There were long faces and dark mutterings around the family home of my Futbol Guapa after her Albicelestes met another early exit from the World Cup Saturday, thrashed 4-0 by Germany’s young stars in the day’s first quarterfinal match, a victory that moves Die Mannschaft one step Klose (get it?) to the finals. Even the choripan didn’t taste quite as good afterward, tinged with the disappointment of a title drought that will now last another four years.
Much of the blame will be laid at the feet of the last man to lift a World Cup trophy in Argentinian colours. Diego Maradona, a firebrand striker in 1986 and now a portly coach, at least saved us all the decidedly unwelcome prospect of watching him run (waddle?) naked through the streets of Buenos Aires, which he’d promised to do if his team had won in South Africa. He may have inspired a similar pledge from Larissa Riquelme, which I salute, but Diego’s team selection and tactics were highly suspect. How handy would it have been for Argentina to have Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso to call into Maradona’s attack-minded lineup against Germany, helping to prop up a lonely Javier Mascherano in front of the back four, or replacing the highly suspect Nicolas Otamendi, whose foul led to Thomas Muller’s opening goal after just three minutes. So much for God’s will.
Having said that, these Germans are clearly a force to be reckoned with. The highest-scoring team at the tournament so far, they’ve recorded a trio of four-goal games. Muller, who’ll miss the semifinal through suspension, and fellow midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira have turned the loss of Michael Ballack into more blessing than curse, while Miroslav Klose’s two goals against Argentina give him 14 in his World Cup career, one more than Pele, tied with German legend Gerd Muller and just one behind Ronaldo for the most ever. Clearly, coach Joachim Loew knows Germany is the pick of the crop.
Of course, to reach the final, the Germans still have to get past Spain, who withstood a strong and resolute Paraguay, with David Villa’s late goal proving decisive in a 1-0 final that denied us all to see a little bit more of the aforementioned Ms. Riquelme.
It wasn’t easy for Spain, up against a team who, as our Dr. Z has pointed out, knocked off Argentina, Brazil and Chile during CONMEBOL qualifying and were clearly not overawed by the prospect of facing the reigning European champions. Paraguay will probably feel a bit hard done by that they were denied the opening goal after Nelson Valdez scored shortly before half, only to have the strike disallowed because teammate Oscar Cardozo had been offside, and leapt for the ball as it came into the area.
The second half saw a bizarre sequence of penalties, with Gerard Pique using both hands to haul Cardozo to the ground, but Casillas saving and holding the shot. Seconds later, Villa was bundled over at the other end, but Xabi Alonso’s strike was ruled out because Spanish players had encroached into the penalty area. Replays later showed the same was true of Cardozo’s missed penalty, something that apparently eluded referee Carlos Batres of Guatemala. Alsono tried again, but Justo Villar made the stop, then escaped further discipline for crashing into Cesc Fabregas as he went after the rebound.
All that wackiness set the stage for an 83rd minute goal as wild as any at this tournament. Andres Iniesta left two Paraguayans in his wake with a driving run up the middle, laying the ball off for Pedro, whose shot rebounded off the post to Villa. The Golden Boot candidate also hit the post but got a more fortunate bounce, and the South Americans were sunk. Sure, Casillas was called on again to deny Roque Santa Cruz in the final minute, but Spain were otherwise comfortable in possession with the lead.
So, at a World Cup where we were once marveling at South American success and scratching our heads over European ineptitude, Uruguay is the last South American team standing as we head to the semis, with three European sides, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, still going strong. You’d have to favour the Dutch against Uruguay in Tuesday’s first semifinal, while the Spain-Germany clash on Wednesday looks like a can’t-miss classic.