World Cup Semi-Finals Are Set
By Tom Sheldrick
And then there were four...
Four games to go, four teams left in it, places one to four to be decided. But, just as notably, four teams who went home in the four quarter-final games this weekend.
Ghana, oh Ghana. With close to a million people behind them, they came, quite literally, that close to a place in the last four - the furthest an African side would ever have been in the competition. The Black Stars displayed a vitality, an energy and a togetherness. For all his obvious talent in the center of midfield, you wonder if Michael Essien's absence was as much of a blessing in disguise for Ghana as Michael Ballack's has been for Germany. Milovan Rajevac's put faith in his boys, and they delivered wonderfully. The young holding midfielder Anthony Annan has got a very bright future, as has full-back Samuel Inkoom. Andre Ayew is a talent, and - for all his doubters and his haters - Kevin-Prince Boateng proved he can play a bit.
And then there was Asamoah Gyan. At 24, one of the team's old heads. He is a proper striker, right out of the Samuel Eto'o mould - athletic, pacy, strong, and preferring to work alone. There are times when he isn't in the game, and there a times when his link-up play is nothing special. But then he comes alive with the goal in front of him, and scores goals like the winner against the USA. Four goals for the tournament is a return deserving of applause, but the mark he left on the tournament is bigger than that. It is an indelible one. After missing the penalty that would have put his nation in the semi-finals, stepping up again to take the first in the shootout displayed remarkable strength of character. The wait for an African semi-finalist, let alone an African winner, goes on - although if the class of 2010 stays together, it could be in with a shout in four years time.
The South Americans were flying along in this tournament. Four of the continent's five qualifiers were in the quarters, with Chile having hit some kind of inferiority complex to fall to fellow South Americans Brazil in the last 16. The Spanish continue to play Fernando Torres when he is clearly not fit (although they are not the only team to have done so - England and Wayne Rooney springs to my mind, as well as Brazil and Kaka) and have been hugely underwhelming so far as a result. Paraguay crashed out to them last night, losing 1-0 in a game they easily could have won.
The exits of Brazil and Argentina were more eye-catching though.
Brazil, for the second World Cup running, had Fantasy Football Syndrome. In 2006, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo and Adriano were all shoved up front, and left to see what they could do, with no apparent shape or purpose. In 2010, for all of the talk about Dunga’s pragmatism, this was a team which had two right backs in it. There’s only room for one, and it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got Dani Alves and Maicon – arguably the best in the world – you’ve got to choose.
Brazil went from looking in charge of the game to losing all discipline and belief within 20 second-half minutes against the Netherlands. Perhaps it got to the players, not being the “Brazil” that they were expected to be. All I can say is that, as their World Cup ambition ended, they didn’t look comfortable in their own skin.
Finally to Argentina, and the peerlessly fascinating Maradona. He should have asked Brazil if he could borrow a right back: they had two, he had none. Newcastle midfielder Jonas Gutierrez played there for most of the tournament, but it was Nicolas Otamendi lined up in the number 2 position against Germany yesterday. The 22-year-old plays his club football at home in Argentina at center-back.
He was the man who let Thomas Mueller get ahead of him for Germany’s opener, got a pointless yellow card after 10 minutes, and was caught out for Miroslav Klose’s first goal in the second half. Maradona hauled him off after 70 minutes as he went for broke. Why the man who scored the goals to win Serie A, the Italian Cup and the Champions League – Diego Milito – wasn’t included in his thinking, only Maradona will ever know.
But it mattered little how many top level strikers Argentina had up front, or warming the bench, there was a fatal weakness, and Germany exposed it ruthlessly. They will do the same to Spain.
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org