It was either Guy Mowbray or Steve Wilson who, during the last-16 Argentina Switzerland game when the score still stood at 0-0, wondered aloud (because what other kind of wondering would a commentator do?) whether we were about to see “a Messi Moment.” We weren’t, as it happened, or at least not the goal Mowbray/Wilson was hoping for, and it went to extra time, during which one of Messi’s less talismanic compatriots, Di María, swivel-volleyed one in off his deflected pass and put them through to the quarter finals. (Di María was later benched with an ice-pack on his leg.)
This World Cup has been all about such great expectations, but it’s not always great for great men. Gary Lineker commented last night that of the six badly-drawn boys on the BBC’s Mount Rushmore-like slum-wall of fame in its opening credits, only one remains in the competition, with the other five either knocked out, banned for four months for biting, or horribly injured.
Germany, otherwise known as “Manuel Neuer and ten other blokes”, had a fairly easy time of it against France, with Mats Hummels facing down “flu-like symptoms” (all that hot and cold) to head in the first and only goal in 12 minutes. The one good thing you can say about the 1-0 score is that at least it spared us extra time and … that other grim foot-lottery.
Brazil Colombia was a better bet, if a festival of fouls. A South American derby with atmosphere to spare, and controversial refereeing decisions at every turn. The Spanish ref at least managed to piss off both teams, which surely clears him of bias. Colombia’s fatted calf Rodriguez was, as they say, kicked around the park, and his opposite number Neymar actually left the field, and the tournament, in agony in the orange out-tray of doom after Juan Camilo Zúñiga’s knee-high challenge from behind. Let’s see that again …
I’m not a coach, but surely it’s a risky business, relying on one star forward. (I seem to remember Brazil having about three in 2002.) That said, it’s better than no star forward, and it’s bad luck to lose him completely before a semi final against Germany. It’s like Zúñiga kicked Jesus. (Fifa are looking into the tackle, so we’ll see, but it’s literally after the event.)
The quarter finals have certainly been full of messy moments. With the brakes well and truly on, and teams more evenly matched I guess, the goal rate has plummeted. (This World Cup has apparently given us 159 goals, and it feels that way, although I don’t know if this includes penalties, which are goals, but stripped of context, and thus sort of not-goals. It could have been a lot more goals if not for the likes of Howard, Ochoa and the other super-keepers.)
Yesterday’s lumpy but nonstop Argentina Belgium game had plenty of Messi Moments while he stylishly went about equaling Maradona’s 91 caps and fending off attackers like an action hero chased by velociraptors and giving it plenty of pirouette, but it was swarthy Gonzalo Higuain who put them one-up with a volley that was decisive and powerful. It hinted at the eight-minute mark that we might be in for a high-scoring game as Argentina’s streetwise teamwork squared up against Belgium’s pluck, but no. Argentina keep winning by one goal, but I’d have rather seen another 3-2 or a 2-1, and not another top-loaded 1-0. (How demanding we become.)
Belgium couldn’t break their duck, and Argentina couldn’t put one past Courtois again. A similar pattern of deadlock dogged Holland Costa Rica, except without a single goal for 120 minutes. Plenty of chances, and most of them fumbled by the Dutch in what was never even hinted as being an international sectarian clash, even though it kind of was, with the Orangemen versus the Catholics. (The Dutch team may well be humourless atheists; but the self-crossing, saint-kissing, upward-genuflecting Latin Americans do seem to believe that God is on their side.)
It was weird to see minor Game Of Throw-Ins character Iron Robin on his best behaviour, having had his card marked about all the diving, clutching and play-acting that frankly undermines his elegant ballsmanship and age-defying, Terminator-like energy. Costa Rica’s coach, Pinto, had apparently voiced his concerns pre-emptively to the ref, and all eyes were on the passive-aggressive egghead. Not once did he melodramatically claim a foul through the medium of mime, although, ironically, he was fouled plenty of times and the sky was filled with yellow cards to prove it. (Four Costa Ricans earned one, although – sadly – there will be no next match to miss.)
It’s partly the game’s fault, and partly mine, but I found myself dozing off during the second half, and when I snuffled awake after a sofa snooze, it was still 0-0. For reasons of middle-aged self-preservation I took myself off to bed, unaware of the next act. I was awoken this morning and advised without spoilers to rewind and watch the extra time. So I did.
It was among the most exciting blocks of football this World Cup has thus far spoiled us with, Holland reawakened by the hour and Costa Rica determined to hold them to a draw and let the penalties decide. As they searched for the hero inside themselves, they were truly in search of the CRC. But – and here’s where it gets interesting – the most thrilling moment came when the unreadable and apparently egomaniacal Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal made his chess move. He took clean-sheeted keeper Japser Cillessen off in the 121st minute and replaced him with a man I’d never heard of called Tim Krul. Newcastle United fans will have heard of him.
Could this vital game, at this vital stage, really turn on a frankly insulting substitution? Or had Van Gaal planned it all along? (Danny Murphy’s always reminding us that games can “turn” on something.)
Hardly worth mentioning that he’s a gangly fellow but he lacks the neat, boyish, Germanic look of Cillessen. Krul – helpfully named for headline writers (“Krul summer … Krul fate … Krul to be kind … Royal Society for the Prevention of Krulty to Animals”) – seemed to me a bit of a yob. I certainly crinkled my nose when he started psyching the penalty-takers out by marching up and down in front of them like a sentry and then giving them some verbal and a you’re-going-down hand gesture before taking up his line. I was already a Costa Rican so I wished him ill with this grubby technique. Imagine my dismay when it seemed to work. And imagine my joy when it didn’t, twice. And then my dismay again.
There is no shame whatsoever in Costa Rica’s defeat, not with a performance like theirs. Their first World Cup quarter final will have to be milestone and testament enough for a Central American republic and medical-tourism hotspot with a population of 4.5m and no military since 1949 (although “plenty of fighters” in their team, as Sam Matterface chirruped).
As you might imagine, I’ve been saving the Sports section of my newspaper from the recycling tub for over three weeks now, and even a visitor picks up on things. I’ve divined previously that people don’t like Andy Townsend, so I continue to not-mind him just to be my own man. I’ve no idea if it’s OK to like Danny Murphy? But I do like him. Although he overuses the word “actually” and mixed up the last 16 with the quarter finals last night, he seems sincere and self-effacing (perhaps to a fault), and knows when to join in. I’ve looked him up and he only started punditing for Match Of The Day last year, so maybe he’s still on probation with the hanging jury. I also like the fact that he looks like he’s related to Morrissey, and very well might be. Clearly, Glenn Hoddle remains a figure of fun, and I have no defence for him.
Gary Lineker really needs to spend less time on the weights. His shoulders will soon be so rounded he is unable to carry a bag without it sliding off. Alan Hansen has announced his retirement after this World Cup. From Match Of The Day? That sounds a bit grand to me. He’s not even 60. Is he simply leaving, rather than retiring?
Roll on the semis. My fever-dream of a Brazil Belgium final is a future I’m glad I didn’t put money on. (I don’t put money on anything.) It’s going to be Brazil Argentina, isn’t it? That’s fine. Even though I keep reading that Brazil are “ordinary” – and certainly left spineless without Neymar – they have so many home-team advantages and now a fallen comrade to play for, the Germans will have to tighten a few nuts and add a lot of oil if they want to achieve Vorsprung durch Technik. I certainly find myself – without prejudice or discrimination, Fifa! – hoping Holland go out.