Thursday, June 08, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: The Knockout Stages

LAST 16: The second round, or Round of 16 as you most likely won't be calling it, is a peculiar creature. Lacking the high octane importance of the later stages, but also bereft of the novelty countries and party atmosphere of the opening rounds, it is a sorting office where the competing nations' hopes are efficiently checked for substance, and then either dispatched home in anti-climactic disappointment or propelled quarter-final-wards in a fiery chariot of glory.

Match 49: Germany v Paraguay - Hosts, gathering momentum following surprisingly easy qualification and roared on by a patriotic Munich crowd, storm past the gutsy South Americans 2-0

Match 50: Argentina v Mexico - A glorious affair, and a great advert for the silky improvisations of Latin American football. With the teams locked at 2-2 going into injury, Lionel Messi curls a free-kick in to send the Mexicans south of the Rio Grande.

Match 51: England v Poland - Familarity breeds contempt in Stuttgart, with the teams who qualified for the World Cup from the same group cancelling each other out. It is the brave introduction of the electrifying Aaron Lennon which wins the day for a hitherto lacklustre England. A nation gets carried away with itself.

Match 52: Portugal v Holland - Another corker, if marred by a display of diving not seen since those old Esther Williams movies from Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben. The goofy-grinned Madeiran earns the penalty which Figo dispatches to win it for Big Phil's boys.

Match 53: Italy v Australia - England is in disarray as, despite the nation reaching the quarter finals, there is not a celebratory pint to be had due to all of London's barstaff decamping to Kaiserslautern to follow Australia's unlikely progress. Taps are running again quicksmart as a Luca Toni brace sends the cobbers back to their aprons.

Match 54: France v Ukraine - Despite the best efforts of an on fire Sheva, the Ukrainians are no match for a French side who seem to have found the right balance, with Zidane and Henry combining lethally, at the appropriate time.

Match 55: Brazil v Czech Republic - Brazil are in trouble. Their defence has struggled to cope with the lofty Jan Koller and the predatory Milan Baros, whose drifting wide has outfoxed the Brazilians aging fullbacks. Ronaldinho drags his team into extra-time and a fortunate penalty-shoot out win.

Match 56: Spain v Switzerland - We thought that even Spain couldn't screw this one up, but they do: another misfiring performance and another penalty shoot-out, this time the Swiss make a shock progression.

QUARTER FINALS: The best round of the tournament. Where the exciting stuff happens. Where Maradona scored that goal, and that one, against England, where Bonetti was blitzed by Der Bomber in 1970, where Ireland went to see the Pope, where Bebeto rocked the baby, where Bergkamp took that long pass down against Argentina in France.

Match 57: Germany v Argentina - The hopes of the home nation are extinguished, and it is that man Messi - fast becoming the man of the tournament - who does it. The Germans are gallant against superior opposition, but their attacking approach, while laudable, costs them dear on the break.

Match 58: Italy v France - Gallic finesse meets the rebirth of catenaccio. The Italians, desirous of restoring their nation's footballing pride, decide to champion the most innately Italian of methods. Gilardino cores an early penalty and two Italians are sent off as the French, and a frustrated Henry, are suffocated out of the tournament.

Match 59: England v Portugal - Rooney: "I have unfinished business with the Portuguese". Rooney makes his first start since recovering from a broken metatarsal and helps England to avenge the defeat to Figo and co in Euro 2004. Stevie Gerrard is the main man, however, and two first half goals from the Liverpool man take England through to the semi-finals for the first time since 1990.

Match 60: Brazil v Switzerland - In which the Brazilians finally get their groove back. Adriano finds form but the Swiss defence begins to resemble their native cheese at precisely the wrong time. The sight of a tearful Philipe Senderos, having put through his own net from a Robinho cross, is one of the enduring images of the tournament.

SEMI-FINALS: Where dreams are ended and rightful winners are consigned to the half-life of wistful regret. Usually by the Germans. But this time the teutonic ones are gone, with only the smooth organisation of the tournament a testament to their existence. So will the best team win this time?

Match 61: Argentina v Italy - The Italians are on a mission now. The azzurri nation takes pride in the restoration, nay renaissance, of their beloved calcio. Silvio Berlusconi attempts a coup, disgusted that Romano Prodi should lead the nation at this heady time. The Argies batter away at the redoubtable blue wall, but Nesta, Cannavaro and Buffon are resolute. That man Toni does the business with a back-post header in the first half.

Match 62: England v Brazil - Rooney, now seemingly fully recovered takes centre stage. He combines with Owen to put England ahead and then the most stirring of rearguard actions commences. The spirit of Dunkirk is invoked. John Terry sees the ghostly figure of Bobby Moore appear to him just as Ronaldinho advances one-on-one. Terry suddenly finds himself involuntarily sliding to the floor, lancing the ball from the brilliant Brazilian's toe, then rising to bring it clear. The apparition appears again, and smiles beneficiently at the World Cup finalist.

THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: Empty the benches.

Match 63: Argentina v Brazil - Whatever.

FINAL: Berlin hosts the biggest occasion in sport; in fact, the biggest occasion outwith moon landings, presidential and princesses funerals and terrorist atrocities. Big! Big numbers: of viewers, of advertising revenues, of media presence, of preview hype....after all of which the main event can't help but seem what it is: just a football match. Finals are usually disappointing, but how, in God's name, could they ever live up to the expectation?

Mathc 64: Italy v England - Both sides are paralysed by the tension of the affair, which suits the Italians. Rooney is shackled by Nesta, drops deeper and is shackled by Gattuso. Beckham and Lampard are invisible and Gerrard huffs and puffs to little effect. The World Cup Final trudges it's way, inevitably and grimly, to a penalty-shoot out. Peter Crouch misses one for England, the Italians convert theirs. Another four years of familiar pain for England, but Sven exits as a beloved hero as he hugs each tearful man in his squad. Italy erupts in celebration and Berlusconi is even allowed out on day-release to enjoy the celebrations.


Blogger Seadna said...

Hi Tom. My name is Seadna and we got drunk in Paris once while watching Ireland beat Italy. Could you send me an email address for your brother. I need to get in touch with him.
Love your Blog by the way, Where do you get you're stories?

1:44 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Tom, ever thought of becoming a sports journalist?!! Enjoy the world cup and I'll see you in July. x

6:36 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Seadna - I believe my bro got in touch with you. hope all is well.

Anonymous - you can't be leaving kisses and not telling me who you are!

8:32 a.m.  

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