. All of Ghana, even Africa, will also miss out on Tuesday – and will be missed.

"Ain't understanding Melo..."

DUNGA and Brazil had already been jolted out of their comfort zone even before Felipe Melo inexplicably lost the plot and cost his country World Cup glory.
Even as fans were still streaming away from Monday night’s emphatic win over Chile, Dunga was moaning about having to up sticks from their favourite Bloemfontein hotel and hit the road for the rest of the tournament.
‘It does interfere with our original plans because we were very well settled in our hotel in a very favourable atmosphere,’ he pouted, the poor lamb.
‘Now obviously we’re going to have to move from city to city, hotel to hotel, and this generates a certain degree of confusion.
‘But we only consider each situation game by game, though it would be advantageous to stay where we are. It has good training conditions.
‘We’re now going to have to confront a new situation, a new reality.’
Well, he need worry no longer, since soon he should find himself safely ensconced in home, unsweet home, after this afternoon’s elimination by the Dutch in Port Elizabeth.
Dunga was already distrusted by many Selecao supporters for his perceived negativity in team selection, both in defensive tactics and the exclusion of names such as Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato.
Presumably, despite earlier Copa America and Confederations Cup glory, demands for Dunga’s head will make Fabio Capello look like a national treasure by comparison.
Yet in calculated measures against Chile, and for the first half today, Brazil looked to have the right blend of thrilling skill – and discipline.
It was the Dutch team, after four underwhelming wins in a row, who opened today’s match looking suddenly incoherent, especially the increasingly-antsy Robin van Persie and an Arjen Robben over-reliant on his favourite trick of cutting in from the right.
Robinho, in contrast, was proving much more elusive and penetrating, especially faced by a Dutch defence being properly tested for the first time by an opponent – and also disrupted by the last-minute injury to Joris Mathijsen.
Surely they could come up with a more reassuring reserve than Blackburn reject Andre Ooijer? Then again, seeing Khalid Boulahrouz next in line on the bench, perhaps not…
The through-ball bisecting the Dutch defence for Robinho’s opening goal was planted uncharacteristly sweetly Felipe Melo, at least.
But while the organisation of the Dutch defence was so haphazard, the Brazilians went one worse in the second half when opponents who had looked clueless before half-time were given a lifeline.
Julio Cesar, regularly described as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, should have done better – or, at least, something – when Wesley Sneijder’s free-kick curled past him and off Melo’s head into the net.
Substitute goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes would surely never have allowed such a soft goal to go in like that.
Presumably he’d either have given the ball a thumping punch clear – or given Melo’s head a thumping punch well out of the way.
Melo was to blame again for not marking stringently enough when Sneijder nodded in what proved to be the winner, from a corner that swept across the box like a stone skipping across water.
And, just for the hat-trick, Melo ensured not only his own Juventus fans will despise him by getting sent off for a daft stamp on Robben – before looking about as bemusingly nonchalant as anyone can be, having just killed off an entire country’s World Cup ambitions.
The whole team seemed to follow him in losing the plot after that.
Kaka’s close control was nowhere near as impeccable as usual, Dani Alves’ set-pieces were getting no better, and there was no real intelligent interplay or drive from the midfield onwards – especially in the absence of Ramires and the presence of Gilberto Silva.
Despite Sneijder again pressing his case for this year’s Ballon d’Or, the Dutch still looked unconvincing, with Kuyt anonymous save for a few ineffectual trudges and Marc van Bommel a walking red-card-in-waiting.
Perhaps those celebrating most will be whoever wins here in Soccer City this evening, as all Africa – well, most of it, surely, anyway – throws its hollersome weight behind Ghana.
Or, as today’s South African papers insist: ‘BaGhana BaGhana’.
Rather endearing? Or just a bit desperate? One or the other, at least – perhaps both...