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World Cup 2010: Final 4 prepare for matches

Drama promised in semifinals between Germany and Spain, Netherlands and Uruguay.

Soccer World Cup 2010

BOSTON— When last we convened before the quarterfinals, we believed these truths about World Cup 2010 to be self-evident: that this tourney was a South American romp; that pre-Cup favorites Spain and Brazil appeared headed for a showdown — the last practitioners of the beautiful game against its inventors, whose current incarnation was more beauty and the beast; that Argentine coach Diego Maradona was not, as once portrayed, the class clown, but perhaps an unrecognized genius; that penalty kicks were always decisive; and that the officiating was unworthy of the world’s greatest sporting event.

Now after a remarkable quartet of games — contests that gave lie to a uniquely American notion that low scoring equates with low drama — we know: that Europe rules while Uruguay, the South American minnow, is the last from that continent standing; that beauty barely prevailed while Brazil’s own beast helped dispatch it to the Dunga-heap; that Maradona can supply emotional lift, but had no technical answer for the German onslaught; that six penalty kicks were missed, including — for the first time in 80 years — two during regulation time of one game; and that that the officiating was unworthy of the world’s greatest sporting event.

Uruguay-Ghana may have been the least scintillating match over its course, but it ended with a stunning burst of drama and, sadly, inglorious failure. In the final seconds of overtime, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez prevented what would have been Ghana’s game-winning goal — and a first-ever African advance into the semi-finals — by illegally swatting away the ball with his hand. With the weight of his nation and the entire African continent on his shoulders, the heretofore, reliable Asamoah Gyan stepped forward to take the decisive penalty kick and drilled the ball off the crossbar. After that heartbreaking, Bucknerian moment, a Ghanaian loss in the penalty shootout seemed inevitable — and soon ensued.

For those unfamiliar with the strange FIFAdom that is international soccer, it was simply another case of cheating providing a huge reward. In World Cup qualifying, a referee failed to see what everyone else did — a deliberate double handball by French star Thierry Henry — and allowed a goal that sent France over Ireland to South Africa. (For those who believe there is divine justice or karmic retribution, World Cup 2010 served as the French punishment.)

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In this case, the referee did spot the handball, but the rule didn’t allow him to award a goal. It’s as if a defensive back, in a futile chase of a running back headed for the winning touchdown, pulled out a hooked stick and hauled him down from behind — and the victimized team was forced to kick a field goal from the spot of the foul.

“The ‘Hand of God’ now belongs to me,” Suarez said afterwards, according to England’s the Guardian, making reference to the most famous and infamous goal and refereeing error in World Cup history. “There was no alternative but for me to do that and when they missed the penalty, I thought, ‘It is a miracle and we are alive in the tournament.’”

The biggest winner may be the Netherlands, which on Tuesday will play an exhausted and emotionally drained Uruguayan team, minus its gifted scorer, Suarez, who was suspended one game for the handball offense. The Dutch earned that advantage by doing something no team has done before in a World Cup: beating a Brazil team that had the lead at halftime.