World Cup 2010: A Round the World Trip
A Rainbow World Cup
October 10th 2009 was a date that was to be of great importance and significance within the calendar of the World Cup qualifying campaign. An arduous and long qualifying series had now come full circle; the penultimate gripping climax to a marathon process was nearing its end; some 2 years and four months later – eventually scheduled to be concluded on November 18, 2009. Now was the period in which the world’s elite could finally realise its ultimate goal of reaching Africa’s first World Cup of all time. Again there was to be 32 participating nations, South Africa being joined by five other African nations, plus 13 from Europe, five from South America, four from Asia, three from Concacaf and one from Oceania.
Some had already attained this goal, most had already fallen by the wayside, many were still in either a promising or precarious state with its position within the balance; wondering will it go there way or not?
Until now eleven nations had reached the holy grail of the finals the following year.
This was from the giants of world football Brazil, those wonderful and loved magicians, to the most secretive nation on earth North Korea, reappearing on the world stage after an absence of 44 years.
It could not have gotten any better for Brazil, qualification secured with 3 games to spare, within the backyard of its fiercest rivals Argentina; now managed by the GREATEST of them all Diego Maradona, whose own qualification was on a knife-threaded edge. This followed a campaign thwart with squad in-balances and indecision that bordered on the shambolic – however, they were still in the last of the automatic qualifying positions. Argentina were a group of players blessed with superstar individuals that in no way resembled any kind of competent nor coherent team, 78 players used in 15 qualifiers culminating in the indignation of a capitulation in the cloud city of La Paz 3,600 metres above sea level. The team had been criminally unprepared to combat the breathless heights at the top of the Bolivian capital. All had gone well until that fateful and calamitous day. It did not get any better, at altitude again in Quito; Tevez missed a penalty, the team lost its legs and succumbed 2-0. It had been a roller-coaster year under Diego Maradona, who had replaced Alfio Basile who quit after their defeat against Chile in the tenth game. With his appointment as national coach many felt his mere presence on the bench would be enough to drive the players to new heights.
Already seeing a decline in form the Argentine team in Rosario Central’s compact ground saw itself two goals down within just 25 minutes. It followed an all-out attack which left them exposed at the back – playing into Brazil’s hands – with two set-pieces converted by Luisao and Luis Fabiano. A thunderous left-footed strike from distance by Jesus Datolo looked momentarily like a salvation as Argentina saw temporary reprieve, this before Luis Fabiano expertly ended the contest with exceptional finishing by chipping over Andujar – mission accomplished as they beat Argentina 3-1 away for the first time in 14 years.
The only team ever present at the finals had reached its 19th World Cup series. Its coach and former winner Dunga was hoping to emulate a band of players that were double player-manager World Cup winners – Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto Parriera.
The current Brazil team was moulded within his own image, much to the great displeasure of many of his country’s inhabitants; being constantly within the spotlight with much debate on his future – press and public wanting his head, body and soul. There were the highlights as well as the debacles, described as possibly some of the lowest points in the nation’s proud history. None more so than three consecutive home non-goalscoring draws with Colombia, Argentina (fortunate not to lose) and humiliatingly Bolivia – who themselves had their moments defeating both Brazil (2-1) and Argentina (6-1). The defeat in La Paz had ended its 11-match winning streak in a 19 match unbeaten run in which defeat had been tasted merely once (up until the Bolivia loss) in the cauldron of Asuncion against the then rampant Paraguay, whose own qualification had since been confirmed – sealed with a win over Argentina – with 2 games to spare. Paraguayan government officials declared a national holiday. Coached by Gerardo Martino, Paraguay in an impressive first-half to the qualifying campaign had begun like a steam-train on fire building a commanding lead. Indeed, they ended the year 2008 6 points ahead of Brazil and threatened to not only be the runaway leaders of the section but the first qualifiers of these finals, bar the host – winning seven, drawing two of first 10 games. As well as the convincing defeat of Brazil, Uruguay and many others saw themselves conquered in one way or another. A slight blip occurred in early 2009 in which one point taken out of the possible 12 that saw their advantage eroded by Brazil, and a 2-0 home defeat to Biella’s Chile handed Dung’s team, who won 4-0 in Uruguay, the leadership. Normality was eventually restored despite an unimpressive 1-0 (Salvador Cabanas goal) home win over Bolivia ending their interest mathematically – setting up for a deciding clash with Argentina. Rediscovering their form would be bad news for lacklustre Argentina in Asuncion (four days after their mauling by Brazil) with a goal through Nelson Haedo Valdez to seal a damaging defeat for Diego’s boys; could have been more with Para hitting the woodwork twice, Messi a forlorn figure.
Having not qualified since France 98 Chile had the opportunity of becoming South America’s third qualifier. A surprising 2-2 home draw with Venezuela had postponed their virtually assured place as did a 4-2 defeat in Brazil. This was a section in which six out of the remaining eight nations had a realistic (some more than others) chance of reaching the promised land of South Africa. The table read, Chile 27, Ecuador 23, Argentina in the play-off position 22, Uruguay outside 21, level on points with Venezuela, aiming to reach a first ever finals. Right up to Colombia on 20 points, Chile’s opponents today in Medellin. The big game today was in Rosario Argentina-Peru. The visitors had lost six qualifiers in a row and had been at Argentina’s crossroads more than once; they were the team that caused heartache for the Argentine nation when they denied them the right to participate at the 70 finals, the last time Argentina failed to appear at a World Cup tournament. Its most famous clash had seen Peru capitulate, some say intentionally, at the 78 world finals. A Peruvian equaliser in 93 – against Paraguay – kept Argentina in contention for a place at the America finals of 94. Peru, non-participants at seven consecutive World Cups, the whipping boys at the very bottom on 10 points with just 2 wins and 10 defeats, aimed to be the party poopers and contribute to Diego Maradona’s end as manager of the national team. But still, a nervous and somewhat disjointed Argentina still looked on course for a straightforward routine win when Gonzalo Higuain fired the team ahead. Instead of galvanising the team it sent them into a shell leaving Peru to not only dominate, control and pile on the pressure but threaten to send Argentina closer to World Cup elimination – again. An equaliser on 90 minutes – amidst the downpour of driving rain – from Hernan Rengifo left Maradona, his followers and berators stunned into silence. With all hope seemingly lost, the contest approaching four minutes of injury time, 48th minute substitute Martin Palermo at close-range and unmarked saw his outstretched leg – within a goalmouth scramble – divert the ball into the net and send Maradona sliding across the rain-soaked surface. The goal elevated Palermo – recently back into the international fold after a 10 year absence – to the status of a saint. It reminded one of Argentina’s flirtation with elimination in 1985 when they snatched a late draw against Peru at River Plate’s Monumental stadium. Less than a year later they became world champions. Argentina got out of jail, their dream intact for now anyhow. Only 30 seconds had remained from possible elimination.
And then it was to third-placed Chile looking for the win over eighth placed Colombia, 7 points behind. A resounding win in Medellin, despite falling behind twice secured their finals berth. Super substitute Jorge Valdivia’s incredible effort led Chile to a 4-2 victory over Colombia and its first appearance in the World Cup since 1998 – ending its long wait for a reappearance. They had won more games than any other team in the section – 10 games. The result ended Colombia’s faint hopes, a play-off possibility now even beyond them. Venezuela, aiming for its own first World Cup appearance, saw its own slim opportunity of automatic qualification vanish following a 2-1 home defeat to Paraguay.
Two points separated fourth placed Ecuador and the sixth Uruguay, this as they paired off in Quito. A win for the home side would virtually seal qualification, at the very least a play-off face off with Concacaf opponents, likely to be Honduras or Costa Rica. It looked to be going accordingly when Manchester Utd’s new acquisition Antonio Valencia headed in from close-range on 69 minutes. The team were still celebrating when Uruguay equalised within a minute and with the contest looking to end in a stalemate, a swift break upfield led to a Uruguayan being upended for a penalty. This was one of two penalty claims, with a super cool Diego Forlan to crash the ball high and send Uruguay into at least a guaranteed play-off berth above Ecuador.
The final business of this group was set with three sides, Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador left in contention for automatic qualification. Venezuela, left with an outside chance of a play-off required defeats for both Ecuador and Uruguay as well as being left with the tumultuous task of defeating current South American champions Brazil on away territory; a goal swing in their favour somewhere in the region of 14-0. It looked a very improbable sequence of results.
Argentina themselves needed to avoid defeat in a daunting Montevideo finale while Ecuador required victory at all-ready qualified Chile, coupled with a stalemate in Uruguay. Argentina had handed Brazil and then Paraguay their tickets to South Africa, would Uruguay be a third? Maradona and his band of nervous troops looked to hold their nerve. It had been 2 years and a day since their last and only group win in Venezuela on October 17th 2007; they had suffered four straight away losses (Bolivia 6-1, Paraguay 1-0, Ecuador 2-0, Chile 1-0) conceding 10 scoring one.
Any Uruguay-Argentina contest would be an occasion in itself, but added with the spice of World Cup qualification this was something else. Nervy Argentina entered the Cencretarino stadium on tender hooks; a short journey across the River de Plata to Montevideo for the ‘battle of the river plate.’ History weighed heavily against them at a venue they had only scored a single goal since winning last in 1976, failing to even register, a point. Football held its breath as one of the greatest exponents battled for managerial survival – fighting to be spared of the ignominy.
In an amazing change of fortunes on its travels Argentina stood firm and counted as a performance of grit, full of spirit and resilience frustrated its hosts, surviving scares before striking a blow from Mario Bolatti in the 85th minute in what was a nerve shredded night. Argentina, against the tide of most predictions, had done it, surviving a turbulent campaign. Maradona wept and hugged his coaching staff and then insulted the media in a post-match news conference. The remaining fourth automatic place had now gone with a cluster of nations vying for the play-off final chance. A win for Ecuador in Chile would knock Uruguay out of the reckoning. Fortunately for them it was being played in Santiago and not Quito. Ecuador, finalists of the last two World Cups fell 1-0 to Humberto Suazo’s goal. He was the continents top scorer in this campaign with ten goals. Venezuela, despite possibly producing its best ever away performance by holding Brazil 0-0 for an historic result, withered out of contention. It had been the first time that Brazil had failed to beat their northern neighbours in 19 competitive internationals. In 2008 Brazil had suffered a black June with an historic defeat by Venezuela in a friendly. A 2-0 home defeat for Paraguay at the hands of Colombia was detrimental in an attempt to overtake Brazil in the final group standings. So Uruguay in the final equation went on to meet with the fourth-placed nation of the Concacaf region in what was a third consecutive play-off.
The tournament’s first qualifiers, excluding the host had come from the Asian zone. All entrants had been confirmed from way back.
Having qualified from the first stage 10-teams formed two groups of 5 teams. Asia’s most successful nation at the finals South Korea reappeared for their seventh consecutive finals. Under Dutchman Guus Hiddink, the energy, speed, enthusiasm, fitness of its players carried the team to a semi-final appearance in its own World Cup of 2002. Joining them would be its neighbours and fiercest rivals from the North. Both had finished in first and second positions respectively in a hotly contested final section. The two matches between the nations were equally tightly contested with only a single goal separating the teams over the home-away encounters. North Korea was forced to play their ‘home’ games against their southern neighbours in neutral Shanghai after plans to ban South Korea’s flags and national anthem caused uproar. The south remained undefeated throughout with its closest call in Iran; Park Ji Sung equalised seven minutes from time.
For hermit nation North Korea, it would go right to the wire (on goal difference) in a battle for second position with Saudi Arabia and Iran. A fantastic sturdy defensive display, a feature throughout the campaign shipping only five goals, kept the home side and the more fancied Saudi Arabia at bay in Riyadh; the draw sending Korea to Africa while Arabia were confined to a play-off with Bahrain, this for the right to meet Oceania winners New Zealand, in yet another play-off, this for the right to appear at the finals.
Bahrain, third-placed finishers of Group B, eventually overcame 4-times finalist Saudi Arabia in a dramatic finale in Riyadh. Having been held at home by their more illustrious neighbours Bahrain then found themselves behind in the second leg after the hosts retook the lead in the final minute through Hamad Al Montashari. Seemingly out Bahrain somehow equalised through Ishmael Latifin in the most dramatic fashion to scramble their way for an away goals victory. Their amazing run was to continue under Milan Macala – ending the Saudi’s record of four consecutive appearances at the finals leaving them to rue missed opportunities.
Group B would be dominated by the dominant forces of the region; new member from the Oceania region Australia – released at its own request from competing at the less competitive Oceania section – and the recent traditional powerhouse Japan the first qualifiers – both continuing its own personal duel from the highly charged finals match of 2006. After being neck-neck throughout the undefeated Aussies pulled away to claim top position, this was with the help of Japan’s own version of the bogeyman – Everton’s Tim Cahill. A further two goals added on from his two during duel in Germany 2006, would leave the Japanese stunned, in second place and Bahrain further in their wake.
Australia achieved a level of consistency and solidity by adopting a more defensive approach, a solid spine in the side that gave them a good platform for success. The disastrous Asian Cup in 2007 was the warning shot required to approach their first qualification campaign in their new confederation with the right mind-set.
And so to Bahrain-New Zealand…
The Oceanic nation’s one and only World Cup finals appearance in Spain 1982 is now folklore for followers of football in the country. No team travelled further or played more games than the ‘All Whites’ as they qualified following a gruelling campaign through Oceania and Asia, beating China 2-1 in neutral Singapore. A 5-2 defeat to Scotland in the first group game was a sign of things to come with 3-0 and 4-0 resounding defeats to USSR and Brazil to follow.
Its path up until now had been largely blocked by Australia, who had now vacated the region. New Zealand had an unblemished record in the weakest international football section. New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu would never be in contention in second stage confrontations, the Kiwis 8 points clears with 5 wins. New Zealand’s fine form continued all the way to Manama, a resolute performance shutting out a vibrant host that could still prove dangerous in the return, the Saudi’s would testify. Trailing 1-0 to a goal at half-time through Rory Fallon Bahrain had its chance to draw level with the award of a penalty in Auckland attended by 35,194 spectators in Wellington, the largest ever for a football match. A challenge the New Zealand keeper Mark Paston would be up to by making the save from Sayed Mohamed’s 50th minute kick, crucial in every sense of the word as New Zealand’s ‘all-whites’ after a 28 year absence from the finals were to re-appear again, Bahrain to suffer a second successive play-off defeat.
They were Africa’s last team standing at the 2006 finals and it would continue through to this campaign as The Black Stars of Ghana became the first African team to qualify, this for a second consecutive finals appearance. A routine victory weeks earlier over bottom-placed Sudan – tired from the effects of fasting during Ramadan – had given them an unassailable lead ahead of nearest challengers the Eagles of Mali whom they had defeated in June 2009 for a fourth consecutive win; defeat was not tasted until the Benin fixture of the decisive penultimate weekend.
Under Vahid Halihodzic Ivory Coast – the runaway 6-point leaders of Group E – required just the point at bottom placed Malawi. They could only be overtaken on goals difference so would therefore need to suffer two heavy defeats in Malawi and then at home to Guinea. It was never going happen, the Stallions of Burkina Faso’s 2-1 win over Guinea made little difference with Ivory Coast’s talisman Didier Drogba (6-goals in 5 games) two minutes after appearing as a substitute, to crash in an equalising goal that took the Ivorian’s to South Africa. This point followed four consecutive wins and 15 goals, crucial back-to-back wins over the nearest but not dearest Burkinas. Drogba pronounced that Ivory Coast would be gunning to be Africa’s first ever winners. Three-groups of the four-team sections were tightly contested with everything still to play for.
Group A had seen Cameroon rise from the ashes of elimination and experience a revival in fortunes – after gaining one point from their first two opening games – to virtual qualification, though second placed Gabon would surely push them all the way. Cameroon looked as though they would ease their way to South Africa after cruising through their opening African qualification group. Samuel Eto’o scored 6-goals in 6 games as boss Otto Pfister recorded 5 wins and just one draw – away to Tanzania – on their way to the third qualifying round. But they failed to maintain their form and it appeared their World Cup dream was over after a 1-0 away defeat to Togo and a home draw with Morocco in their opening 2 games. It had been the back-to-back successes over the original pace-setters Gabon that clawed Cameroon a point ahead with qualification now within their own hands; helped greatly by the scoring exploits of Samuel Eto’o. A 2-0 away success in Libreville and a following 2-1 home win within a four day period deposing the previous leaders. This was achieved with Frenchman Paul Le Guen at the helm, who had replaced German Otto Pfister. Victory at home to Togo’s Sparrow Hawks looked set to clinch its place. However, Gabon matched Cameroon’s victory with the 3-1 dismantation of Morocco – a team that had high hopes who could only muster a single win in five attempts that resulted in four losses. So it was left to the final group fixtures four days later, Cameroon travelled to Morocco, Gabon to Togo, themselves shock qualifiers of the 2006 finals. A new acquisition to English Premiership club Manchester City, Emmanuel Adebayor had promised to pay bonuses to teammates were they to prevent the hopes of Gabon, desperately requiring the victory in Lomé.. And so Adebayor would, the visitors seeing its faint hope of qualification extinguished with the single goal defeat. Cameroon could lose and still qualify, this they did not, running out comfortable 2-0 winners in Casablanca. Pierre Webo and Samuel Eto’o the new captain grabbed the goals as the final nail was dug in the most disappointing of campaigns for a Morocco team that had started with such high aspirations. Cameroon would appear at its sixth consecutive World Cup finals, a record unmatched for an African team. When they competed at their first World Cup finals in 1982, they became the fourth African country to do so after Morocco, Zaire and Tunisia. In 1990, they stole headlines around the globe with perhaps the most memorable display by an African team at the World Cup. After disappointingly missing out on the 2006 finals, Samuel Eto’o and co now had a chance to move out of the shadow of the 1990 side and write a new chapter in Cameroon’s World Cup history.
A dramatic final gasp equaliser in Abuja Nigeria by Oussama Darragi had put qualification firmly within the hands of Tunisia’s Eagles of Carthage; finalists of the last three World Cups in what was a second successive game drawn by the contestants. It had been a dagger in the stomach and looked set to deny Nigeria, just as Angola had crucially with a 1-1 draw way back in 2005. Indeed, Nigeria looked on its way out of contention as they moved into stoppage time still scoreless in the home tie with Mozambique again in Abuja. Simultaneously, Tunisia led bottom placed Kenya through a 6th minute goal through Issam Jomaa in Rades. As it stood, Tunisia would be uncatchable with Nigeria unable to overhaul a four point disadvantage with only a game remaining. Drama unfolded in the dying moments, three minutes into injury time as Victor Nsofor Obinna temporarily preserved Nigeria’s flimsy participation with a dramatic injury time winner. Despite this, Tunisia travelled to Mozambique in the following match looking to be in the most commanding of positions, Nigeria to visit Kenya. Without a playmaker in the mould of a J.J Okocha Nigeria looked a shadow of the teams of 96 and 98. Tunisia with 3 wins and two draws took the defensive approach in Mozambique while Nigeria saw themselves down within 15 minutes, Dennis Olieh the marksman as it looked to be going all wrong for Nigeria. However, two goals in a five minute second half spell turned things around, though Tunisia still on level terms were still in pole position. That position strengthened when Kenya drew level with its visitors. But then…
Two goals virtually simultaneously altered the course of the group on 83 minutes. While Obafemi Martins had scored his second goal to put Nigeria 3-2 ahead, defensive-minded Tunisia had fallen behind in Mozambique. Incredibly against all odds Nigeria was to be at the helm and there they would stay for an incredible turnaround. The Super Eagles had soared into the finals. A World Cup in Africa without Nigeria would never have been the same. The nation had been spared the debacle of 2005 when Angola had beaten them to the grail of an appearance in Germany.
Perhaps the biggest rivalry of all five groups came from Group C where 82, and 86 finalists and North Africans Algeria heatedly contested a place with arch-rivals and consecutive African champions Egypt, finalist of the World Cup last in 1990. Algeria had announced themselves with the 3-1 deposing of the current African champions who had started worryingly slow. In four matches Algeria had been only held once with Egypt crucially losing points in Rwanda. Algeria’s team was now under the guidance of Rabah Saadane returning to the side he led to the 86 finals in Mexico. The Algerian machine saw no respite with the convincing win over Rwanda – coming down from 1-0 down to win 3-1 – leaving stuttering Egypt requiring the difficult looking victory in Zambia. They accomplished this to preserve interest with their only shot on goal through Hosny Abd Rabo’s 68th minute winner and set up a final day explosive encounter that would not be for the faint-hearted. It was sure to be a memorable finale in the Egyptian capital in a repeat of their acrimonious 1989 qualifier for a place at Italia 90 nicknamed ‘death match’ Back then the first, in Constantine ended goalless, meaning like present, Egypt had to win in Cairo while Algeria – the dominant force then and aiming for a third consecutive finals – just needed the point. Hossam Hassan’s first-half header settled it in a match that is the very definition of do or die, a battle not a football match. Algerian players attacked Egyptian counterparts while an Egyptian doctor was injured by a broken bottle and Belloumi was accused. Only in 2009 was he cleared of the affair. The latest chapter would rekindle two decades of resentment, evoking memories of one of the most shameful episodes in recent footballing history; this time was to be no different.
Before even a ball had been kicked the fireworks had begun when violent clashes again shamed the Cairo contest as windows were smashed. The Algerian team bus was pelted by stones, bricks and then ambushed by Egyptian fans with 3 players, bloodied and scarred suffering injuries they would take to the football field. Algeria were furious with events before and after the match – rival fans fighting outside the stadium and at least 32 people (20 Algerians according to the Egyptian government) were injured following the game. In retaliation the next day Egyptian businesses were ransacked in Algeria as the situation threatened to boil over. Things got so bad that Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi had been called to broker a peace deal between the countries. With an atmosphere to shake the stadium to the ground Algeria trailed 1-0 to Amir Zaki’s early strike, however with the tie moving five minutes into injury time, the visitors looked on course for its first World Cup appearance since 1990 as the host looked to have failed in its bid to overhaul Algeria’s advantage. But the saviour would come in Emad Moteab with his goal, a looped header to spark national celebration – 30 seconds from the finishing line. Egypt had been spared and the bench stormed the pitch as the crowd exploded in disbelief, joy and in happiness, violence again followed. Having identical records the group was to be decided by an unprecedented African play-off in the neutral Sudan city of Khartoum. Egypt buoyant and confident faced Algeria, angry, in a state-of-shock, traumatised, victims of injustice but totally motivated and raring for revenge – and war. The feeling was mutual in a fixture that on occasions had brought grown men to tears at press conferences. Seven-crazy days had seen riots breaking out from Cairo to Marseilles. In one of the most bitter play-off’s in history, a strong presence of 15,000 police in a high security operation were on high alert for this grudge game – forming an unprecedented cordon across – in which there were fears of widespread bloodshed. Tens of thousands of fans from both countries (9,000 tickets each – 17,000 for Sudanese, largely sold on to visiting fans) were expected and poured into the Sudanese capital. Egypt sent planes and some intrepid fans even travelled overland through the desert, Algeria chartered 48 planes for fans. Federation heads refused to shake hands as rival fans were kept apart in the biggest international diplomatic incident sparked by a football match since the 1969 ‘soccer war’ between El Salvador-Honduras. It generated headlines around the globe. Even if Egypt won there was the threat of being banned as FIFA launched a probe into the affair. Egypt’s team complained their bus was attacked shortly after arrival, though no one was hurt. The Sudanese fans favoured Algeria, thanks to a dose off anti-Egypt feeling, and Egyptian support for Chad in a Chad-Sudan game held in Cairo in September 2008. It was a riotous play-off in a packed-stadium of 35,000 fans, the atmosphere electric the noise deafening. Algeria had the better of feisty first-half with the contest won by a thunderbolt volleyed strike in off the bar from the boot of a certain Antar Yahia – sending the Desert Foxes to South Africa and the current African Champs home empty-handed. Compared to the pre-match fears, the game passed with relatively little incident on the pitch.
On 4th December 2009, the wait was finally over. After the thrills and spills of qualifying around the globe, the group stage for the 2010 World Cup was made, in Cape Town, and as always had some interesting pairings. The event that had a worldwide TV audience of 200 million saw an address made by Nelson Mandela 91, while outside the international convention centre 31,000 soccer mad South Africans went wild when the draw was made and celebrated the start of the finals with a party on Long Street.
The World Cup draw went without a hitch, surviving even the awkward chemistry of its hosts, Oscar winner Charlize Theron, and FIFA’s president smoothie, general secretary Jerome Valcke. Wherever there were soccer glitterati, there’s sure to be David Beckham, and the iconic England veteran was on hand to help with the festivities. Beckham was hoping he’d be in South Africa the following summer, which wasn’t assured at this moment in time.
FIFA as expected used a tried and tested formula for its finals draw for South Africa 2010 – eight four-nation groups. However, the World Cup organising committee took the unprecedented step of basing the top eight seeds only on rankings for October 2009. The previous system coupled FIFA rankings with performances during November (or at the end of a qualifying campaign) to create a group of eight seeds that also includes the hosts. Had they done so, France, winners of 98 and finalist of 2006 would have ensured there position in pot one. Platini one of those that ruled on seedlings could not object to the new format; this given his public stance on fair play and knowing the controversial manner which Les Bleus had qualified. England were seeded because of an outstanding qualifying campaign while France had leapfrogged England in the November world rankings by virtue of a play-off win, yet FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke – a Frenchman – said why France should benefit by not qualifying automatically. Outrage in France, especially that of former French coach Michel Hidalgo who claimed it was retaliation, a sanction for the Thierry Henry handball – a move many agreed with following a blatant disregard of the rule book in the play-offs against Ireland. The rest of the draw was divided by confederation, with UEFA teams in their own pot; Africa (CAF) and the remaining South American teams (CONMEBOL) grouped together; and the final and fourth set of teams made up of qualifiers from Oceania, Asia (AFC) and North and Central America (CONCACAF).
All managers were present bar 49-year-old Diego Maradona, banned from all footballing activities by the FIFA disciplinary committee for two months for launching an expletive-filled rant/foul mouthed tirade of abuse when interviewed on the touchline (broad cast live on several television networks) at the end of the decisive qualifier in Uruguay. He later apologised showing remorse that saved him from a hefty ban that could have crossed over into matches at the finals. Diego Maradona was represented instead by the man who took charge of him at Mexico 86, Carlos Bilardo.
Everything was set for this to be one of the most memorable World Cups there has ever been, a celebration of the game and of humanity, not just a massive moneymaking exercise – FIFA increased prize money from 140 million in 2006 to a staggering 250 million.
A remarkable U-turn from FIFA delegates, that is still wrapped in bribery allegations, saw Nelson Mandela and co forced to wait another 4 years; South Africa had been fully expected to be the destination for the 2006 finals.
The draw was now set but plenty remained unknown, which is just as well as football fans needed something to fill the void until kick-off. A slew of questions awaited answers as well as what scenarios could unfold; which players will each team leave on, and off, the flight to South Africa? Which nations were so desperate for an upgrade that they will ditch the coach who helped them qualify? Which players will limp onto the injury list at domestic clubs around the world? This matter is of particular concern for the English, who prayed the curse of the broken metatarsal that weakened David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006 did not strike again.
The simple truth is, most football fans derived almost as much pleasure from talking about the game as they did watching it. Most will spend the days boisterously debating many of these issues, just as they will spend the nights dreaming of lashing in an unstoppable winner at the final in Soccer City stadium. Every player wanted to experience the special feeling of playing in the World Cup. It’s an amazing feeling to represent your country, and the tournament had so much history.
Now the countdown to June 11, 2010, had begun in earnest, when hosts South Africa will kick off against Mexico. In the words of Nelson Mandela from his video address at the draw: “Ke Nako! It’s time.”
The history of the South African football team, like the country itself, had been greatly affected by the system of apartheid. The enforced racial segregation of the country was hugely contentious and numerous attempts were made to suspend the national side from FIFA because the country’s constitution prohibited the fielding of racially mixed teams. But South Africa, along with Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, were one of the founding members of the Confederation of African Football and continued to escape expulsion because of a widespread reluctance for FIFA to become embroiled in political matters.
They were suspended from FIFA competition in 1966 but, after the violence of the Soweto uprising in 1976, a horrified FIFA finally expelled South Africa and the national team would not play again for 16 years. In 1991, as apartheid drew to a close, a new multi-racial South African Football Association was born and the new team played its first game against Cameroon in 1992, winning 1-0. Four years later, hosting and competing in their first African Nations Cup as a multi-racial side, Bafana Bafana lifted the trophy and were joined in celebration by an overjoyed Nelson Mandela.
As hosts South Africa qualified for the tournament automatically so they played a number of friendlies during the qualification series. They were also involved at the first stage of the African qualifying section; with a place at the 2010 African Nations Cup at stake, but finished 11 points adrift of Nigeria in the group, missing out on a place at the tournament. Bafana Bafana faced embarrassment for failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, finishing third in their qualification group behind Ghana and Congo DR, after having been named hosts of the 2010 tournament. It had been a tumultuous time for Bafana Bafana and, although they performed credibly and solidly at the Confederations Cup in a spirited campaign when they fought for one another, losing in the semi-finals to Brazil and the third place play-off to European Championship winners Spain by just a single goal – they continued to crash to defeat after defeat in friendlies, which eventually saw the sacking of boss Joel Santana and the re-appointment of former boss and experienced coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. The team looked solid defensively playing a very combative style but importantly lacked real punch upfield – missing the inclusion of Benni Mccarthy, at odd with the previous coach and was the country’s record goal-scorer and second most capped player, with 31 goals in 76 appearances. He scored at the 1998 and 2002 tournaments against Denmark and Spain respectively. After exiting the group stages at 1998 and 2002 finals, amassing one win over Slovenia in six, three draws, would it be third time lucky? Could they surprise a lot of people and make it out of the group stage?
Football in Africa had a particular place in the hearts of the people. African football was a giant that had been dormant too long – the globalisation of the club game has more or less levelled the playing field. By awarding the finals to a place so often casually used and abused the continent was getting something back. The championships would be an inspiration in itself for the teams from that continent to grasp the opportunity to perform to the best of its ability. A win by any African team wouldn’t change the realities of life on the continent such as aids, poverty and corruption, but provide a diversion. Familiar problems in the African game – financial disputes, shambolic organisation, and petty politics could be overcome. A fervent hope here was that this World Cup represented a key stage in the history of this country and the African continent. These finals had the potential to unite a billion souls in barren lands as it was more than about a series of football matches. It was about Africa taking centre stage and playing host to the biggest sporting event for the first time and the about the benefits the tournament should bring to the South African people. The local people would feel privileged and humbled that it had been given the singular honour of being the African host country. Its people learned the lessons of patience and endurance during their long struggle for freedom. For a proud nation it represented a magical moment for its people, the young democracy. Most of the fears about South Africa staging the tournament now began to diminish at last and all the stadiums were close to completion, some of which were spectacularly beautiful. Crime and security was an issue, but all the indications that the problems could have been exaggerated in European minds anyway and will be policed out of existence. The six African nations in the draw might have represented the continent’s largest contingent ever, but Africa’s teams received few favours. The two African nations most feared before the draw received the toughest love.
Group A would pit host country South Africa against two former champions France and Uruguay, with perennial qualifiers at the finals Mexico to round off a very competitive section. France and Mexico were no strangers, having squared off in 1930, 1954 and 1966. Uruguay had lost just once to France in five matches, who in its own finals had downed South Africa in its opening match of 1998 en route to the title. Interestingly, England in 1966 had come up against all of South Africa’s opponents. Bafana Bafana’s Group A match-ups was met with a mixed reception from South Africa fans; its team was regarded as the weakest of the continents six competitors, many outsiders feeling they looked strong candidates for becoming the first host nation to fail in progressing from the group stage. But then again they said the same about USA (94) and South Korea (2002), and look what happened there. The lowest-ranked side at the show-piece (most would say worst) needed every bit of its tremendous crowd support (with their vuvuzelas) and home advantage to rally them through. As the dominant footballing force in their region, it was rare for a World Cup to be without the Mexicans. However, they had a record of underachievement at the finals, and only in 1970 and 1986, on both occasions as hosts, have they gone beyond the second round, a quarter-finals appearance its best finish.
Argentina were the seeded nation of Group B and despite a campaign fraught with indecision, loss of form and unpredictability, as always were a team high on everybody’s lips as eventual winners. One parallel from the group draw was in a reunion from the section of 94 following a match up with old foes Nigeria and Greece; incidentally both defeated in games the current manager had participated and made an impression in – it had been the final fling for the nation and the world’s greatest ever player. South Korea, opponents of Argentina in its World Cup victory of 1986 made up the section. Diego Maradona played at his absolute peak scoring 5-goals and was the indisputable star of the Mexico 86 tournament.
For England – the seeded team of Group C – Christmas had come early. So you would think by what had been written in the English media following the draw that paired them alongside opposition that had brought its most painful and infamous day in World Cup memory; in what was its first tournament appearance in 1950 in Brazil against The then 500/1 ragtag part-time outsiders of the United States of American. It was one of the greatest upsets of all time in football history, USA against-all-odds to win 1-0 thanks to a 37th-minute goal from America’s Haitian born striker, Joe Gaetjens, (a part-time dishwasher by profession) against England, considered a world powerhouse. USA went into the match on a seven-game losing streak (by a combined score of 45-2) and it was said that readers in England assumed the score was 10-1 and there had been a misprint. Both sides failed to escape the group stage. Soccer had barely registered in 1950 on the American radar: only one US journalist witnessed the victory live and the team arrived home without fanfare, as anonymously as it had left. Though a clash with the US stoked up the hype, nostalgia, it’s most anticipated duel would be against North African opposition Algeria, down at sea-level in the picturesque setting of Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa. Slovenia made up the section that England believed they had already won without kicking a ball. Play-off wins for Slovenia and Algeria secured against Russia and Egypt respectively showed that neither should be underestimated.
Runners-up in 2002 and semi-finalists at home in 2006 Germany emerged from the draw as good favourites to proceed from Group D – grouped with three nations quite evenly matched with one another – from Africa, Europe and Asia. It could be a challenger for the “Group of death.” The draw to put together Chelsea teammates Michael Ballack and Michael Essien, and it was ugly when Ghana and Germany met for the only time in 1993, mind you, the Germans prevailed 6-1. Serbia, playing under the Yugoslav banner in 1998 proved far stronger and capable opposition for the Germans. And at the 2005 Confederations Cup, Australia played Germany, losing 4-3.
Netherlands World Cup history was surprisingly sparse considering their modern reputation. They had always promised much yet there is still the feeling that the Dutch have generally under-achieved in world football. European football’s first qualifier headed an intriguing Group E that included fellow Europeans Denmark, dynamic but often unpredictable Cameroon, and lastly but not least the Blue Samurai of Japan. For Holland a sigh of huge relief probably swept over the country when Denmark came out of the bowl and not Portugal. No less than three times this century the Portuguese hurdle has been too big to take for the Dutch team. Few expected Denmark, under long-standing coach Morten Olsen, to qualify for South Africa. But the Danes topped Portugal and Sweden for an automatic ticket and have avoided defeat against the Netherlands in five of their last six head-to-heads. Holland beat Japan 3-0 in a friendly recently, but they would not take that as too much of a barometer as the scoreline was flattering. Cameroon was very much the dark horse in this group with their performances in the World Cup ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes within days.
Reigning world champions Italy – seeded in Group F – looked to have got a helping hand in its attempt to retain a title they had unexpectedly won in 2006. A pairing with consistent but no frills Paraguay, first-timers Slovakia – finally emerged from the shadow of neighbours Czech Republic – and pure rank-outsiders New Zealand seemed to have answered the prayers of all those Italian. But amidst a shocking display at the Confederations Cup a year earlier and some less-than-convincing performances in qualifying would its opponents find comfort and solace. Its returning World Cup winning manager of 4 years earlier, a cigar-smoking Marcello Lippi, having achieved deity status was now a man under tremendous pressure. Still Italy were clear favourites, having gone 3-0 against New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia in their most recent meetings and outscoring them a combined 10-4. They always seemed to raise their game at the World Cup and played more tournament football than any other team winning the tournament on four occasions; with only Brazil, on five, winning more. Paraguay would be counting on strikers Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Valdez; Salvador Cabanas would have been among them had he not suffered an unimaginable misfortune. For New Zealand, the expected whipping boys, it’s a case of “happy to be here.” they were expected to finish this campaign the way they finished their last one in 1982, three defeats and perhaps a goal or two scored for the 77th-ranked Kiwis, who can at least take heart from a 4-3 friendly loss to an understrength Italy at the Confederations Cup.
Group G would be firmly cast as this summer’s “Group of Death” In 2002 it was England, Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria before Argentina, Serbia & Montenegro, Holland and Ivory Coast some 4 years later. Engulfed in this current battle would be Brazil, a terrific but not invincible team, Portugal, Ivory Coast and those unknown hardened fellows from the north of Korea. It was quiet a prospect that had fans of the beautiful game licking their lips. One hoped it’s more competitive than when Brazil-Portugal last battled, the South Americans to thump Portugal 6-2 in a friendly in November 2008 thanks to Luis Fabiano’s hat trick. The contest against the former metropole brings back unfond memories for Brazilians at the 1966 World Cup. On that occasion Eusebio defeated Pelé (3-1, the Black Panther scored twice); 44 years later Kaká had the chance to exact revenge over Cristiano Ronaldo. Three Brazilians would play for Portugal against their own country of birth: Chelsea’s Deco, Sporting de Lisbon’s Liedson and Real Madrid’s Pepe.
World football’s most impressive performer of recent times Spain – seeded in Group H – on paper looked the best bet to land the continents first title outside of the European hemisphere. By easing to its first championship victory in 44 years in 2008 they had finally rid themselves of being football’s greatest underachievers, and decades of acute disappointment. Spain had real aspirations of following in the footsteps of West Germany and France by holding both the World Cup and European Championship titles simultaneously. One of the more curious statistics in World Cup history was that, since their fourth-place finish in 1950, Spain had never come closer than the quarter-finals of football’s greatest competition. They qualified with a perfect qualifying record winning all 10 of its qualifiers, scoring 28 goals and conceding five so with football’s best current record not much was expected to stand in its way of progression from this first round stage, though clashes with Spanish speaking countries Chile and Honduras could prove competitive. Interestingly, on home soil some 28 years earlier Spain failed to defeat the plucky Central Americans who earned a well-deserved 1-1 draw. Amongst these three nations that had a language in common was Western Europe’s Switzerland, solid but unspectacular but had a 40 goals (in 71 appearances) striker Alexander Frei.
OUT IN AFRICA
June 11th 2010 could not have come soon enough and before we knew it Africa’s first World Cup had finally descended upon us. The wait had become unbearable, the anticipation overwhelming, the vibrancy in total evidence, whilst the tension had now reached fever pitch.
The vision was no more, the reality had hit the entire continent and South Africa; the dream had come true.
As with recent tradition as hosts The Rainbow Nation were to start festivities, for which one hoped was to become the start of the most memorable of extravaganzas.
The weight of expectation on the team was immense with the odds firmly stacked against them as they tried to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first host nation to fail at the first hurdle.
They certainly had the support of the watching world as most hoped that Concacaf kings Mexico would be swallowed up in a wave of national ferver and emotion within the gigantic arena of Johannesburg’s Soccer City. The visitors survived a near-nightmare qualifying campaign, as they struggled for stretches and needed three coaches in the process of making it to South Africa. The minimum requirement would be the habitual second round appearance; less desired, though, will be the usual exit at that stage.
The country had come to a standstill and 91,000 fans jam-packed into an already sold out arena while a worldwide audience of billions were swept off their feet by 3 hours of entertainment beforehand in an opening ceremony with dignitaries that included state president Jacob Zuma, FIFA’s own Sepp Blatter, though Nelson Mandela was absent due to personal reasons. Vibrancy flooded and swept all those around.
As for the football, Mexico, very much aiming to be party-poopers, did not heed to the world’s demands or wishes with the hosts, understandably under the weight of heavy expectation, being nervous, shaken and unable to find a foothold, and may well have been out of the contest by half-time. In what was a brighter and more entertaining game than most observers expected, South Africa dug deep and somehow managed to stay in the contest, largely thanks to the saves of Itu Khune from Dos Santos and Guillermo Franco and a correctly given offside against Vela – such was fluent Mexico’s superiority. And to compound things, after barely surviving, the hosts gradually a more confident outfit had the temerity to take an unlikely lead. A thunderous and rapturous drive from Siphiwe Tshabalala, racing onto a superb through ball, brought the roof off the Johannesburg’s super stadium and sent the world dancing into raptures.
South African tails were up, but Mexico proved to be a dangerous foe and unsurprisingly and rather deservedly drew themselves level through Rafael Marquez on 79 minutes. Even then the hosts could and should have snatched the game right at the death with only a deflection onto the frame of the post denying Ktlego Mphela who should have given the host and the most of the rest of the world for what they craved. But on reflection it was a fair scoreline in a game described by Mexico boss Javier Aguirre as the most important he had ever coached.
Next on the agenda was a Cape Town duel between two former Champs and group favourites Uruguay – solid if unspectacular – and a France team shunted by FIFA out of the seedings having got to the finals in controversial lucky circumstances which are now infamous. Its coach Domenech was under immense pressure and failure to get out of the groups would certainly cost him his job. He was undoubtedly the luckiest man in world football today and had long been a character that has strangely retained his job despite alienating French players, media and fans alike.
As had been the way during recent years, Uruguay had to suffer to reach their 11th World Cup finals, the nation to again need the play-offs to advance after finishing fifth in South America’s marathon qualifying campaign for a third time in succession.
Today’s contest was a repeat of their Group A clash of the 2002 finals, but it proved to be anything but in terms of being a spectacle, if not but a replica scoreline. Where the contest in Korea was a thunderous end-to-end bonanza, this Cape Town repeat was an anti-climactic drab bore of very limited chances created. France failed to make the breakthrough against a team reduced to 10-men after Nicolas Lodeiro became the first man dismissed in the tournament following a nasty challenge on Bacany Sagna.
South Korea the semi-finalists of its own World Cup in 2002 and aiming to proceed from the first round for only its second time in eight attempts, matched up in Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela stadium only two-thirds full, against Greece the dethroned unlikely European champions of 2004.
What was expected to be a heatedly, hard-to-predict contest turned out to be nothing more than a stroll in the park for the high-energy Koreans – bright, incisive and tenacious. The one-paced, dull and impotent Greeks were never in the game and were bowled over by goals from Lee Jung Soo and their workaholic captain Park Ji Sung.
Just a few hours later at Ellis Park the stage was set for the now undisputed baddest player on the planet Lionel Messi. Where the crown for this title had been in widespread dispute for most, overnight it became unanimously within his favour following a virtuoso one-man show against Arsenal in the Champions League.
Most predicted that he was set to follow in the footsteps of his manager, the greatest of them all as Argentina quickly showed their attacking intent. It was all Messi; linking well, roaming freely into space behind the strikers, rotating in a moving triangle, in what was all one-way traffic against Nigeria – proven to be just as unpredictable and erratic as their rivals. Having miraculously found saviour in Mozambique and qualified through the back door (on the final day) they produced substandard and disjointed performances at the African Nations Cup earlier in the year. The third-placed finish (that included defeats to Egypt and Ghana) could not stop the constant speculation and mounting pressure on its local erratic, home-grown manager Shaibu Amodu whose head was to roll. The same had happened after he had guided them to a third place finish in Mali 2002. The search for a new manager concluded with the appointment of Swede Lars Lagerback, ahead of compatriot Sven Goran Eriksson, Glenn Hoddle, and Bruno Metsu.
It could have been all over just after Gabriel Heinze, making a late run, laundered himself to power a header into the top corner on just 5 minutes. They could have had three goals in the opening 20 minutes as it was Argentina against Vincent Enyeama – a one-man show consistently denying the rampant South Americans with save after save, at least three world class ones. Nigeria, lacking belief and boldness, despite wasting a clear opportunity through Chinedu Obasi (twice) never deserved to get anything with Argentina worthy winners in a repeat scoreline of their Ibaragi encounter of 2002. In truth, the team has lacked the depth and quality of years past as they would have to show more cohesion in the following games than they have demonstrated of recent if they were to make any impact.
Steven Gerrard’s 4th minute opener, after darting through the heart of the USA defence before stabbing the ball past Tim Howard, looked to be putting England, backed by 20,000 fans in Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng, on its way to victory.
But they failed to capitalise as the US controlled the majority of the possession and came unstuck when goalkeeper Robert Green inexplicably miscued a virtual back-pass from Clint Dempsey’s left-footed shot that crept into the net. It was a boob to rank alongside the greatest and infamous of them all. The team never recovered and looked unlikely to regain its lead, puncturing all the pre-tournament hype and expectation as the English looked to repeat the same destructive cycle of rampant overconfidence, under performance and self-loathing they had displayed at the past three tournaments. The Three Lions looked almost invincible in qualifying under disciplined tactician and Italian boss Fabio Capello, scoring the most goals and appearing pretty tight at the back. A figurehead in the team for the last 14-years, David Beckham, due to a Achilles tendon rapture while playing for AC Milan was not to fulfil his dream of representing his country at a fourth World Cup finals. A draw was no more than the USA deserved after fighting back with spirit following the early setback.
Howlers were the name of the game with another soon to follow hot on the heels the very next day with Algeria’s Faouzi Chaouchi somehow allowing Slovenia’s Robert Koren’s speculative tame looking effort to bounce onto his chest before squirming into the net for the only goal of the match on 79 minutes. This in a game the 35 million populated Desert Foxes – who used the biennial African Nations event as a springboard to campaign – were well in despite being reduced to 10-men when substitute Abdelkader Ghezzal (already booked) was dismissed for handling the ball in the 73rd minute. It was a contest dominated by cautious defensive play as both midfields were packed in a game of few opportunities with Slovenia – ranked 33 on a global scale – gift wrapped their first ever World Cup victory.
One-zero scorelines were the order of the day with another to follow in Pretoria in what was the opening to group D. At third attempt was an African nation to finally gain its much coveted win, Serbia the victims. Serbia was a potential dark horse whose domination of a group containing France and Romania showed its mettle. A strong showing in 2006 had shown that Ghana had a powerful side that were always capable of providing an upset. But they would be without Michael Essien arguably one of the top two-way midfielders around, important for Chelsea, so it was a near disaster when it was made clear that an injury would force him out. A driving force in the middle of the park he led then debutantes Ghana to the second round in 2006.
A pretty average perhaps dour contest came to life in the final 20 minutes as Ghana became increasingly dangerous. The outstretched arm of substitute Zdravko Kuzmanovic punched away a left-wing-cross and presented the Ghanaians with a chance to steal it from the penalty spot with only five minutes remaining. Alexsandar Lukovic’s 74th minute dismissal for a second yellow card offence had already left the Serbs down to 10-men. Asamoah Gyan accepted, placing the ball well to send virtually the entire Loftus Versveld stadium – the heartland of South Africa’s Springbok Rugby team – into raptures and delight. He almost added a second, but screwed a stoppage time effort against the post.
Never write off the Germans’ was the old adage – and with good reason following a free-wheeling performance in Durban later in the day. A model of consistency and outstanding pedigree they sounded out an ominous warning to its rivals, not only from its group but for all participants. The ageing legs of Australia were certainly no match for a relatively young German players (their youngest World Cup team since 1934 with an average age of 25.4 years) led by the mercurial talent Mesut Ozil. They showed all the fluency, verve and freshness and clinically swept away their opponents by four goals for a sixth consecutive opening day win. Trailing to Lukas Poldolski’s 6th minute opener Australia did well to keep themselves in the contest until Tim Cahill’s unfortunate-unjustly 56th minute dismissal, a clumsy challenge that opened up the floodgates for decisive and slick Germany through Klose, Muller and sub Cacau. Having reached the quarter-finals in every tournament since 1982, it would take a brave man to predict that they would miss out in proceeding from the group stages. Back at the finals, the experienced Socceroos relied on almost the same players that took them to the second round in Germany 2006. Hiddink’s replacement Pim Verbeek was another Dutchman.
Group E’s opening encounter was a sea of orange and red at Johannesburg’s biggest arena, Holland pairing off with those Danes. A cagey, tense and nervy affair was brought to life when Simon Poulsen inadvertently conceded a luckless own goal at the start of the second period. The Dutch, largely dominating possession, comfortably went on to record a 2-0 win following a clinical second goal from Dirk Kuyt in the 85th minute. The 2-time World Cup finalists escaped the Group of Death in 2006, only to exit in the second round to Portugal in what was a tempestuous encounter. The Dutch then dazzled at the group stages of Euro 2008, crushing both Italy and France only to be ripped apart by an Andrei Arshavin inspired Russia team at the quarter-final stage.
Bloemfontein was the venue where Japan recorded an historic first ever victory outside of Asia/on foreign soil. On their own continent, Cameroon should have been one of the hardest sides to beat in this competition. Totally lacking any cohesion and quality or a sufficient attacking threat opponents Cameroon were a pale shadow of their former prowess, and did not pick up the tempo and rally until it was too late. They were a side evidently in the midst of internal conflict between coach Paul Le Guen and some players. The Japanese, quick and technical, alternating effectively between attacking and defending spells, who made several surprise choices to their line-up played without no recognised striker. Rarely did they even have to break sweat and held on relatively comfortably after taking a surprising lead just before half-time through Keisuke Honda – poking the ball in from close-range – after poor defending from the Africans. It was a pivotal win – for a side probably viewed by the others as the weakest – in that it guaranteed Japan stayed alive in the competition no matter the result against the Dutch. The side were to be without Hidetoshi Nakata who played in every match for Japan at their first three World Cups and the iconic midfielder helped bring Japanese football onto the world stage – later he lost his appetite and quit the sport. Everything now was in total contrast to what they had experienced pre-tournament when morale was at an all-time low, having come into the finals in total disarray. Coach Takeshi Okada had lofty ambitions and hoped his squad could venture into the semi-finals. After coach Ivica Osim suffered a stroke in late 2007, the Japanese FA handed the reins to Takeshi Okada, the man who guided the team through France 1998. A more mature Okada led Japan to a fairly straightforward qualification, although he came in for criticism at times from an increasingly demanding Japanese media for the team’s lack of goals. He had offered to step down in the aftermath of a friendly defeat by South Korea just days before departure.
A Cup of Nations: Euro 2008
The End of the Pain in Spain
Spanish football stood on the threshold of a new beginning as years of pain in Spain had finally come to its end. Years of unfulfilled potential, underachieving and under-performing was now a thing of the past. The Class of 2008 was to banish the past torment, heartache and self-destruction to the midst of the deepest outer realms; the team finally breaking through the glass ceiling that had held them back. It would take them to the pinnacle of the European game on the international arena, to the top of their trade, so long overdue for a fully deserved triumph in every sense of the word. Finally the best team had won in what was a model way to play football.
This was Spain 2008, the New Spain, who had finally found the attributes to finally realise the country’s potential. It was a Spain that added a new mental grittiness-strength, steel, resilience, heart, teamwork and tactical discipline to its arsenal of weapon to compliment traditional traits of speed, technique and skill. The real battle was won not on the pitch but their minds. This under the willy guidance of coach Luis Arangones, a controversial character, but an astute and top leader, finally bringing home Spain’s first trophy after a wait of 44 years – their only previous title success. Interestingly, he would be one of the 10 managerial departees after the finals.
It had been Spain’s first final since its glorious 1984 defeat to France. The 40-million populated nation gloried in victory, revelled in its new found status as clearly Europe’s best team. A nation that had relied on the glories of Real Madrid and Barcelona had finally got rid of the notion to accommodate the stars of just these two Spanish giants.
Spain’s final triumph was a just reward for their superiority at some of the most basic aspects of the game – accurate passing, instant control and sharp movement. The backbone to this was Spain’s cluster of talented midfielders; Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva (most consistent performer) plus anchor man Marcos Senna – who held his side together, providing the defensive base that allowed others to support the forwards that possessed blistering pace and had a sharp eye for goal.
It would end in the magnificent arena of Vienna’s Ernst Happel stadium on June 29th. Opponents Germany, a pre-tournament favourite, had been second best throughout this finale to a team that seemingly had not moved out of second gear. Spain carefully dictated events and could certainly have inflicted a heavier margin of defeat on the tournament’s most successful ever nation. They had never previously beaten the Germans in a tournament match. Iker Casillas, playing his 82nd international had not been forced into one serious save, such was Spain’s dominance. He cemented his status as the world’s top keeper having been outstanding in the quarter-final with Italy with two penalty saves.
In the final it was Spain’s cutting edge; technically excellent, fine touch, accuracy of passing and a top-notch finish by Fernando Torres – his 36th of the season – rather than Germany’s powerful running that fittingly secured the trophy. Man-of-the-match Torres had scored 24 premier league goals but had only scored once before the final, the opening goal in 2-1 win over Sweden – substituted in both games against Russia as well as against Italy. The goal wiped away concerns about the absence of injured David Villa, Spain’s top goalscorer with five goals who limped out of semi. It was only fitting that Euro 2008 signed off with a classic final after three weeks of consistently high-quality attacking and entertaining football that helped make it one of the best tournaments for years.
It had all started by trouncing neat Russia in the first game, where the goals rained in Innsbruck from David Villa – chief tormentor; the Spain bandwagon had started to roll. Even resting nine first-teamers for the final group match against Greece could not stop them from maintaining a 100% record. History had been made by beating Italy on penalties after a desperately poor goalless draw; in a contest strangled by fear of failure and in Spain’s case, having lost so regularly at that stage ,so that was understandable. It was a landmark first victory over opponents in nine competitive meetings since the first in 1920. Cesc Fabregas rammed in the decisive penalty in Vienna. Interestingly Spain had lost penalty shoot-outs on June 22nd at tournaments in 1986, 1996, 2002 – June 22nd now used to be a dark date for them. Second half goals from Xavi, Daniel Guiza and David Silva nailed Russia, a ghost of the team that had clinically dismantled and magnificently outplayed the Dutch – Hiddink’s third defeat in a major semi-final, after Holland 98, Korea 2002 respectively. Germany, the beaten finalist and third-placed finishers of its own World Cup of 2 years earlier had put on a credible performance at these finals. This a marked improvement on the first round exits in 2000 and 2004. Germany’s high point was the thrilling 3-2 quarter-final win over Portugal when the advanced midfield role of Michael Ballack – some saw as possibly their only true world class player – inspired them to one of their best performances for years. This despite getting away with a blatant push on Portugal Paulo Ferreira when he scored Germany’s second. Joachim Low, one of 6 of 16 coaches to stay on was satisfied with the finals as a whole, and acknowledged defeat, citing a great performance in reaching the final. Spain deserved to win no arguments. He had the foresight half way through the tournament to change the system after defeat against Croatia in second game that left them requiring a point against Austria. The new 4-2-3-1 system gave Ballack the freedom to roam and stamp his authority. Despite being outplayed by Croatia in group stage and riding its luck against Turkey – displaying a sheer will to win saw them proceed – as a place at the Ernst Happel stadium beckoned.
The tournaments biggest casualties and flops came from the so-called Group of death – Italy and France finalist of 2006 final. As with its performance at the 2002 World Cup, a total shambles, France proved to be a bunch of talented individuals that played with little direction and left the tournament like a flash of lighting with Italy doing no better, leaving without so much as a stir.
The very unpopular Domenech – especially with French media because of insistence that access to his squad be kept to a minimum – had put too much reliance on the class of 98 and 2000, leaving no space for youngsters who could have helped; tensions to simmer in the camp between young and older generations as the untouchables became immovable as age had taken its withering toll, especially catching up with the French back line, while others were disinterested on the pitch. Many were openly critical of boss’s nonsensical decisions, questioning his tactics, selections and substitutions. Lilian Thuram, the sole survivor from the 98 winning team, and Claude Makekele called time on their international careers as the campaign descended into a farce with Domenech’s post-exit marriage proposal. The strikers starved of service were usually not on the same wavelength in a side that played at a stately pace showing a lack of urgency and enterprise. A tameless woeful draw against theoretically the weakest link of the group Romania was followed by a crushing devastating loss to Holland; the French (like the Italians before against the Dutch) suffering their worst tournament defeat – 4-1. This was despite Domenech having made a number of changes including the return of Henry. France, along with Italy left scrambling for second place.
Italy capitalised on French misfortune in the form of a serious injury to Ribery and Eric Abidal’s early dismissal. Donadoni lived to fight another day longer as Italy ripped France apart – in a contest fast and furious – more decisively than the scoreline suggested. Luca Toni should have completed his hat-trick in a five-minute spell.
Aiming to add to their World Cup win of 2006, the Azzuri in its opening game had been blown away by a devastating five-minute first-half period during which Holland scored twice. In one match Italy had conceded more goals than in their entire World Cup campaign in Germany. Their last comparable defeat was 4-1 to Brazil in the 1970 final. Only a fortuitous 80th minute penalty save from by Luigi Buffon saved Italy from elimination against Romania in Zurich – a thrilling pulsating game. Italy only scored three goals at the finals and none was by a forward. Too many long balls were pinned over to misfiring Luca Toni while injured captain Fabio Cannavaro was badly missed as was the suspended Pirlo in quarter-finals against Spain – a lack of creativity stifled the contest. The sacking of Roberto Donadoni, (4 days later by the Italian federation) and replacement World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi was no surprise. Donadoni’s tenure seemed very much like that of France’s Domenech and seemed to be experimenting from match to match, a recipe for disaster.
Turkey’s return to a major tournament – following non-attendance at Euro 2004 and the World Cup 2006, re-building its reputation after failure – brought a surprise vein of form again defying odds for one of the great stories of the finals. They matched its performance of 2002 World Cup finals with yet another semi-final appearance – again denied by the more illustrious opponent, a step too far. They proved to be fearless and unstinting, winning friends with their never-say-die attitude and surprised everybody, not least themselves. Turkey went into the finals with a point to prove and reminded the world of their talent. Faith Terim, possibly Turkey’s greatest ever coach, moulded a winning team from a depleted threadbare squad ravaged because of suspension and injury; only 14 players were available for selection at one point. Veteran striker Hakan Sukur had been discarded and left at home, Terim berated back at home for his opening selection; he returned home to a hero’s reception. An incredible hat-trick of comebacks against Switzerland, Czech Republic and Croatia gave them the self-belief that they could emulate neighbours Greece and reach a final. Their brave gusto performance in the semis against rattled Germany deserved better. They had in fact looked on the verge of another amazing revival when Semih Senturk hit a late goal to make it 2-2. But German left-back Lahm, blamed for Spain’s goal in the final, popped up in the last minute to send Turkey home. Omens had not looked good when they were overrun by Portugal in opening match, but late goals against Switzerland – victory to end the hosts continued participation – and then even more remarkably against the Czechs in Geneva; snatching victory from the jaws of elimination with a last gasp win, helped with a blunder from Cech in goal. The Turks went in the match with Czech Republic with an identical record, meaning a draw would lead to penalties to determine qualifiers. They then suddenly came alive in extra-time against Croatia for yet another remarkable victory.
Under the leadership of the canny old master Guus Hiddink, Russia had proven to be one of the most attractive teams at these finals; played in a way that reminded one of Arsenal with its slick imaginative first-touch passing, hugely impressive against Sweden and Holland. Andrei Arshavin, with superlative performances was the inspiration, the revelation of the finals, winning universal acclaim despite playing limited time after being suspended for the first 2 games. He staked a claim to being Europe’s next superstar. Hiddink, displaying all the motivational skills and tactical nous, was hailed as a genius after outwitting Holland in a contender for the game of finals that saw some 54 attempts on goal. The Russian league being a third of the way through the season meant the players were fresher than its western rivals. Roman Pavlyuchenko played his part also giving the attack a focal point and linked well with Arsharvin.
Recovery from the battering by Spain was achieved with the single goal win over Greece which set up a win-or-bust showdown with Sweden which they passed with flying colours. The return of Arsharvin gave the Russian attack a new dimension as Sweden’s were swept aside to secure their first knockout stage appearance at a major tournament since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Until then Russia, a young team of talent were impressive in their cultured build-up play but lacked a killer instinct – that was until Arsharvin’s entrance transformed attacking options. Two-assists, one brilliantly taken goal against Holland and the previously unfancied Russia were into the semis; recovering from the setback of conceding a late equaliser in regular time against the Dutch who in the end ran out of breath and were spent physically and mentally after being forced to chase the game for the first time at the finals – played at their own game. Then it was Russia’s turn to chase shadows as Spain eventually passed them into exhaustion then picked them off with three well- crafted second half goals in a terrific semi-final where barely a backward pass was made.
The lead to these championships had been all about one man, Cristiano Ronaldo, world football’s top performer of the 2008 season and the name on everybody’s lips. A monster 42-goal contribution helped take the Champions league title for his club Manchester Utd as well as the League. Ronaldomania had engulfed the entire occasion just as his namesake had on the lead up to the 1998 finals of France. He revelled in his status as world’s top player as he flirted with Real Madrid. The transfer saga surrounding its main man plus coach Scolari’s own deal with Chelsea, announced within seconds of qualification for the quarter-finals did not help the cause. Agents had been banned from Portugal’s training base in Neuchatel by a manager who did not practice what he preached. Quarter-finalist in 96, semi-finalist in 2000, and finalist in 2004 would they be winners in 2008, many wondered? Portugal had the talent, and, early on, the inclination to go a long way and looked one of the most slick and attractive teams using 4-2-3-1 – a normal formation. Ronaldo showed flashes of brilliance in the group stages and had his moments, notably against the Czechs, scoring one and setting up the other two, but when he was needed most, in the final hour against Germany, he disappeared – somehow inhibited by the speculation concerning a possible transfer to Real Madrid. Portugal ultimately went out because they failed to do basic defending and deal with Germany’s aerial assault.
A Cup of Nations: Africa 2008
Cigars of the Pharaohs
Lightning was to strike twice, the Pharaohs of Egypt at the 26th edition of the finals, had cemented its position as the dominant team on the continent and become the most successful nation in African history, a sixth in total. They were Kings of Africa, again, even exceeding their own expectations, this in a hemisphere, south of the sahara, where North African sides traditionally played poorly.
The Defending champions, far from being the most spectacular side, retained the crown won 2 years previous on home soil, with a depth of quality, adapting tactics from game to game. They played with a combination of resolute determined defending with the pace and the flair of its effective strikers that possessed a ruthless streak in front of goal. Mohammed Zidan was the jewel in the crown and stand-out player of a star trio; Mohamed Aboutraika was scorer of 77th minute winner in the final against Cameroon, while Ahmed Hassan became the first player to win three Nations Cup titles.
Combined with the tactical astuteness of its manager Hassan Shehata made them invincible.
It would be Egypt’s third success in the last 10 years quashing any hopes of the dream final between Ghana and neighbours Ivory Coast; instead left to contest the third-fourth placed game won 4-2 by Ghana.
The feat achieved was more amazing considering the poor form shown since winning in 2006 with doubts raised about their credentials, especially having made hard work of a far-from-tough qualifying group against Burundi, Botswana, and Mauritania; embarrassingly not sealing their finals place until the final round of games. They had looked a side in transition and by their own admission had not set their sights beyond the semi-final, certainly overlooked by most pundits as eventual champions.
The mixed colours of supporting uniforms made this the world’s most colourful tournament just as would the nicknames of its participants – from the boastful Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, Benin’s Squirrels, the Desert Hawks of Sudan, the Elephants of Ivory Coast, to the Black Stars from Ghana.
The bi-annual festival, a three-week extravaganza, witnessed by a million travelling fans, had seen a remarkable evolution and rise into a true world event with a growing world focus, importance and significance; also sadly an inconvenience to the European game. The showcase – international football’s third biggest event – now attracted a big TV worldwide audience as more and more internationally recognised players from Europe’s leading clubs participated at this event…more than ever, to the growing discontent of the European giants who pay their wages. Thirty-five had come from the Premier League alone with many bemoaning and voicing the concerns at the timing of the event and how it clashed through the midway period of its own leagues. Teams were angered by the prospect of losing its men for possibly as long as six weeks at a crucial time of the season. Many star players actually wanted a switch to the European summer.
However, it meant so much to the continent for these players to represent their respected countries; players such as Drogba, Essien, Martins, Yakubu, Toure, and Diouf. The strength in depth was a reflection of the rising importance. Traditional continental superpowers (Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon) and the North African triumvirate were joined by Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mali as serious contenders. An array of high profiled coaches, German Berti Vogts, Henri Michel, Frenchman Roger Lemerre, and Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira.
The Confederations African Football (CAF) had consistently ignored calls, pleas for a crescendo of complaints from Europe to change to a summer schedule which in itself would have its problems, such as scorching high temperatures. It perhaps showed a little disrespect that the Europeans would have for the African game by asking a top-quality international tournament (held three years before the first Euro finals in 1957) to be moved in favour of their domestic leagues. Ghana invested in four new stadiums in what was generally regarded as a poorly run disorganised Tournament.
Cameroon was to be the final cog in this remarkable sweeping run to victory for Egypt. The Indomitable Lions had also been the opening day opponents of the Pharaoh and were emphatically crushed, stunned by the sheer incisiveness of Egypt in Kumasi; who fielded an uncharacteristic 3-man attack and had raced into a comprehensive half-time lead. Zidan scored arguably the best of 99 goals at the finals; Cameroon seemingly a spent force.
The final in Ghana’s capital Accra was to be kind of anti-climactic, the Pharaohs in total control, in a second gear, never in danger of losing its grip of its crown. Victory was fully deserved, having most of chances on goal and should have wrapped up the contest earlier. Cameroon’s 31-year-old captain Rigobert Song, the most experienced and capped player – not missing one of 33 games spanning seven tournaments – was an accident waiting to happen and gifted Egypt the goal with a sloppy error. He panicked then slipped and got caught in possession by Zidan, whose pass invitingly in the path across goal gave Aboutrika the chance to shot accurately past keeper Kameni. Cameroon’s five-goal star man and goalscorer Samuel Eto’o – tally at 16 goals – had been dogged by a hamstring strain that rendered him ineffective. Angola had proved sterner opposition in a quarter-final contest for Egypt.
A semi-final duel with the highly talented and fancied Ivory Coast had brought about a stunning 4-1 triumph; the Elephants had crushed and trampled all rivals before them previously, reigning supreme in the so-called Group of Death, qualification secured after only two matches, looking pretty imperious and unstoppable in the process. The Elephants, totally outplayed, overrun and outfought by their intelligent North African opponents were expertly picked off seemingly with every attack. It was yet another tactical triumph after a five-man midfield throttled the Ivory Coast’s supply line to its danger men. No revenge for its 2006 final penalty shoot-out lost to host nation Egypt.
Ivory Coast on paper had the most complete team of all competing nations, a tremendous strength in depth and balanced squad. Most of the focus had been on the star-studded renowned star players plying their trade at some of Europe’s top clubs; the iconic inspirational leader Didier Drogba, now possibly the continents top striker. Only Barcelona’s 3-time African footballer of the year, twice Nations Cup winner Samuel Eto’o stood in his way or could rival him. Cameroon’s best footballing export had eclipsed his boyhood hero Roger Milla.
The tournament quickly burst into light with a fiercely contested Group B victory in Sekondi over Nigeria which set the Elephants on the way to the leadership – Salomon Kalou scoring a brilliant individual goal with a mazy run that took him past three defenders. A bundle and avalanche of goals followed in the matches against Benin (4) and Mali (3) as Ivory sounded out they would be the team to beat. It did not end there as it was followed with a 5-0 demolition of plucky Guinea, who collapsed during the last quarter of the game. The team had overcome a blow less than a fortnight before the finals, with the decision of German coach Uli Stielike to step aside due to personnel reasons; Gerardi Gili an assistant to Henri Michel in 2006 took over the reins.
As for Egypt, the group leadership had been secured successfully following a deft display in the outstanding dismantation of Cameroon, Mohammed Zidan, a focal-point and the shining armour in a virtuoso display capped with two stunning goals. Sudan would also be no match and were easily crushed 3-0, however, a relaxed display allowed Zambia to escape with a 1-1 scoring draw. They then profited from two defensive errors to beat Angola, but were still well worth the 2-1 victory.
Perennial candidates for success at the Nations Cup, Cameroon, were a team in transition, a new generation to replace the stalwarts and had a much younger side than at previous tournaments. As always, a bizarre and erratic air surrounded the team as they had taken an unconventional path to success with preparation characteristically chaotic, a failure to organise warm-up matches and a last minute change of training camp, plus customary hitches with luggage and hotels.
A change of coach two months before the finals did nothing for cohesion; veteran globe-trotting German Otto Pfister took over the reins (10th national team – took Ghana to 1992 finals) from caretaker coach Jules Nyongha.
The crushing loss to Egypt gave an over-confident Cameroon, a kind of reality check and they fixed up for the Zambia clash four days later and hauled themselves back into contention with a crushing 5-1 win, easing pressure on coach Pfister who completely reshuffled his line-up. The opportunity did not slip them by against the minnows of Sudan in Tamale (3-0) before an extra-time defeat of Tunisia 3-2 – serving up a feast for the crowd in a bruising battle. Journeyman Alain Nkong, with only one previous substitute appearance at the finals – in fact a surprise inclusion to the squad – replaced Joseph-Desire Job on the hour before scoring the winner on 72 minutes in the semi-final clash with the hosts.
Backed by an enthusiastic home following Ghana, heavily fancied, had high hopes of a successful African Nations campaign. They had won the tournament in 1963 and 1978 by virtue of home advantage, but performed miserably in 2000 as joint-host – won three of five times hosted the event. Traditionally the home nation had performed well recently – Egypt 20006, Tunisia 2004. Under French coach Claude Le Roy (who led Cameroon to cup in 1988 and runner-up up 2 years earlier) Ghana had progressed as the winner of Group A, but despite this 100% record one felt more was to come. In an eagerly and tightly contested opening day match, Guinea were overcome 2-1, only just, slight good fortune to shine on the host. Qualification was secured in the Accra duel with Namibia and battled to beat the minnows. Morocco would be the final nail in the topping of a relatively easy group; its best performance saved until last as Michael Essien, its talisman and star, created one goal and scored the other in a virtuoso display. He was a focal-point in everything engineered by the team. Midfield as normal was their strongest department, despite absence of injured captain Stephen Appiah, a blow that robbed them of a key component. Its attack was somewhat devoid of the greatest quality as Nottingham Forest’s Junior Agogo was the man the nation looked to for goals, and he provided three of them, importantly one against Nigeria. His winner eight minutes from time sparked ecstatic street celebrations nationwide.
Though they did not the reach final, there was compensation in ousting arch-rivals Nigeria in the first quarter-final, coming from behind to win 2-1 – remarkably with 10-men, after Captain John Mensah’s dismissal on the hour for a professional foul. Cameroon then ended Ghana’s dreams of a home soil success.
A Cup of Nations: COPA 2007
World football’s most illustrious and celebrated team Brazil, with a ruthless performance of great efficiency had overcome its most feared arch-rival Argentina to win the COPA -America for the second time in succession, and this time more emphatically than the 2004 Lima confrontation. This, the 42nd addition, was held in the land of baseball and beauty contestants, Venezuela, the last in the list of nations to hold a COPA finals; the idea for hosting this tournament first came about 20 years earlier. The COPA had briefly been loaned to Colombia in 2001 following victories in 1997 and 1999 for Brazil. It was a bitter pill for Argentina, carrying the burden of 14 years without a trophy, who lost on penalties to a second string Brazil in a memorable 2004 final, but were favourites to win this time against a Brazilian team missing Kaka and Ronaldinho, who asked to be rested. A 4-1 trashing by Brazil at the 2005 Confederations Cup and 3-0 at Arsenal’s new stadium in 2006 followed.
With the need to win – for Argentina – there was no experimenting as happened at previous COPA ‘s of late; no players excused because they needed a holiday, as in case of some Brazilians, as the squad was mostly drawn from the Europe-based contingent. The 64-year-old manager Alfio Basile, between 1991 until 1993, oversaw a 31 match unbeaten run.
South America’s top trophy – in a match very untypical in itself – had once again been captured by a combination of attributes not immediately associated with the Brazil team, namely strength and power, mixed with traditional elements of attacking full-backs and flashes of individual talent. Brazil, also bigger and stronger had huge imposing players, battlers with the look of a basketball team; the extra strength at no cost of speed or skill. Brazil sat back soaked up the pressure and broke with pace on the break as Argentina’s shaky defence was exposed by the sheer athleticism of Brazil’s counter-attacks and constantly played into their hands.
Argentina’s artistry and passing game had been repeatedly blunted by Brazil’s ruggedness and superior physical power; their usual flowing game and best moves continually interrupted by systematic Brazilian fouling in midfield. Brazil gave away a total of 37 free-kicks as they won most of the 50-50 balls – artistry crushed by efficiency.
The purists hoped for an Argie win, but the favourites – beforehand – in sweltering Maracaibo found themselves swept off its feet by a side that had survived an early Juan Roman Riquelme shot (for a quick reply to Brazil’s opener) rifled against the post – evidence it might be Brazil’s afternoon. The samba had stung Argentina by snatching a quick lead in the 4th minute; Julio Baptista’s goal setting them on their way. The long crossfield ball by Elano found Baptista on the left and, as Ayala held off, the player known as ‘the Beast’ advanced menacingly and unleashed a shot into the top right-hand corner. With the temperature at kick-off time around 32 Celsius and the tropical sun still burning, a cagey slow opening had been expected – certainly not end-to-end. Argentina coach Alfio Basile had criticised organisers of the COPA America over the kick-off time in the steamy oil city. The number ten (Riquelme) was close again in the 35th minute but his shot was brilliantly turned away by Brazil goalkeeper Doni. Instead of Robinho, a potent goalscorer at these championships, one could look at the hulking Baptista, the symbol of Brazil’s physical strength from this current set up as the player of the tournament, scoring and assisting in goals. He may not have started had Kaka, the world’s leading player or Ronaldinho, his predecessor answered the call for inclusion. The contest was effectively over when Roberto Ayala, making his 115th appearance inadvertently slid the ball past his keeper and into his own goal from vicious in-swinging cross from Daniel Alves, just on for the injured Elano – five minutes before half-time.
Although Argentina had more possession they struggled to impose their style and Brazil produced the killer punch and ended the contest on 69 minutes. Vagner Love broke down the left and fed Daniel Alves, who scored with a clinical shot into the bottom right-hand corner. A 15th COPA victory was out of reach as Argentina coach Alfio Basile, who won the 1991 and 1993 tournaments in a previous stint, lost a COPA America match for the first time in a run spanning 19 games. Argentina scored 16 goals in 5 games before the final while Brazil lost to Mexico in the group stage and needed a penalty shoot-out to beat Uruguay in the semi-finals.
After only 11 months in charge, and with no previous coaching experience beforehand, former World Cup winning player of 1994 turned coach Dunga had won his first title. He prepared for his first competitive internationals by resisting the temptation to clear out the old, but gave chances to youngsters and those overlooked by predecessors in countries like Ukraine and Russia. Leadership was the main requirements here after replacing Carlos Alberto Parreira. Fiery Dunga took over with Brazil at low ebb after their lacklustre performances at the World Cup the previous year, when they lost to France in the quarter-finals. He stated the team had rescued the self-esteem of their supporters by winning the COPA America. ‘The worker leaves home early in the morning and comes back at late night and whose only satisfaction is when Brazil wins,’ said Dunga. He then paid tribute to his players, who he said had come from adversity to triumph. ‘They are winners, they come from families who financially are not so well off, nobody has given them anything, they’ve worked hard for this and so they deserve it,’ he said. He also warned that Ronaldinho and Kaka, who asked to be rested from the tournament, would have to fight to get their places back in the team. Of future team selections, he said: ‘Obviously, the player who comes is ahead of the player who doesn’t. Players are picked on merit and their capabilities. ‘If a player comes and he does well, how can I take him out of the team?’ Although he was criticised in the earlier stages of the tournament, especially after a 2-0 defeat to Mexico, Dunga said he had nothing to say to his detractors. ‘If my team wins, then I have nothing to explain,’ he said. It had started so horribly wrong for the samba boys with an unexpected 2-0 opening day defeat at the hands of Mexico, just three days after they had lost to USA in the Concacaf Gold Cup final. However, they benefited from dubious refereeing decisions (one of two) given in the group stages when they had looked unlikely to break Chile’s defences. Chile dominated the second half but failed to take its chances and became tired chasing the game, leaving Robinho to grab two more goals (adding to his opener) in the last 10 minutes to give the scoreline a flattering look. Robinho was in the headlines again after a supposed foul when no contact appeared to be made for a penalty award which the forward scored for his fourth tournament goal in 2-0 win against Ecuador.
Robinho, once dubbed the new Pele, had finally been given the chance to lead attack– He had been sidelined by the Ronaldo-Adriano partnership at the 2006 World Cup.
An astonishing sequence of one-sided games followed into the quarter-finals, Brazil one of two nations to crash six goals. This was amidst reports opponents Chile going on a drinking spree and causing damage at the team hotel in Puerto Ordaz; 6-1 was the crushing scoreline with Juan, Baptista, Robinho either side of half-time, Josue and Wagner Love all scoring. Brazil found it harder going against a somewhat superior Uruguay team following a 2-2 draw. Only the fortune of penalties to go in their favour, 5-4 victors ensured a final date with Argentina.
Luck followed them again with a third dubious decision in their favour when keeper Doni 3-4 metres off his line, made the sudden death penalty save kick; in a match halted by a 14 minute floodlight failure. Brazil had failed to defeat Uruguay in 90 minutes since the 3-0 COPA final victory of 1999.
Argentina had played their way through teams en route to the final in Venezuelan capital, and along with Paraguay qualified for the last eight with a game to spare after winning the first two matches. Despite falling behind to USA they ran out comfortable 4-1 winners after taking the lead on the hour. Old habits died-hard as they fell behind again against Colombia only to be gifted an equaliser before ending the game 4-2 victors; not before Hernan Crespo in scoring a penalty for 2-1 pulled a muscle that would keep him out for rest of the finals. He would be sorely missed. With Paraguay cracking in goals, Argentina needed victory to overtake them in the standings; they did it with Javier Mascherano’s first goal for his country. Peru held on up until half-time before a change involving Carlos Tevez for Diego Milito in attack. Argentina swept to a storming 4-0 romp. Mexico too suffered a similar fate despite putting up a fight for long periods in a 3-0 loss. Lionel Messi scored the goal of tournament with a stunning chip over Oswaldo Sanchez.
Colombia, semi-finalists and the last winners besides Brazil, got eliminated in the first round. They arrived with building a new team on the agenda, this with preparation for the World Cup qualifiers in mind. After failure to qualify for 2002 and 2006 new coach Jorge Luis Pinto proclaimed Colombia were going to World Cup. He had various ideas and wanted the team to be dynamic, aggressive and direct. Colombia were none of them as scoring goals was a problem and they were quickly sent packing by Paraguay 5-0, their fate decided in a five minute spell after missing the chance with a penalty kick in the 27th minute; 2-0 down to goals from Roque Santa Cruz either side of half-time they collapsed in the final 10 minutes as Santa completed a treble before Salvador Cabanas grabbed a quick brace. The dream was ended by Argentina 4-2 before a consolation 1-0 win against bottom placed USA, not before Hugo Rodalegga missed a penalty before ending up in goal as Robinson Zapata was sent-off after twice being booked for time-wasting.
Venezuela, the host nation, defeated by Uruguay 4-1 in the quarter-finals, ended its 40 year wait for a second game victory in San Cristobal and progressed to beyond the first stage for the first time; having rather conveniently been drawn in the easiest group alongside Peru, Bolivia and Uruguay. Its last victory in 1967 over Bolivia had been their debut appearance at the COPA. Spearheaded by encouraging results of late, the game in the country had made massive strides.
It would be one of the most ambitious COPA ‘s ever with 9 cities used, three new stadiums built and despite lack of hotels and inadequate transportation system, grounds were usually full. Bolivia had pegged them back for a deserved share of the spoils in the opening game, but its win came in a controversy rigged encounter with Peru 2-0. A sequence of results meant the hosts had qualified before they took to the field against Uruguay who requiring the point and appeared as happy to play out a goalless draw with the hosts. Under Ricardo Paez (who had experienced the dark days of national football), in charge since 2001, Venezuela had made enormous strides, the coach overseeing a transformation; winning a significant number of World Cup qualifiers of recent – won five out of 18, 2002 qualifiers. A 2-0 win in Chile 2001 represented their first ever away win. They had won only two from 1965 to 1998. They played an attractive passing game and were exporting players now.
Until recently they were considered the odd ones in South America, the national sport traditional baseball while other nine nations took fervently to football. Next step was defeating Brazil and Argentina???
World Cup 2006
The Empire Strikes Back
Four years following on from its ignominious, damaging and crushing defeat to co-host South Korea at the second stage of World Cup finals and the debacle that followed – accusations of cheating, conspiracy theories and biasedness – Italy stood on the threshold of a fourth World Cup finals triumph. It was unprecedented for any European nation, even greater than that of host nation Germany – A penalty kick away.
This was amidst a major scandal within the national game with four clubs and 26 individuals to stand trial on charges of sporting fraud relating to alleged match fixing. Thirteen of Italy’s 23-man World Cup squad played for the four clubs on trial. Comparisons with 1982 were inevitable, as the Azzuri rose above the unfolding match-fixing scandal back home to scale new heights – any investigation clearly did not inhibit the team’s progress on the pitch as the squad-players understandably adopted a siege mentality, in regard to happenings back home.
Standing in the way of this history was French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, as the person that had glory within his sight was left-back Fabio Grosso.
Italy displayed a confidence in the shoot-out they had not shown in painful exits from the 1990, 1994 and 1998 tournaments. A Frenchman plying his trade in Serie A, David Trezeguet, missed the key spot-kick, France’s second that flew up past Juventus clubmate Gigi Buffon and ricocheted off the crossbar and away. It was the only one of eight missed, and had left the Azurri with one remaining kick and 4-3 ahead. Nemesis thus caught up with Trezeguet: he had scored one of the penalties with which France beat Italy in the 1998 quarter-finals and had scored the golden goal that beat Italy in Euro 2000 final. Sagnol had already completed his nations final spot kick in the spectacular arena of Berlin’s Olympic stadium.
It had seemed an eternity since Italy – only conceding its second goal – had fallen behind for the first time and to Zenedine Zidane’s outrageously cheeky chipped 7th minute audacious penalty spot kick, sending the world’s best keeper, Gianluigi Buffon, the wrong way before clipping the underside of bar and bouncing just behind the goalline. The effort was since equalised by Marco Materazzi’s powering header from Andrea Pirlo’s corner just 12 minutes later – the 147th goal of the finals. The Italian defender, only playing at centre-half because Alessandro Nesta had succumbed to injury, had himself righted his wrong after conceding the penalty (for Zidane’s goal) by tripping Florent Malouda after a clumsy intended interception. It had been an anti-climactic finish to a tense, eventful and dramatic contest (the sides locked at 1-1) in which a fully-strength Italy or France had not appeared like finalists after the first round – stumbling through the groups. The contest descended into a scruffy and gloomy chess match between two sides who offered only the tactical shapes and shifts to cancel one another out and lack the nerve for the grand occasion – with it no surprise that a shoot-out was the final outcome. Italy had faded physically in the second half and were looking towards a penalty shoot conclusion. France made most of the running, showing movement, spirit and creativity – but Italy stood firm and did not concede, showing a determination and conviction to survive a penalty shootout; Fabio Canavarro immense in defence, Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso dynamic in midfield.
As it turned out, the pendulum got swung by perhaps the World Cup’s most explosive moment, as the French suffered the dismissal of its super talisman and a rejuvenated Zidane. In the tragic final moments of a brilliant career he inexplicably in the style of a charging bull head-butted Italian defender and goalscorer Materazzi, sinking-plunging his forehead deeply into the chest of the defender, who crashed to the floor, this following a 110th minute altercation. The world looked on in confusion only for TV replays to show that the Frenchman had knocked the Italian from his feet, and that this was no dive in a tournament besmirched by play-acting.
Zidane had continued to push for an opening but began to be frustrated by the flagging efforts of both his teammates and his own body. Then suddenly, off the ball, the Frenchman retaliated to provocation with Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo, on the evidence of the fourth official Luis Medina Cantalejo, left with little choice. On a stage where one of the greatest players of his generation should have bowed out in a blaze of glory instead he was to depart humiliated, in tears and ignominy. His image (to some) tarnished by his hot-headed and shocking antics-actions, memories of the final forever blighted by the incident. Zidane, whose quiet demeanour always shadowed a hot temper, left the field wordlessly, passing the trophy with a rueful glance and sloping into football history. He had already done enough to earn the golden ball award as the tournaments best player. There were a record-breaking 345 yellow cards and 28 red cards issued at these finals. France, who had already substituted the somewhat misused lone striker Thierry Henry, its most impressive player of the final, thus would miss their two finest exponents for the shootout.
Italy’s appearance in this final seemed the more remarkable considering its performance at the most recent major tournaments of 2002 and Euro 2004, suffering humiliating first round eliminations, Italians say, contrived by Nordic nations, Sweden and Denmark conveniently drawing 2-2.
France had fared no better since the 2000 triumph over the Italians in Rotterdam. Humiliation at the 2002 World Cup of Japan/Korea was followed by a lacklustre performance in 2004 ultimately leading to a premature exit at the hands of eventual winners Greece. Zizou duly announced his retirement, only to be persuaded to return by a mysterious “voice in the night” – later revealed to have been his brother’s. Its performance in the original qualifying section saw them fail to defeat Israel (twice), Switzerland (twice), and Republic of Ireland (on one occasion).
Historically and notoriously slow starters Italy broke with tradition with a masterful opening display in Hanover, its tournament experience the telling factor in taming the spirited debutantes from Africa, Ghana. Its performance was ultra-professional and solid before the decisive and superior finishing in attack was to cut through an outfit that lacked the cutting edge possessed by its European opponent. Pirlo’s brilliant goal settled the nerves five minutes off half-time before Samuel Kuffour’s under-hit back pass was finished off by substitute Vincenzo Iaquinta. An eventful and controversial topsy-turvy duel followed with the USA, rich in incident but poor in quality ending in a hard fought share of the spoils. Daniele De Rossi for elbowing United States striker Brian McBride picked up a four game ban. Czech Republic, still shell-shocked by the Ghana loss and fighting for its own survival wouldn’t find the Azzuri, despite dropping Luca Toni, in any charitable mood, fully taking advantage of a Czech side weakened by injuries and suspensions; Italy duly winning 2-0. A second round victory over the courageous plucky Aussies owed more to fortune than any craft and a dive from Grosso (falling over a legitimate challenge) to win the late penalty after facing extra-time. Ten-man Italy showed organisation and spirit following the controversial dismissal of Materazzi. Substitute Francesco Totti expertly dispatched the gift past Schwarzer as Italy gained its revenge for a painful loss to Guus Hiddink’s South Korea at same stage 4 years earlier in 2002. Ukraine would be bowled over by a two-goal spree in a 10-minute second half spell, Luca Toni (though not in Paolo Rossi mould) adding to Zamborotta’s opener on 6 minutes. It was all too easy as bar a spell early in second half Blokhin’s side was never in the game, Italy displaying attacking ambitions considered alien by some of their previous teams. The confrontation with host Germany in Dortmund promised to be a contest of a totally different kind in front of 60,000 mostly partisan fans now rapt by a belief of ultimate victory with the chant “Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin (we’re going to Berlin)” now sung in full voice. The German side were unlike so many of its predecessors in so many ways. Though not the classic of the 1970 semi-final (Italy 4-3 victor’s a.e.t) it proved a tense ferocious-fast-paced hard fought battle and looked to be heading towards a penalty shoot-out conclusion. That was until left back Fabio Grosso on 119 minutes stationed on the edge of the area curled and executed exquisitely past Germany’s floundering keeper Lehmann. A minute later Italy, who had edged the balance of play, broke clear with a masterful counter-attack with Del Piero putting the finishing touch to end the dream of 80,000,000 populated Germany and send the small band of Italian fans into raptures. The snap had gone out of Germany’s legs as the emotional weight of domestic expectation took its toll – tearful players collapsed to the ground. Lippi’s positive substitutions were to prove vital as Germany’s suffered its first defeat in Dortmund after having played there 13 times.
Reaching the final was remarkable and totally unexpected for France with the turnaround in fortunes and brilliance of Zenedine Zidane (whom his team over-depended on) unlikely as it had been brilliant, written off by so many people as being too old too slow. Domenech faced heavy criticism for sticking with the ageing Zidane with his berators insisting that his languid style inhibited French moves. Only the recall of the veterans edged France through the qualifying campaign and kept Domenech in his job. Frank Ribery added a new dimension to the attacking armoury, and Henry finally raised his game when it mattered – he had a recent tendency to under-perform at the highest level. They were particularly strong at the back, with central defender Lillian Thuram immense as were Claude Makelele and combative Patrick Viera powerful influences in midfield.
France’s progress to the last 16 had been anything but spectacular or the finished product highlighted by traditional French weaknesses, performances distinctly underwhelming, and managed only poor displays in draws against Switzerland and South Korea. The drab 0-0 draw with Swiss meant France had equalled the World Cup record of going 4 games without a goal, though lone front-runner Henry ended the drought against South Korea. But a late equaliser by the Koreans meant France had to beat Togo by two clear goals to make sure of progress. Zidane picked up a booking in both, meaning he had to sit out the final game against Togo on June 23, his 34th birthday. France had to win, but their inability to score raised the possibility that Zizou, who had announced that he would retire from football completely at the end of France’s campaign, could have already played his final game. France would do just enough winning 2-0 and so were dragged back from the brink. Patrick Viera, captain in absence of Zidane, scored the first goal and then helped create the second for Henry – assisted with the presence of a second striker for first time – Trezegeut.
Controversy shrouded the contest with the Spanish after Thierry Henry feigned a blow to the head by Spain’s Carlos Puyol which led directly to the free-kick from which the French scored the second, decisive goal – the Spanish overpowered. France played with fantastic spirit against Brazil, Zidane, silencing the doubters and back to his best was fantastic, controlling play demanding the ball, his teammates playing with a great sense of purpose. Henry evaded the attention of the entire Brazil defence volleying home Zidane’s floated free-kick from close-range at the far post. The momentum continued as France marched into the World Cup final with Portugal defeated by yet another Zidane penalty, as they had 6 years earlier in Brussels. France showing desire and commitment were the more cohesive of teams and defended like lions as put by Thierry Henry who won the decisive penalty hit perfectly past Ricardo.
Since reaching the World Cup final in Yokohama, Germany had been in turmoil and free-fall, the pitiful showing and early elimination from Euro 2004 led to the resignation or termination of manager and former star Rudi Voller’s tenure. A new man was at the helm, Jurgen Klinsmann another former star striker, and Voller’s former striking partner. He had suffered routine ridicule before the tournament as a crank and a novice; his refusal to move to Germany from his California base had not gone down too well also. Performances in a series of build-up friendlies that included a 4-1 defeat to Italy were nothing to gloat about either, then there had been the reported differences over tactics between Klinsmann and Ballack (seemingly never fully fit and absent from opener) before the Costa Rica game. In the end they bounced back to win over the harshest of critics. Though most Germans expected the team to progress beyond an easy group, few believed it was possible that the team could recapture past glories. But as the finals progressed the fans believed that they could overcome the shortcomings. They possibly did play above themselves, and probably went out at right stage. They won more friends than could have been imagined, showing a new German face to the world as they combined traditional virtues of grind and graft with a refreshing attacking mentality and a pre-emphasis on unconventional ideas on fitness and mental preparation. A break from tradition saw the hosts rather than holders get the show underway and they did so in a style not often associated with German football. The bandwagon had been set in motion, goals to come thick and fast with an attack-minded approach that saw Costa Rica swept aside in a thoroughly entertaining flowing fare-opener in Munich’s futuristic Allianz arena in Klinsmann’s first competitive match as coach. Its best moment was the opening goal, a cut-in and smash from full-back Philipp Lahm that revealed Jürgen Klinsmann had retained the attacking instincts of his playing career. A dramatic injury-time winner by Oliver Neuville in a grudge Dortmund match with Poland secured the passage ahead, and roared on by 72,000 fans in Berlin the momentum continued with a 3-0 win over an already qualified Ecuador confirming them as group winners. The win over the Poles was Germany’s first win against a European opponent at a major tournament since their victory over the Czech Republic in the Euro 96 final. It was their best start to a World Cup since 1970 as suddenly the national mood gradually transformed from one of resignation to one of cautious optimism. The fired-up home nation had matured with every match and a second round duel with Sweden would be equally a non-contest and a walk in the park for a nation that had seen Luka Podolski strike twice in the first 12 minutes. Fan zones, showing matches on giant screens in open urban areas, were introduced and subsidised by sponsors. An estimated 750,000 fans packed the zone at the Brandenburg Gate for the contest. Klinsmann said he had never seen the team play like they had in the first 30 minutes. Their opponents then lost the plot as it got worse with Lucic picking up two yellow cards within seven minutes, for fouls on Klose – and then there was the wasted 52nd minute penalty opportunity, spurned by Larsson. Argentina would surely prove a different proposition in several ways, as there was an ugly end to an enthralling encounter between two World Cup heavyweights. A melee followed the hosts dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Argentina with one of star performers, Torsten Frings, who had snuffed out the threat of Riquelme to get suspended for the semi-final. He was adjudged to have punched Julio Cruz, as bad feeling erupted, after Jens Lehmann had put the Germans into the last four by saving Esteban Cambiasso’s spot kick. Argentine reserve Leandro Cufre was another dismissed as punches flew. Inspired by captain Ballack, Germany saved themselves from elimination with just 10 minutes remaining. A tense 120 minutes was followed by the drama of a penalty shoot-out, Germany proving once again they have no equals. It looked like they were heading for another shootout as the semi-final with a slightly superior Italy moved into the final minutes of a 120-minute marathon. Sensing certain defeat were it to proceed to a penalty contest – history was against them losing three in the last four World Cups – Italy went flat out and hit the German net twice; a cruel end to a thrilling match for the hosts. The tearful Germans departed with honour preserved and belief restored and did gain some consolation following a Bastain Schweinsteiger-led assault to gain a third-placed finish with a convincing 3-1 victory over Portugal; two goals from right-sided midfielder helping to make Germany the tournaments highest scorers with 14. Miroslav Klose picked up where he left off at the 2002 finals, scoring the goals that gave the hosts the belief they could go all the way and provided the cutting edge in attack with Lukas Podolski. He claimed the golden boot with five goals, even though he did not score against the Portuguese.
Portugal, the finalist of its own Euro final of 2004, for perhaps a slight over-achievement had emulated the success of the 1966 team by reaching the last four, this despite losing key players for the quarter-final through suspension following a second round clash with Holland. It was a tournament with all-European semi-finalists, including the same three from the 82 tournament – Italy, France, and Germany, minus Poland.
Portugal’s defeat to France in semis brought an end Scolari’s record breaking run of 12 consecutive World Cup wins – one after a shoot-out that included seven with Brazil – that equalled Vittorio Pozzo’s record, set with Italy in 1938. The man the English FA wanted to replace Sven Goran showed his pedigree and why he was in demand as the attacking talents of Pauleta, Deco, Ronaldo, Simao and captain Luis Figo – 33-years-old and in his last major tournament of an exceptional career. For Figo, displaying creativity, great technique, and fine possession play, it was a stark contrast from his mediocre performances in 2002 and at Euro 2004. Despite being overwhelming favourites they found the game with Angola far from being a stroll in the park, the colonial connections with them added an extra dimension to the opener. They had met twice before, most recently in 2001 in Lisbon when on that occasion, Portugal led 5-1 before the game was abandoned after Angola had a fourth player sent off following a brawl. A similar scoreline was on the cards when Portugal scored early through Pauleta, who did not score at Euro 2004. However, they failed to build as their opponents played their way back with some confident possession football, without ever threatening in front of goal. Limited, workmanlike and compact Iran had no answer to Portugal’s guile and technical prowess with first Deco opening before Ronaldo’s clincher. They ensured they would take top spot in the group with a tenth consecutive victory for Scolari, despite the coach omitting 5 players on yellow cards. It had been the first time in 40 years that Portugal had qualified for the next stage, in stark contrast to its mood after 2002. A hard won victory over Holland in a game that was an explosion of anti-football, disintegrating into a scrap and kicking match, illustrating the negative side of European football; four dismissals followed as Ronaldo survived systematic attempts to intimidate him – gamesmanship a let-down. In the final few minutes, dismissed Barcelona clubmates Deco and Giovanni van Bronckhorst sat arm-in-arm from the vantage point of a stadium step. England stood in its way of only a second ever semi-final appearance. The English had been defeated at the 1986 Mexico finals in Monterrey, as well as at Euro 2000 (3-2), and then finally in a Euro 2004 penalty shoot-out that followed a 2-2 draw. Portugal would be taken by England all the way with fatigue and desperation to set in. Cristiano Ronaldo, later blamed for the dismissal of Rooney, clipped home the deciding penalty for a 3-1 shoot-out win – Scolari to celebrate a third consecutive win over Eriksson. They found the semis a stumbling block after producing a performance unworthy of the occasion, failing to capitalise on its few chances it did not take; Scolari spending most of the evening flapping his arms in frustration after suffering his first defeat in 13 matches. The goal conceded was the first time they had been behind and tried any means to get back even resorting to diving from Ronaldo, jeered each time he touched the ball. Ronaldo was now firmly established as the tournament’s bad guy and was booed in Munich throughout, though he also rose to the occasion as something approaching a one-man attack. He was outshone only by Zidane, who was set to retire from all football at the end of the tournament and was determined to go out at the highest level. A foul on Henry by Carvalho gave him a penalty chance that he took with aplomb, succeeding against Portuguese keeper Ricardo where England had failed. Thereafter, despite the efforts of Ronaldo and Luis Figo, himself on a last hurrah, France were destined for Berlin; Ronaldo eventually shedding tears that were not met with much in the way of worldwide sympathy. Losing to the hosts mattered little in the third-fourth placed play-off in Stuttgart, Nuno Gomez heading in a consolation goal for a side already 3-0 behind.
A Cup of Nations: Euro 2004
As it was at the beginning, so it was to be at the end; the hosts shocked and tearful and the Greeks left in raptures. It saw the rise of the smaller nation, to the detriment of the big guns, just as it had at the 2002 World Cup.
Not even from the deepest realms or archives of Greek mythology and folklore could one have invented let alone forecast of what lay in store at the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. The 80/1 rank outsiders – with no previous tournament pedigree – in a space of three weeks from virtual no-hopers, had become the KINGS of European Football in a modern day version of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE; completed in a manner that only one could describe as done with tactical acumen, good organisation, team strength, fitness, mental strength and discipline, and not the familiar attributes associated with Champions, namely, great technique, class or individual brilliance. But it had been a highly efficient, effective, well-oiled, and well-programmed machine, something the continents best could not come to terms with. This magnificent feat achieved with a tireless band of footballers considered not good enough for Roma, Sheffield Utd, and Werder Bremen, comprised of honest hardworking, industrious players, but no world-beaters and no stars of any great note.
The man behind it all, the greatest upset in the history of the international game was a German, an authoritarian, A WORLD-CLASS COACH. Otto Rehhagel was an astute tactician that mastered-marshalled the downfall of the European football hierarchy and had taken Greece to the European summit and become the first foreign coach to win this crown at a tournament. He was largely thought of by most Greeks to be after one last pay cheque before retiring. More remarkable was the fact that they had never achieved a solitary victory in tournament history – well not until now. Ahead of the championships Greece’s record in international competition was poor to say the least, in fact their last outing, at the 1994 World Cup, was an unmitigated disaster as they lost all 3 games, conceding 10 goals and scoring none. From European qualifying Group 6 they had even lost its two opening games, until a remarkable run of six consecutive victories including its best result (at the time) of all-time a 1-0 win in Spain; enabled them to topple their group with just eight goals in 8 games.
They had a cohesive system which no one ever lacked support whether falling back or pushing forward scoring more than most had predicted. But it was its defence and midfield organisation that took them to its first ever major triumph. Though, in eyes of most, the achievement was attained in the most mundane of ways with tactics that were among the most negative, as only Latvia showed less attacking ambition than Greece. As the tournament progressed pundits and fans were left reeling as they tried to grasp time and again that Greece had somehow managed to traverse the considerable footballing obstacles before them.
They beat the hosts twice, held group favourites Spain, lost a match that did not matter (Russia), knocked out the holders and favourites (France) and they toppled the best-balanced footballing outfit Czech Republic. Any team that could do that deserved to be crowned champions. Greece marked the year of the Athens Olympics with a sporting achievement that may be remembered longer than whatever the games had brought the nation.
The climatic game was in Lisbon, 62,865 attended as history beckoned for the Portuguese and its golden generation. Portugal had the advantage of being the host nation and, unlike their Greek counterparts, had a side boasting some of European football’s most gifted players; from the ageing, yet still supreme Luis Figo, to the exciting youngster Cristiano Ronaldo – intent on claiming their due. The onus was on them as the Greeks would be more than delighted to concede possession. Ahead of the final there were concerns that the naturally attacking and expressive Portuguese game would be stymied by Greece, who would attempt to suffocate the game.
Greece was without the suspended Giorgis Karagounis, as Figo was earning his record equalling 110th cap. Theo Zagorakis was also making a record equalling 95th cap. It was Portugal, who had hardly dared hope they would be there, against Greece, who had never dared to imagine it.
As always, the Greeks were well-organised and worked hard. The superb Georgios Seitaridis, Konstantinos Katsouranis, Traianos Dellas and Angelos Haristeas – the man who headed home the game’s only goal – typified the work ethic instilled by Rehhagel, who to his eternal credit managed to create an exceptionally efficient team, far greater than the sum of its technically-limited parts. The goal arrived on 57 minutes, Haristeas rose high above Jorge Andrade to score his third goal of the finals, this from Basinas’s arrowed corner to the edge of the 6-yard box. It had been a virtual carbon-copy goal of the semi-final against the Czechs. The remainder was largely about Portuguese desperation, the host side using a lone striker – and hopelessly ineffective one, Pauleta. Greece balanced the history books with its win in 12 games – 4 wins each and four draws against Portugal who could only blame themselves for their failure. Deco, Figo and Ronaldo froze, much as they had done on the opening day, and Greece capitalised on their stage fright.
It had started on June 10th at the new magnificent home stadium of FC Porto in which Greece were supposed to be nothing but cannon-fodder for the expectant hosts Portugal, and the third favourites, led by the so-called golden generation of Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto. Without the stars of the Champions league, Scolari preferring the veterans, it was to be a mistake-ridden performance with the nervous, jittery and rattled home side all at sea. They looked like a team that had played friendlies for 2 years and allowed the defence-minded visitors – who could not believe their luck – to take advantage; with a seventh minute goal following a mistake from Paulo Ferreira, hailed as Europe’s finest full-back, gifting the ball for Giorgis Karagounis to strike low past the outstretched Ricardo. Then early in the second half Angelos Basinas converted a spot-kick after Ronaldo, who had lost the ball, tripped Seitaridis – the best right-back at the finals by a long way. Half-time substitutes Deco and Ronaldo, despite the added threat could not save the home team. So as the two sets of players left the pitch at the Estadio do Drago on June 10, it was a shock of seismic proportions that Portugal did so as losers after a 2-1 humbling. After falling behind to Morientees’s opener and staring defeat in the face (Raul somehow headed inexplicably wide when Greece’s defeat should have been confirmed) Greece rallied back and caught Spain unguarded; with an equaliser from Angelos Haristeas, which was not entirely deserved, was not entirely unexpected. The Greek bandwagon, carefully steered by Otto Rehhagel, rolled onto an improbable quarter-final despite a defeat to Russia, who had already been knocked out after 2 games. Zissis Vryzas’s goal was to prove crucial in sending his team forward by the virtue of scoring more goals than Spain, with whom they were tied on points, head-to-head record and goal difference. Vassilis Tsiartas summed it up when saying: “We knocked on the door of hell; no one was there.” Finding France a shadow of its great self, Greece, who set out to contain, were ready for the challenge. Missing Viera, broken-arm victim Willy Sagnol, France played without conviction, no feeling nor effort and without a shot on target in the entire first-half. Greece pressed hard in midfield, sat back soaking up pressure with far more space, time and possession than they could have imagined. In one of its carefully planned attacks would they counter with a killer blow as the French defensive weaknesses seen in previous matches were to re-appear. Haristeas was left unmarked to head past Barthez from Zagorakis’s – the driving force and captain – delivery. The fairytale continued following a ‘silver goal’ victory over favourites and snuffed out Czech Republic. In extra-time, the Greeks had finally come out to play, after having defended to the death with a formation designed to stifle the attacking qualities of Czechs. Traianos Dellas headed in the goal with just seconds of the first 15 minutes left. There was no time to restart as Czech players fell to the ground in despair – clever tactical approach from Greece. A fairytale rematch beckoned with hosts Portugal as Greece added the scalp of the tournaments best footballing side. They had completed an unprecedented treble of victories over the hosts Portugal, holders France and now the favourites, the Czechs.
Only three mangers, Rudi Voller, Giovanni Trapattoni and Kobi Kuhn, when asked to predict a surprise team, gave them any hope.
If the Greeks were rank outsiders then by contrast the Portuguese were amongst the very favourites. They were coached by the much-vaunted Brazilian Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, who amongst other successes, had won South America’s Libertadores Cup with two different Brazilian clubs and in 2002 coached Brazil to their fifth World Cup victory. From the ashes of defeat in its opening game – perhaps a blessing in disguise as its under-performing veterans Rui Costa and Fernando Couto were replaced by Porto pair Deco and Ricardo Carvalho, the outstanding defender of finals – Portugal needed to dispel of Russia for game-of-death clash (with badly frayed nerves) in Lisbon four days later to determine whether its participation would continue. They were in danger of becoming only the second European championship host, after Belgium in 2000, to fail to reach the quarter-finals. When they lost to outsiders Greece in Oporto coach Scolari admitted that the team faced an uphill struggle. Portugal’s dream was kept alive with a much needed morale-boost ending Russia’s own involvement before another-do-or-die clash, this time with Spain at the same stadium. Portugal had never beaten the Spanish in a competitive match, and it was 23 years since their last friendly victory over its neighbours. There was a ferocious atmosphere as the hosts, more ambitious and determined turned on the fighting spirit and performance. Cristiano Ronaldo – to outshine his senior Figo largely in the tournament – was to make his first start in a match of few chances but entertaining football charged with nervous energy. A disaster for Portugal, and the for the tournament was averted when substitute Nuno Gomez on 57 minute dispatched the ball low past Casillas condemning the favoured Spanish of Raul fame to an early exit and tumbling out of the competition, and it was unfancied Greece, who took second place. League holders Porto provided the spine of the team in the second and third games, with Costinha and Maniche providing a steel edge to midfield that had been lacking previously, the new players adding movement and pace.
A quarter-final clash with the English at Lisbon’s magnificent Estadio da Luz proved emotional, nerve-jangling, heart stopping as well as dramatic with a bit of controversy – a sense of injustice for the visitors. After surviving a contentiously ruled out goal from Solomon Campbell in the final minute of regular time – apparently for a John Terry challenge on the keeper – Portugal won football’s version of Russian roulette in a never-to-be forgotten penalty shoot-out. Trailing to Michael Owen’s 3rd minute opportunistic strike – a swivelling flick home – the hosts had only drawn level through Helder Postiga’s header (ridiculed at Tottenham) with 10 minutes remaining. Scolari had already taken the brave decision to take off the under-performing Luis Figo with the striker – a questionable choice at time. It had been Portugal’s sixth goal, and five had been scored by subs. And in extra-time, Lampard turned sharply before shooting low to equalise Rui Costa’s stunner. Beckham wildly skied the ball over for the first – repeating his dreadful miss against Turkey in the qualifiers by scuffing sky-high. And Vassell did no better for the crucial sudden death kick leaving the unsung goalkeeper of Sporting Lisbon Ricardo to blast the decisive penalty, the 14th kick hard and low past the much-maligned James for an end to an emotionally-draining contest. Having arisen from the slumbers, a semi-final meeting with the Dutch for a place in its own final was next on the agenda. Interestingly, ever since France triumphed on home soil in 1984 the trend had been for the hosts to fall at the semi-final stage – Germany 88, Sweden 92, England 96, and Holland in 2000. Not so Portugal, the momentum that had been building throughout the tournament carried them past Holland and through into their first final at a senior major tournament. This on a date that 2 years earlier coach Scolari had led Brazil to triumph at the World Cup, significantly, it was 13 years also to the day that Portugal had won under 20 world youth cup – Luis Figo, Rui Costa fame. Figo the outstanding player of the night had watched his side’s quarter-final victory from the isolation of the dressing room. Cristiano Ronaldo rose unmarked to power home Deco’s corner before Van Nistelrooy thought he had equalised, but was ruled offside. Maniche all-action-all-rounder and a star of finals then collected Deco’s short corner ran unchallenged before blasting an unstoppable shot just inside far post. Looking dead and buried Holland got a slice of luck when Jorge Andrade sent the ball looping over Ricardo for an own goal. They held on despite desperate efforts from Holland, who threw on an extra striker Pierre van Hooijdonk. Then it was its bogey team Greece as Portugal failed to emulate Spain (1964), Italy (1968) and France (1984) by winning as host. On the whole they had performed credibly, this considering they had been the first host nation to lose an opening tie.