Br4zil

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It’s a knockout. And, as the canopy of shade creeps diagonally across pitches from Manaus in the north to Porto Alegre in the south, we have borne witness to the birth of the “cooling break”, whose very name refreshes those of us at home, where temperatures are not in the thirties and humidity a lot less than 66%. The hallucinations constantly threatened if the players don’t rehydrate are all happening to us, the armchair spectators. With the group stages over and my Guardian World Cup Guide fastidiously spidered with numbers, we’re at that point where every match counts. Even, on a low level, Costa Rica Greece, which I forewent last night in order to catch up on Glastonbury, but turned out to have gone to dratted penalties (5-3 to Costa Rica). Aside from the sight of Adrian Chiles in tight shorts with his legs wide apart under the garden table last night on ITV, during the channel’s unique on-the-patio bit before the game (he dresses to the left, cock fans), there’s little to complain about. Suárez is long gone – subsequently joined, connectedly, by Uruguay, after a sound thrashing by Colombia. The narrative (and I love a narrative, as has been pointed out to me on Twitter) is that one superstar is gone, and another is born: 22-year-old striker James Rodriguez, whose 29th-minute volley is being talked about as the goal of the tournament – and that’s with stiff competition.

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As already established, the post-England phase of any international cup is always my favourite part. No more residual stress about whether or not “our boys” can prove, or improve, their world ranking, and the sheer joy of being able to cheer on whichever team I like, switching allegiance mid-game if I fancy. I do not blame the whole of Uruguay for the developmental and denial issues of Suárez, although the shine did come off them as a result of his toothmanship and when Colombia went one up with That Goal, I pinned my allegiance to their yellow shirts, perhaps in subliminal solidarity with the hickey-marked Italy, or with Gloria from Modern Family.

Either way, poster boy Rodriguez, who’s now scored in all four of his World Cup games, delivered a magic moment when he chested, then left-footed a 25-yarder past the Uruguay goalie. To quote from the write-up by the BBC’s Phil McNulty, who will have seen and described more goals than I ever will do, “It was the most perfect combination of technique and talent, drawing gasps from around this iconic stadium when it was replayed on the four giant screens that hang from the roof of the vast bowl.”

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What a game Brazil Colombia will be on Friday (Colombia’s first ever quarter final). Another serious South American derby, especially now that Brazil have recovered their mojo. Their victory against Chile in the first knockout match may have been decided on penalties – just checking: nobody wants a World Cup match to go to penalties do they? – but it was no kickabout in the 120 minutes preceding.

A goal apiece from Brazil’s Alan Davies-haired David Luis and Chile’s Sanchez evened things out in the first half-hour, but the turning point came in the second half: a disallowed goal from Hulk, who appeared to use his bicep before getting one past Claudio Bravo, an anatomical subtlety identified and penalised by brave British ref Howard Webb, whose shiny head always makes me think of my last editor at the NME, and my own Uncle Phil, who was a professional referee in his prime, which seemed supercool to me as a boy. (We witnessed him spraying the medicinal-smelling Ralgex onto his legs before a game, which was an eye-opener. It was like he operated in another world and yet he was Uncle Phil.) Webb was at least balanced: he denied a penalty appeal by both sides. Much for the pundits to unpick at half-time.

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Those penalties. It was hot out there and even those used to the stifling humidity and wilting temperatures didn’t really want to play on for another 30 minutes. But there it was. Somebody must always go home empty handed from now on. Or empty-armed in Hulk’s case. If this game had been blocked and written in a writers’ room, then Hulk, so ambiguously denied his second, would-be-decisive goal, would have scored Brazil’s winning penalty, thus redeeming himself, and allowing Howard Webb to get home from work safely and sleep more easily. As it was, Hulk’s shot was saved by the estimable Bravo – bravo! – but it was Julio Cesar’s denial of Sanchez’s penalty kick – hail, Cesar! – that sealed it at 3-2 for the hosts. Tense, yes, a ridiculous in-out way to decide a match so steeped in chance and subtlety, but the shootout was not without nuance: Neymar’s mindfuck shuffle was quality entertainment.

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In our house, we’re still unable to get over the image of Holland’s star striker as a character in Game Of Thrones: Iron Robin. But this is a minor impediment to the enjoyment of watching him lead a seriously below-par team to a squeaked victory against my favourites Mexico. I decided they were my favourites during the first half, when they gave as good as they got and their first quarter final in 28 years seemed a delicious possibility. I love to watch Holland pass, but they couldn’t break the Mexican wall. If I had more analytical skills, I’d tell you precisely why like Glenn Hoddle did at half-time when it was still 0-0, but I find it difficult to follow him. It was 38.8C out there, and fans unlucky enough to be sat in the sun literally abandoned their seats. If both teams had agreed only to play in the shade throughout, I would have taken my hat off to them, and then put it back on again for protection. It may have explained the Dutch failure to convert. The Netherlands is not a hot country, and the orangemen (sorry) who aren’t bald, have shaggy dog hair – neither ideal in a bake-off.

HolMexQsave I know this much, Mexico’s keeper Guillermo Ochoa was the man of the match. Commentator Sam Matterface may have mocked him for looking like something out of an “80s fitness video” (he favours a thick headband to keep his head looking like a tied-up bunch of fresh carrots), but his quick-witted ability saw a parade of Dutch chances punched, slapped or body-bounced off the line. When Mexico’s Dos Santos put them one-up at the start of the second half from the fabled 25 yards (I don’t even know what a yard looks like), things really hotted up. Holland didn’t equalise until the 88th minute – despite Iron Robin’s repeated attempts to lie down in the penalty area and feign injury – but the man we call V2 Schneider (but is actually called Wesley Sneijder) turned it around in style. Hallucinatory extra time seemed inevitable, but Robin finally had his way, earned a penalty after a Marquez trip-up, and Easter Island-browed substitute Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored the winner from the spot. As you will see from this picture, the wrong player is called Hulk.

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Because I remained a loyal Mexico supporter to the end, telling anyone who’d listen, including our cat, that they deserved to go through, I was crestfallen by Holland’s zero-hour comeback, as juicy and dramatic as it was. Also, as with the Oscars, I like surprises and dislike sure things. But with whole sections of the crowd burnt to a crisp like extras in Threads and welded to their plastic seats like puddles of face paint, Holland celebrated not just getting through to the quarter finals, but to a potentially comfy tie against either Costa Rica or Greece (it turned out to be the former).

On with the games.

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Essay8

I found myself in conversation about the World Cup with three proper football fans yesterday, courtesy of 6 Music, where I’ve been filling in on Steve Lamacq’s show all week. They’d set up a World Cup Roundtable, which didn’t mean we only reviewed records with Terry Venables or James Corden on them, but all three guests knew their football and their music (not a large squad to pick from). Damien Harris I’ve met on many occasions – Midfield General, founder of the mighty Skint records, sponsor for ten years of Brighton football club – but it was quite a change to have across the desk from me Mark Clemmit, of 5 Live and BBC1’s Football League Show, and Matt Lawrence, former Millwall and Crystal Palace defender, currently “between teams”. (Aged 36, he’s such a 6 Music kind of guy he was down on the new Laura Marling/Mumford & Sons single because he preferred Marling’s stripped-down original recording. And he knows more than me about The Gaslight Anthem’s first album.) I can gas about the World Cup with friends and family, who know my history, but here I was with a BBC football reporter and a professional league footballer. Would could possibly go wrong?

This wasn’t set up as a test, but it was one. Although we were talking mostly music on-air, talk was frequently of football off-air, and I think I held my own fairly well about the World Cup. I’m glad that the question of who I support didn’t come up, as my admission that I don’t have “a team” would have soured the mood. As it was, we chatted merrily about Gareth Southgate’s jumper and Robbie Earlie’s freebies and how disappointing so many of the big star players have been. I don’t watch the World Cup in order that I may conduct myself in a certain way in social situations – I watch it because I love it – but this was one, and I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel like a fraud, or the Jon Thompson “soccer” fan on The Fast Show.

I have watched the bulk of the games, and as the standard inevitably improves (there were some shockers to begin with) I’m more and more enthusiastic. I’ve also started a new policy of not drinking while the football is on. I’m on iced tapwater and coffee. The clear head feels nice. The semi-finals were enjoyable enough, although I expected so much more from Germany, who I’d planned to quietly and non-aggressively support in the final. (I know a couple of people who have Spain in their sweepstakes – hey, one of them is former Millwall captain Matt Lawrence – so I’m right behind them now.)

Despite an early goal from van Bronckhorst (who insulting people have said I look like) and a starburst of big player magic from an equalising Forlan at 25 yards just before half-time, Holland Uruguay was not an exhibition match in the first half, with both sides struggling to break through the other’s defence. But two orange goals within three minutes in the second half by Wesley Sneijder – now the tournament’s joint top goal scorer with Villa – and Arjen Robben, turned all the lights on. Even though that all-European final seemed safely in the bag at this point, Uruguay – lacking red-carded volleyball player Suarez – refused to give up, scoring their second goal in the second minute of extra time. This was a gripping, fizzing, entertaining end to a match that ended up being a high-ish scorer.

I realise Uruguay were the team to support, as they’re the underdogs, but apart from Forlan in his pomp, they’re a pretty ugly team to watch (and I don’t mean their faces), and they didn’t deserve to beat Ghana anyway. Holland haven’t been the second best team in the tournament, but that’s not the way football works, is it? They haven’t played in a World Cup final since the 70s, so let’s hope they are up the job on Sunday in Johannesburg.

After beating Germany in Durban – as predicted by Paul the Oberhausen octopus – Spain are in the World Cup final for the first time. They’ve won all their games since that early upset with Switzerland (which now seems so long ago) and may well be the competition’s quiet victors (Holland have won all theirs), despite suffering from the same blight as Italy, France, Brazil and England: star player not playing like a star. Torres didn’t even start against Germany, and when he came on he might as well not have, muffing his first pass and looking a bit slow. No wonder Villa didn’t even see him. Perhaps he didn’t actually realise he was on the pitch.

As ever, a goal broke the deadlock in the first half, coming late: Puyol off a Xavi corner kick. This should have spurred Germany into well-oiled action. But nothing came. Having scored four against England and Argentina, we expected more. They seemed to be a perfect blend of old and new players, with strikers to spare, and an almost mechanical ability to pass and not lose the ball and stay focussed and disciplined. (I’m not sure if I have observed that Germany are disciplined, in the same way that, say, England and France have not been, or whether I have merely picked it up by osmosis from commentators and pundits. I don’t mind either way.)

Spain did not miss Torres, with Villa and Pedro more than compensating, but if I were to use the phrase “at the end of the day,” I’d say that Germany lost rather than Spain won. (I expect the bierkellers of Hamburg and Berlin and Oberhausen were full of talk about the penalty that never was after Ozil – or Mark Moore of S’Express as I always see him – went down in the box after a challenging challenge from Ramos. This World Cup has been nothing if not a cavalcade of controversial refereeing decisions. I expect the BBC are working on a montage.)

What struck me most was how tall the Germans were compared to the Spaniards. It was like the game had been tampered with using Lord Of The Rings-style CGI. Spain really were the giant killers.

A fabulous weekend awaits. And what kind of a name for an octopus is Paul?

Oh, and here’s that Roundtable World Cup lineup: (from left) Matt Lawrence, Mark Clemmit, Andrew Collins, Damien Harris – they thought it was all over!