The World Cup is a tale of two tournaments. In the first round, it’s a tournament about hope, happiness, and mirth. In the knockout phase, it’s a tournament about reality, despair, and despondency. The first round is the party time, the second the business time.
One watches the first round full of optimism and hope about one’sfavorite team. Anything can happen, the possibilities are endless. If the team play well and loose, if the team avoids major injuries and catches a break here and there, then anything is possible. A team can get to the knockout phase without winning all of its games. The party has just started and it is a good party.
As the games progress, as one does the math, certain things become evident. The possibilities of advancing are calculated. By the time of the third game, when the group matches are played simultaneously, there’s a more serious air to the affair. Elimination is now a distinct possibility. But if your team gets through, a joyous feeling radiates among the fan base, like the bright orange glow of a glorious sunset.
Once the teams are set for the following round, pundits and fans begin the analysis phase. It’s once again hope that maybe you can win a game or two, to have a good run as they say. For the major teams, the Brazil, Argentinas and Germany’s of the world, this is a more serious time, one in which the expectations of the nation become a burdensome weight. For other teams, hope again springs eternal.
The tension of the second phase is evident from the kickoff. What one encountered as bliss in the first phase (yey the World Cup has finally started) is now a heavy knot of worry felt in the gut of the common fan. A defeat at this stage strikes with the force of a knockout punch, the finality of the moment hits home hard.
In this World Cup, teams such as Mexico, Algeria, the US, Switzerland, Chile felt the pain firsthand. First, Chile lost to Brazil after a scoreless 120 minutes in the dreaded penalty shootout. Trailing by one goal at 3-2, they needed a goal from their last kicker to stay alive. When the kick struck the right post, caroomed all the way across, flying across the sprawled goalie, and safely stayed out of the net, the Chileans were eliminated. This was even worse because Chile had hit the crossbar late in the game, sometime around the 118th minute, a ball that if it had gone in, would have eliminated the host country Brazil. Such a dramatic victory could easily have been categorized as a second Maracanazo for the annals of history. Maybe it would not have been as as dramatic as Uruguay beating Brazil in the 1950 final, but a close second considering that Brazil would have been eliminated from the only other tournament they’ve hosted since 1950 at the beginning of the knock-out phase.
Mexico lost in just as heartbreaking of a manner. Leading 1-0 on a goal from Giovanni Dos Santos until the 88th minute, Holland scored when Sneijder took a defensive clearance and shot a rocket into the corner that Memo Ochoa had no chance on. Ochoa had played remarkably well and had kept Holland at bay with a number of incredible reflexive saves. About 4 minutes later, in stoppage time, Arjen Robben dribbled into the penalty area, and then after a clumsy challenge from Rafa Marquez, took what appeared to be a dive. The referee did not flinch and signalled to the penalty spot. Holland converted, and just like that, Mexico went from winning one of the most important games in its history (they’ve only advanced to the quarter-finals once) to losing yet another Round of 16 game.
Similarly, Algeria battled Germany to a scoreless tie for 90 minutes, only to see Germany get two goals in the extra period. While Algeria got one back, it was too little too late and Germany once again advanced into the quarterfinals.
Argentina required 118 minutes before vanquishing a tougher than anticipated Swiss side (the same side that got plastered 5-2 by France in the group stage). It took a darting run, a moment of brilliance from Messi to define the outcome. After a Swiss turnover, Messi received a pass near midfield before eluding two defenders. Two additional Swiss came at him. At that moment, Leo passed the ball to his right to DiMaria, who slotted the ball coolly on the ground to the far post to beat the Swiss keeper. But Argentina had to sweat it out in the final minutes. On a corner kick, Switzerland’s Dzemaili headed the ball straight into the post. To add insult to injury the rebound also hit his foot and went inches wide.
The USA Belgium game followed a similar script that the other American games had. The US was dominated by the opposing team in terms of shots and corner kicks (although it boggles the mind understand how they won the possesion game 53%-47%). Belgium uncorked a record 27 shots on Tim Howard. He stopped a World Cup record number 15 of them. Belgium finally had the breakthroughs in the extra-time as DeBruyn and Lukaku scored one each. Lukaku’s fresh legs and energy provided the spark for both goals. The US got one goal back from Julian Green late in the game, begging the question why Klinsmann didn’t bring him in for the the entire extra period. The US had one more opportunity off of a set piece to put the game into penalties but Dempsey’s shot was stopped by Courtois.
To quote US keeper Tim Howard: “It’s really awesome getting through the group, but it means nothing. The sting of failure is the same if you lose in this round as if you didn’t get out of the group.”
To paraphrase Dickens, the Spring of Hope gives way to the Winter of Discontent.