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.)
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.
The Brazilian team had been constructed in the image of its coach, Dunga, who had been a ferocious defender in the midfield. He opted for players who boasted size as well as tenacity (or perhaps ferocity) rather than the elegant skills that once defined the Brazilian game.
One of the beneficiaries of that roughhouse predilection was Felipe Melo, who set up the first goal, but then was involved in two costly second-half errors. The first came when he found himself in the path of his own goalkeeper (more the keeper’s fault than his) and saw the ball deflect off his head and into his own net.
If that was a forgivable mistake, the decision to deliver a little stomp of annoyance to Arjen Robben, who was lying on the ground and who, Melo felt, had been flopping and feigning injury all game long. The moment of intemperance earned him a red-card ejection and took some heart out of a Brazilian team that had already appeared to lose some of its legs.
Meanwhile, a couple of diminutive Dutchmen were decisive; Robben pestered them down the wing and got on their nerves and the 5’7” Wesley Sneijder, amid the big Brazilian timber, banged home a header for a much-deserved 2-1 comeback victory.
The only game without suspense was the Germany’s 4-0 rout of Argentina. But while great German teams of the past were always described with mechanical metaphors, this team — with an ethnic meld that reflects a very different modern Germany — played with such intelligence and exuberance that the beleaguered German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has had nothing to cheer of late, celebrated in the stands as if she were unbound.
While other teams have witnessed the season’s great scoring stars — England’s Wayne Rooney, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi — shut out in this World Cup, German players who were busts for their clubs this past season have had breakout tournaments for country.
Miroslav Klose, who scored just six goals in 38 games for Bayern Munich, netted his third and fourth of the competition against Argentina, bringing his total in three World Cups to 14, just one behind the record held by Brazil’s Ronaldo.
Germany will face Spain in other semi-final on Wednesday, a rematch of the Euro 2008 championship won by Spain. But Spain, with its precision, short-passing attack has struggled to score in South Africa. It has had the misfortune to play three teams that were willing and able to defend relentlessly; after losing 1-0 to Switzerland in its opener, Spain has barely squeaked past both Portugal and Paraguay 1-0, on second-half goals. Paraguay gave Spain fits, chasing the ball all over the field and leaving it little room or time to maneuver. It was another game that featured poor officiating, which gave both team fits thanks to some questionable, inconsistent and quite costly calls.
In Germany, Spain faces another team that can defend, but one that has put up four goals in back-to-back games against England and Argentina. Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque has, understandably, stuck with the team’s gifted striker Fernando Torres, though Torres, coming off knee surgery, hasn’t yet scored and seldom has appeared threatening.
David Villa has bailed out Spain by tallying five of its six goals, with his last two game-winners coming rather tellingly after Torres was substituted early in each second half. Against Germany, Spain may not have the luxury of waiting that long for its offense to click into gear.