And the tournament hurtles on at a heck of a pace. Before I can deliver a summary of Group A, Uruguay have already made it in to the Quarter Finals and as I type Ghana are leading the USA in their Round of Sixteen match in Rustenburg - Oh, a penalty for USA!
It’s almost impossible to catch one’s breath in this tournament. I’ve managed to watch a game a day plus the highlights package and the quality of the football (and drama) on offer is improving all the time.
The comparative strengths of the Latin teams (as opposed to the European ones) is the narrative of the tournament so far - New Zealand were one of only three teams to get so much as a draw against the Latin Americans - and we can add Spain and Portugal to the list of the most dangerous contenders.
My other groups were E & H. It looks like the Netherlands are the only northern European side to be playing up to their reputation but they have yet to be really tested - Denmark were poor, Japan only got thorough because Denmark were poor and Cameroon were unlucky to come last but weren’t good enough to go through. The Dutch should take out Slovakia, who won’t be able to back up after their efforts against Italy the other night, and comfortably make it into the Quarters.
Japan might have a show against Paraguay if they are given as much as room as they got from the Danes - particularly with those splendid free-kicks.
In Group H, while there wasn’t much to separate Spain and Chile on points they were worlds apart in quality. Spain’s David Villa is one of the stars of the tournament and the Spanish have quality and flair all over the pitch. Chile are dirty, niggly little buggers and I can’t see them beating Brazil (who haven’t raised much of a sweat so far).
The Round of Sixteen has generated some mouth-watering match-ups: Argentina v Mexico, Germany v England (which Peter analyses below) and the battle of the Iberian peninsula - Spain v Portugal on Wednesday morning. Can’t wait.
Round 1 Review
In Group B Argentina were not quite as dominant as the final table suggests but they always looked comfortable. And with a frontline of Messi, Higuain, Tevez, Aguerro and Milito there can no other team in the competition so blessed in attack. It’s not all about attack though and the Argentineans looked decidedly shaky on defence at times, most notably against the Nigerians in their first match. They were majestic against a very good South Korea side though, especially once they had worn them down, no mercy was shown in the final 30 minutes. South Korea are also through though and a very handy side with the likes of Park Ji Sung from Manchester Utd and Park Chu-young from Monaco amongst their ranks, they did well to get past disappointing Nigeria and Greece sides and into the Round of 16.
Spain were expected to waltz through Group H but have looked a little out of sorts, losing their first match to a stolid but spirited Swiss side. They won their next two, including a fairly dominant performance against Chile despite a seriously under powered Fernando Torres. Spain and Chile go through to meet Portugal and Brazil respectively in the finals. There’s quite a bit of talk about how the altitude is affecting some of the top players (Rooney, Torres). I’m not sure, what do you think?
England vs. Germany; It wasn’t always this way.
Geoff Hurst, is the only player to score a hat trick in a World Cup final. Hurst, the likable West Ham Utd striker was not even a main-stay in the England team at the start of the 1966 World Cup but won his place when first choice target man Jimmy Greaves was injured against France in the group stages. Greaves, also from East London, never really got over it, mainly because he was fit for the final but by that stage Hurst had proven himself and coach Alf Ramsey wanted to keep the same side together to face the Germans.
After heading home England’s first from a free kick, Hurst’s second was the controversial ‘line’ goal that still causes arguments to this day. Naturally I believe it was over but the linesman didn’t help matters by initially signalling no goal and then changing his mind. Hurst’s last goal right on full time is a delight, and one of my favourites of all time for three reasons. Firstly, it sealed his hat-trick writing him permanently into the history books. Secondly, he was fed by Captain Bobby Moore. England’s greatest ever player and fellow Hammer, Moore ignored his team-mates pleas to put the ball out and finish the game, instead sending a sweetly lofted pass into space that Hurst could run onto and hammer into the German net. Great thinking by Moore and a goal that put the result beyond doubt (important considering the nature of Hurst’s second, above). And thirdly, as there were spectators starting to run onto the pitch it brought out the greatest football quote of all time from the commentator; “They think it’s all over ... It is now!”
The Germans naturally feel a bit ripped off, but the English won it playing to their strengths with lots of heart and lots of energy. At the completion of normal time Ramsey wouldn’t let the players lie down as this would make them look tired. He made them stand and look fresh to dishearten their opposition.
Hurst said recently that he spent the weekend after the World Cup mowing his lawn and washing his car. The following week he was asked to present a new car to a Bingo winner in Ilford. He was introduced to those present as World Cup winner Mr George Hurst. Ah, them were the days...
At this World Cup I can’t help thinking of the USA as just a bigger version of us. They’ve got a home-grown coach; they aren’t expected to do well; football isn’t the national sport; and their tactics seem to be to cross it in and hope like Hell Landon Donovan is there to do something. We just don’t have a Landon Donovan.
Ghana on the other hand, are the last great hope for the continent. The Black Stars are fantastic and as I write this they have just secured a quarterfinal appearance, with a fantastic overtime goal against the US.
So now we look to Germany vs England and Portugal vs Spain: games with no history behind them whatsoever.
Back in 2000 we went to Portugal for a holiday, it’s a fantastic country and we loved the people and the culture. We stayed with a friend’s family and they instilled in us the importance of hating the Spanish. We are much like the Portuguese. A small country beside a larger more famous country that we have a healthy rivalry with; the big difference being that we have never been invaded by Australia.
Portugal’s campaign has been lacklustre so far. Ronaldo and Deco and Simao have yet to really hit their straps, and a scrappy game against Brazil has shown that they may struggle against the bigger teams. Teams like Spain, who have also started slowly.
For me Japan, are the surprise entrants in this round and I don’t expect to see them travelling further. But then again their attack had better structure than I was expecting. The Crows will have the incentive of wanting to get further than the Koreans who have now bowed out. And they may just have the edge over a Paraguayan team who couldn’t even score against easy-beats New Zealand.