Monday, August 15, 2011

Alice Doesn't Live There Anymore

Seemingly every tournament takes on a nature of its own. Whether it's a flair for late dramatics, a penchant for upsets, or consistently poor refereeing, each tournament has a character of sorts. This edition of the Under-20 World Cup has gone straight up Wonderland on us. Time has been distorted, logic has been defied, and - if nothing else - this tournament has been fun to watch.

The epicenter of all the fun (and games) has been Bogota where Colombia have played all their matches thus far. Consequently, a real party atmosphere has developed in the host capital as Eduardo Lara's team has kept the home fans on the edge of their seats with their relentless attack and cardiac comebacks.

Ahead of Colombia's quarterfinal showdown with Mexico on Saturday night, Los Cafeteros had been first on the scoreboard in all but their tournament opener. On that night the offenders, France, were handed four unanswered goals in reply in what turned out to be a glorious kick start to the tournament. So when Mexico went ahead off of a dodgy buzz-killing penalty awarded by Cuneyt Cakir it was natural to expect the Colombians to respond by digging in for a triumphant shootout with their space-surrendering opponents.

No such luck. Though Colombia had the better of the run of play, very few gilt-edged chances were created, and their only goal came off of a Robert Green-esque gaffe. Where the hosts spurned an embarrassment of set piece opportunities - twelve corners - Mexico was uncharacteristically efficient, scoring their second off of one of only five corners. Buoyed by the home support, Colombia poured on the pressure, but when Edson Rivera's mid-range effort pinged in off of Cristian Bonilla in the 88th minute, the party was over.

And that was the "boring" game this round...

Earlier that evening in calmer Cartagena, Argentina and Portugal put on a show of their own. For two bum-squeaking hours of play the two teams took turns one-upping each other with dazzling displays of dance and deception on the ball. Regulation and extra time saw the opponents repeatedly ask each other "So you think you can dance?"

The answer was irrefutably "Yes" - but the respective defenses also did their part. Despite the excess of attacking talent displayed in this quarterfinal, exactly zero goals were yielded by the games break neck waves of forward forays.

Lady Luck can be a cruel mistress, but in Cartagena Saturday, she was also a game-changer. As the clock was winding down on the second extra time period, Tiago Ferreira was ushered to the sideline presumably so that he could take a penalty. Yet before he could be subbed in, referee Peter O'Leary blew for full time.

Then he changed his mind. After speaking with the fourth official, the game restarted, Ferreira was switched in for Luis Martins, and the game was ended. As luck would have it, Ferriera would go on to score Portugal's fourth after Argentina choked away a two-goal lead. The real back-breaker for Argentina was Leandro Gonzalez Pirez's post-clattering penalty that opened the door for good.

After a lively, but scoreless first half between France and Nigeria , the gloves came off in Cali and the goals came out. Once Alexandre Lacazette tallied for France - again - in the 50th minute, Nigeria's Super Eagles went forward in pacy awe-inspiring droves. With the ball deep in their own end in the waning moments of stoppage time, Nigeria's so-far stunning tournament seemed over. Then a goal kick turned into a secondary assist and Nigeria had given us some bonus soccer.

With 10 minutes gone in the first overtime period, Guedia Fofana took it upon himself to score a gorgeous half-volleyed chip that may very well earn him goal of the tournament. Lacazette's insurance goal two minutes late came in handy as Nigeria again pulled one back, but it was not to be as France tactfully saw out the remaining ten minutes. At this point, even non-asthmatic neutral fans were reaching for an inhaler.

They didn't have long however, before being plunged into another tantalizing two hours. Before Brazil-Spain even kicked off, you were expecting something special. After all, these two countries have defined and redefined attacking football over the years. If the people at ESPN had had the wherewithal to broadcast this game on cable television, it would be an Instant Classic.

Spain put their tiki-taka-playing feet on the throttle from the opening whistle, but it was Brazil who found themselves with the halftime lead. As the great teams are known to do however, Spain didn't blink. The game plan never changed in the face of Brazil's growing confidence as Koke and Romeu continued to control the center of the pitch. La Roja were rewarded for their patience when Rodrigo turned in Hugo Mallo's 57th minute cross.

With an hour in the books and a score each on the board, both teams were as confident as ever as end-to-end action ensued. Naturally, the Spanish took to criss-crossing the Brazilian midfield with knife-edge passing precision whereas Brazil preferred the quick combination on the ball. As regulation gave way to extras however, a new trick started to pop out of the Brazilian bag of tricks with increasing frequency. When in doubt, the young Brazilians channeled their inner Robbie Rogers by successfully tapping the ball in front of them and muscling off their Spanish counterparts.

The physical advantage of the young Sambateers became far too apparent for Spain's liking when Dudu's sharp one-two with Henrique saw the former blast through the Spaniard's defense before tucking his shot into the far corner. Not two minutes had passed though before Golden Boot leader Alvaro Vazquez insured that we would see yet another penalty shootout.

At some point during the ensuing shootout I turned to my friend and said 'You can't ask for two better teams to take penalties'. He corrected me, "You can't ask for two better teams to play soccer." This game was worthy of a final and far too good to actually be one. My friend was right.

It is worth mentioning that despite the insufferably high level of competition this game presented, both teams by and large lived up to FIFA's usually laughable "Fair Play" campaign that was promoted before all four quarterfinals. The most egregious of exceptions to that spirit of sportsmanship was Alvaro Vasquez who put the "fury" in La Furia Roja with his spiteful tackles and petulant banter that be he brought to the field. Funnily enough, it was Vasquez's saved penalty that set the stage for Dudu's ecstatic elimination of Spain. Just as Spain title hopes perished, (most likely) so too did Vazquez's challenge for the Golden Boot.

As I finished watching the last of these delicious quarters, 50 First Dates was wrapping up in the background. If I wake up tomorrow and get to watch these games again, I'll go to sleep a happy man.

Wednesday night in Medellin and Pereira respectively, France and Brazil will attempt to set up a teenage recreation of the '98 men's final. Portugal and Mexico stand in the way, but methinks they'll be meeting each other in the consolation match.

- Jacob Klinger

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