It could be said that the World Cup really starts during the knock-out stages. What was going on for the last couple of weeks was more like the "World's Soccer Fair." At least I'd like to think of it this way after watching games like Slovenia vs. Algeria, New Zealand vs. Slovakia or Cameroon vs. Netherlands (where Cameroon had no chances at all) and Brazil vs. Portugal with both teams qualified for the next round. I'm not dismissing any of these teams, since after 4 years they all merited to be a part of the competition, just the lack of excitement derived from the group stages and overall low level of play that plagued a lot of matches.
And in Brazil and Portugal's case, a much devalued game that was cynically not played, disappointing fans' expectations. But if it was for Dunga (Brazil's coach) he'd probably say that he came to win the tournament, not to give fans a "jogo bonito" display. Ironically, that's what the fans would have loved to see. And who do the players play for? Who does FIFA organize this tournament for? The fans maybe? The people paying for all that Coca Cola and beer, that sponsors love to target. I'm getting off topic. But this has been on my mind lately.
Just what I need: another reason to want Brazil to get disqualified. Argentina could have easily benched Messi against Greece and yet he played all 90 minutes. Maybe he was still looking for his goal, but he displayed the same level of excitement through all group stage games. The late Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, hated soccer. He was once quoted as saying "Eleven players against another eleven players all running after one ball is not particularly beautiful." I think he was referring to Brazil's game.
So I'm visiting in Mexico City, and I've had to see every one of their games surrounded by fervent supporters yell and cheer and curse their luck as well as their coach. They've earned my genuine respect. I've also prayed that we didn't meet again at all in the knock-out stages, but it couldn't be helped. And after 4 years of getting goosebumps every time I see Maxi Rodriguez' left volley from outside the box goal from Germany 2006's same match-up, I'm feeling very confident about our chances. Confident, but ready for anything and respectful. I'm also thinking that this Mexican team is stronger than that of 4 years ago, but not without several faults (I'll talk about Argentina's in a minute...relax!). Mexico's coach, Javier Aguirre, hasn't really learned anything from the group stage matches; he has benched Andres Guardado after this same player gave him shots on post and speed, as well as Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez who proved himself worthy against France. Instead Aguirre keeps fielding Franco and limiting Giovanni Do Santos playmaking whenever Cuauhtemoc Blanco takes the field.
However, I've had to watch Argentina's games by myself. And the "Albicelestes" should not be afraid of Mexico because of Javier Aguirre and his unpredictable-but-miscalculated substitutions. They should only be afraid of not having been attacked enough (a combined total of 7 times in the past 3 games). When Argentina finally faces a team that can attack properly and takes over the midfield, only then will Argentina's World Cup test have started. Argentina was drawn into a relatively easier group (I think Korea and Nigeria deserve praise for opening up the defense and putting our weaknesses on display) but nonetheless the team had little time to learn to play together and had a horrible time qualifying as well as Maradona enduring (more than?) plenty of criticism. We didn't know what was going on inside Maradona's mind. Now we know and what the team has proved is that it has character, determination and it has found a way to make Messi work for the team and vice-versa. Honestly, our defense is still a work in progress, midfield a little less so, and attackers are truly inspired and restless. Maradona's substitutions so far have been smart and although they haven't always solved a particular problem, they created headaches for the opposite teams. I've been warned by my Mexican host, Damian, that if Argentina wins, I need to look for a new place to stay. So be it...
I honestly don't expect much out of Germany and England's bout. At least not until the last 20 minutes of the game when both sides will realize they could actually make it to the next round if they score on each other. During those final minutes, they will likely cross the ball into each other's boxes hoping to find a header or a loose ball. I've got higher hopes for Germany, but count me out. Highly organized teams make for calculated and boring matches lacking in creativity. I would like to be surprised during this match. Knowing that the Brits will try to famously avoid penalty kicks (a national myth), there may be something to this game.
This should be a very interesting match between the "done-wrong-so-many-times-it's-embarrassing" team USA and the last remaining African hero. Ghana has proven that it wants to win every match it plays. My general appreciation of the African Nations this World Cup is that they need to hire and develop African coaches and give them some breathing room to work, and that they need their strikers to straighten their aim. They were all able to counter-attack effectively and create dynamic plays only to miss that last touch, the one that counts for one point. We all had high hopes for Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, but only Ghana was able to pull through in spite of its injured star, Michael Essien (Chelsea player).
Team USA has a very real possibility of making it to the next stage and keep making World Cup history. After not one but two wrong calls by two different referees, they finally pulled through first in their group thanks to captain Landon Donovan's last-minute goal. Why not the finals? Looking at the bracket, they have managed to evade facing either Spain, England, Germany, Mexico, Argentina or Portugal, should they make it to the finals. However, they would have to face Netherlands or Brazil eventually. People in the U.S. like to talk statistics, past game results, and dynasties, but at this level of football, all that matters are the eleven players on the field and how they are feeling that day.
Brazil vs. Chile should be a really interesting game between two teams that know each other well from playing in the same qualifying league. Obviously Brazil has a lot more experience in WC's, but Chile is doing great things and gave Spain a run for its money even with one (unfairly red-carded) man down. I'm very excited to see more organized Chilean play and Alexis Sanchez (ex-River Plate player, ehrm...). Brazil should have Kaká back and between him and Robinho (and a much missed Elano maybe?) they should be evenly matched for a while. At least until sheriff Lucio lays down the law. If Chile and Brazil can keep to playing football and avoid theatricals there could even be a surprise winner. One can only hope. I won't root for Brazil until Argentina is out and they made it to the final. Only then does the South-American "brotherhood" sentiment kick in.
Sure we can be excited by a preview that likely reads in most newspapers as "Cristiano Ronaldo vs. the Xavi's." Regardless, Spain proved to be a well oiled machine (when faced against a "10-man" Chile and weaker Honduras?) and Andres Iniesta is finally back. Several Spanish players play plenty of theatrics (Ramos, Torres and Villa to a lesser extent) who'll condition the referee. This should be interesting when CR7 does the same and the game becomes a red-card competition. I foresee at least 2 red cards during this game. The Portuguese have been playing rough and Spain won't back out.
The Dutch, much like Argentina, haven't been seriously tested during the competition. They were the first team to get into the knock-out stages and made it through with a perfect 3-0-0 record. They're clear favorites in this match. Hopefully Slovakia can provide some thrills and force Netherlands to work for it. Arjen Robben should be back for most of the match. Slovakia's "Italian upset" is now legendary. They will go into the match very confident and shouldn't play too cautiously against the Dutch. I haven't been able to watch an entire Netherlands match, so I'll hold back on further speculation.
Japan had 3 of the nicest goals when they surprised Denmark to take 2nd place in group E. I'm very excited about this match since it will be a clash of styles. Tough Paraguay were first to crack Italy's armor with a tie and were able to beat Slovakia. The difference between this match and Spain vs. Portugal is that whoever wins will come out stronger and face a weakened team.
Uruguay just made it to the quarter-finals after 40 years. This was one of the last teams to qualify for the World Cup in the tough Conmebol South American division. All five South-American teams made it to the final 16 and this is something to be proud of and hopefully this means one of them will make it to the final.
I think the best matches are yet to come and all the excitement I had for the start of the tournament which slowly deteriorated will be replenished.