Soccer mania

Print edition : July 14, 2006

The highs and lows of the earlier part of World Cup 2006.

IN the first three weeks at the Federation International de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup 2006, there were flashes of genius against the background of well-drilled teamwork. With 32 teams in action, the best of physical endeavour, technical and tactical competence, inspired action in offence and defence, and improvisation have been on display. Most important, there has been a widespread feeling of goodwill; hooliganism, the bane of the sport, has failed to make it to the front-pages.

However, the world's biggest sporting event, watched closely by billions around the globe, has had its share of blemishes too. Germany 2006 saw referees dubiously flashing cards, much to the embarrassment of the football establishment itself, and players, many of them well known international stars, being left free to prosper by feigning injury. In short, the tournament has been a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.

German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann makes a save on the penalty kick by Argentina's Roberto Ayala during the shootout in the quarterfinal match.-THOMAS KIENZLE/AP

It was a big moment for African football, which has been pushing hard to establish its credentials on world stage for some time now, starting with Cameroon's spectacular show in the otherwise forgettable Italia 90 tournament and Senegal's stunning sequence when the World Cup was staged for the first time on Asian soil (in South Korea and Japan), in 2002.

Unfortunately, none of the established teams such as Cameroon, Senegal, Morocco and Nigeria, was present in Germany. The African continent was represented this time around by four newcomers - Ghana, Ivory Coast, Angola and Togo - and Tunisia. The glorious African tradition was kept alive by Ghana. In a tournament that saw so few surprises, Ghana's 2-0 win against the much-fancied Czech Republic was unexpected. And what a match it turned out to be as the Ghanaians took an early lead through Asamoah Gyan after being set up by his skipper Stephen Appiah and then held back the relentless attacks initiated by their rivals, with Paul Nedved at the helm, until Sulley Muntari put the issue beyond doubt with a strike in the 82nd minute! Ghana entered the round of 16.

But then, the match of the tournament in June could be none other than the first quarterfinal between Argentina and host Germany. Played at the packed Olympic Stadium in Berlin, it was a classic game packed with stunning forays, great interceptions, admirable defensive operations and two well-executed goals. That unforgettable evening belonged to the Germans, who won on penalties. The match turned German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann into a national hero overnight; he brought off two brilliant saves in the shootout. Who would have believed that the Argentinians would be heading back home so soon after they started off their campaign in a brilliant fashion?

Ghana's Stephen Appiah and Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved during a group match.-JOHN MACDOUGALL /AFP

Given that the tournament has had a relatively low goals-to-games ratio, there were quite a few matches that failed to deliver wholesome entertainment to the spectators and a record three billion football lovers worldwide who watched them on television. But then, the vote for the worst game played in the tournament ought to go to the acrimonious pre-quarterfinal battle between Portugal and the Netherlands, which may come to be referred to, rather dubiously, as the `Battle of Nuremberg", like the the `Battle of Berne' and the `Battle of Santiago' in World Cup history. It was a nasty game which saw a record four red and 16 yellow cards being flashed by Russian referee Valentin Ivanov. The sanguine head of FIFA, Joseph S. Blatter commented: "He (Ivanov) deserved a yellow card of his own tonight."

Ivanov was not the lone referee to come under fire. Earlier, England's Graham Poll was sent home after he had shown three yellow cards to the same player (Croatia's Josip Simunic) in a group match. Spanish official Luis Medina Cantalejo, who gave Italy what was widely seen as a bogus penalty kick in its round of 16 match against Australia, ensured that refereeing became the biggest story of the tournament.

German players celebrate their 4-2 victory in the quarterfinal match against Argentina.-

But then, one can hardly forget the occasional pieces of brilliance. The last-gasp effort of Maxi Rodriquez which helped Argentina get past a fighting Mexico in the pre-quarterfinal, was of sheer quality. Rodriquez settled a long cross from his skipper Juan Pablo Sorin on his chest, let the ball fall, and struck it squarely with the left foot from the right corner of the penalty area directly into the far end of the goal. What a beauty it turned out be! Also falling in the same genre were Torsten Frings' long-ranger against Costa Rica on the opening day of the tournament and Joe Cole's effort against Sweden, also from far away.

Talking about beautifully struck goals, one more needs specific mention. The one that helped the peerless Ronaldo silence his critics and also vault to the top of the list of goal-scorers in World Cup history.

These are only a few instances that will linger in our minds. But then, it is only natural that every World Cup has its own highs and lows.

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