World Cup Diary / Alamo Spirit Reborn (With the Same End Result)

Soccer at its very best as Belgium narrowly conquers heroic Americans.

AP

After 105 minutes in the energy-sapping conditions of Salvador on Tuesday evening, the Americans were a sorry-looking bunch. All passion spent. All hope gone. All over. Two goals behind to a skilful, determined Belgium, Jürgen Klinsmann’s men had 15 more minutes to bear, and then they would be put out of their misery and head home.

At times, Tuesday’s game had resembled the Alamo, with goalkeeper Tim Howard cast in the role of Jim Bowie (or was it Davy Crockett?), repelling attack after Belgian attack. Howard ultimately made World Cup history by making more saves in a game than any other keeper (16, and there were a remarkable 56 efforts on goal in total,) a truly heroic effort.

Anyway, 105 minutes. The second half of extra time starts and, almost immediately, the Americans score a terrific goal: substitute Green taking a dream of a pass from Bradley and volleying past Belgian keeper Courtois. And then, wow! The next 13 or so minutes saw the most entertaining soccer of the tournament, as the United States suddenly found the belief that had been lacking and played like men possessed.

Who poured the drinks?

Suddenly, players who had been dead on their feet were pouring forward from all angles, looking for the equalizer. It was as if Lance Armstrong had been administering the break-time drinks, with Bradley, Jones and Co. tearing into the Belgians as if their very lives, not just their World Cup, depended upon it.
Clint Dempsey was thwarted by Courtois at close range after a genius free kick, and the ball pinged around the Belgian box like a hyperactive pinball. But to no avail. The Belgians held on for a 2-1 victory.

The diary has spent the whole of the World Cup writing the word “football,” then deleting it and begrudgingly writing “soccer” for U.S. sensibilities. But today, the diary proudly writes the word “soccer,” for the Americans earned the use of the S-word, and the world’s respect, with this phenomenal effort.

There are a few things that stand out about this American side: Their never-say-die attitude, obviously, the verve of the full backs – DeAndre Yedlin was a revelation, delivering quality cross after quality cross, a feat only matched by the Vatican’s crucifix supplier – and the need to “leave it all on the pitch.” Team U.S.A., we salute you and your amazeballs soccer stars. Can we give the 2022 tournament to the United States as a reward?

Kudos also to Belgium. Despite winning three games on the bounce, the Europeans had been one of the big disappointments of the tournament: negative, flat, sneaking goals when the opposition tired. As the old saying goes, if they were playing in your backyard, you’d draw the curtains. Here, though, they were a revelation. Pace, skill, determination. Let’s hope they carry this form into Saturday’s quarterfinal against Argentina.

Devotees of previous diaries (hi mom!) will recall that we recently stated that Argentina could win the World Cup – a prediction that looks ever dumber as the tournament progresses. And yet, the worse the Argentinians play, the further they advance. This is soccer’s equivalent of failing upwards. If you think they sucked against Switzerland, just think how bad they’re going to be when they win the final on July 13!

Soccer into gold

And yet… the Argentines still have one of the three remaining players who can conjure something from nothing, turning the basest of metals into gold with a drop of the shoulder and a shimmy or four. Yes, Lionel Messi (along with Neymar and Arjen Robben) rescued his otherwise mediocre side with a mazy dribble and defense-splitting pass to Ángel di María, who passed the ball into the net and put us all out of our misery, three minutes from the end of extra time.

Even then, there was time for some belated drama. The Swiss – who hadn’t managed a shot on target since the fiftieth minute and seemingly needed a compass to find the Argentine goal – finally came to life. Dzemaili hit the post with a fine header and then watching as the ball rebounded, hit his leg and rolled, mockingly, agonizingly wide.

What is the problem with the Argentinians? Well, they’re playing with the pace of a crippled snail, rely on the genius of one man (who frequently has three opponents surrounding him) and have a forward (Gonzalo Higuaín) who is clearly an imposter and not the real Napoli striker. Worse, they have a rickety defense, which is sure to be condemned someday soon. Maybe Saturday.

After the excitement of the group stages, the round-of-16 was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a more conservative affair, with fewer teams adopting a gung-ho approach. There was only a single game where one side completely dominated (Colombia vs. Uruguay), and every other game could have easily ended with the other team claiming victory.

Just think. If the soccer gods had smiled differently, Nigeria could have been facing Algeria on Friday night, or Mexico facing Greece on Saturday. Instead, we had the unique situation in which every single group winner advanced to the quarterfinals, a fact that belies the closeness of the encounters. Let’s hope the spirit of the departing Americans rubs off on a few teams.

Finally, we finish with some FIFA news. You’ll recall that the Mexico vs. Netherlands game became the first to have official water breaks – two three-minute cooling breaks at the 30 and 75 minute marks. Well, following that successful innovation, FIFA has declared that a similar system will be adopted in Qatar: Each match will have three-minute “soccer breaks” at the 30 and 75 minute marks. The players will spend the other 84 minutes sipping drinks in the shade.

The diary is taking a few days off now and will return, refreshed and with the energy of a U.S. full back, on Friday.