Thursday, August 18, 2011

Goin' Colonial

Portuguese, to me, has always sounded like Frenchy Spanish. With that in mind, the fact that France and Mexico will be playing a footnote game before the Portugese-speaking derby final on Saturday is fulfilling. Admittedly that's not the purist's definition of a derby, but I'm an American, and bastardizing/perfecting all things English is part of our national modus operandi. The best way to do this of course, is by writing about "saw-ker".

With Portugal last leaking an Under-20 World Cup goal to Chile's Arturo Vidal four years ago in Edmonton, Francis Smerecki's pep talk probably didn't include conceding an early goal to the young Iberians. Unfortunately for France , they did just that.

The game was very much still in doubt however, when Cuneyt Cakir signaled for a penalty on Kalidou Kouliably's push on Danilo in the box. It's true that infractions such as the one in question go ignored by referees the world over, but Koulibaly's shove was an illegal play in the proverbial danger zone. Cakir had also shown a willingness to give penalties with a similarly soft call in last Saturday's Mexico-Colombia quarterfinal. It is truly a sad sign of the times when referees warrant this much analysis, but these are strange days indeed.

When Nelson Oliveira had completed his spot-kick burial, the French were left with a steep hill to climb. As play resumed in the second half however, they looked up to the task as they buzzed around midfield and kept the majority of play in Portugal's end. Yet as chance after chance went begging, it became increasingly apparent that Portugal's now-historic defense was not to be beaten on the day. Super-sub Alexandra Lacazette saw little of the ball and when Koulibaly's late half-volley sent another ball wide of Mika's goal, you could see the self-belief drain out of the French attack as they trudged back upfield.

Portugal then managed to efficiently kill off the game in high Italian style while their defense was just as prolific. On Saturday, the Portuguese will take on the only other national team to have equaled their record of six straight clean sheets at this level - Brazil. It's almost poetic.

In the infancy of Brazil's semifinal match-up with Mexico , the young Brazilians looked likely to bury their opponents with pile after pile of superior skill. Ultimately, Mexico were properly put to rest, but not before doing some seriously unsightly squirming.

The fifth minute elbow-spear that Erick Torres threw at Brazil Captain Bruno Uvini was only the beginning. Shortly thereafter, Torres commenced the classic "Operation: Bludgeon the Goalkeeper." It very nearly worked as Gabriel required several minutes of medical attention and suffered through playing with an eye that was temporarily swollen shut. The injury did seem to have an effect as he had some slightly delayed reactions to balls sent his way in the remainder of the first half.

Luckily, his teammates minimized Mexico's first half chances as the gap in class between the two sides was apparent in more ways than one. The second half however, was a slightly different beast. Of course, there were some constants as Edson Rivera's 63rd minute studs-to-hip challenge on Gabriel allowed him to join in the Hatchet Day festivities. By and large though, the two teams sent an even number of attacking waves forward. Unfortunately for Mexico, soccer games are still decided by the number of goals scored.

Considering the far too frequent attempts on his keeper's well-being, Ney Franco was taking a risk when he made the last of his two substitutions in the 69th minute. The gamble paid off in the end however, as Dudu proceeded to terrorize the right side of the Mexican defense for the next 25 minutes.

When Henrique headed home Negueba's 80th minute cross, it appeared that the soccer gods had reached a verdict on Mexico's offenses. Still El Tri pressed onward, only to open themselves up to the counter. A few minutes later, Henrique again obliged by finishing a silky sequence of one-touch passes. AS fate would have it, Torres was granted one last chance to redeem himself in the 88th minute when he found himself one-on-one with his earlier target. Once more, Mexico were the ultimate victims as his shot fell tamely into Gabriel's battered hands, sealing Brazil's date with destiny.

Twenty years ago, Roberto Carlos's Brazil were defeated in penalties in front of a sold-out crowd at El Estádio da Luz by none other than the Portuguese Golden Generation. Rui Costa & co. hoisted the cup for what was then known as the World Youth Championships. On Saturday night, El Campin will be less hospitable for the young Portuguese, but an appropriately festive venue nonetheless - 1.2 million fans have already turned out for this Under-20 World Cup. At the end of the night, the Colombian capital will bare witness to one team's coronation as the best young Portuguese-speaking soccer nation. The World Cup trophy? That's just gravy.

Predictions: The "Teams I Love to Hate Bowl" goes to France 3-1. As for the final, Portugal have burnt me twice in a row now, but third time's the charm as Brazil carry the flag for reverse colonial conquest 2-1.

- Jacob Klinger

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