Wednesday 21 March 2018

African fairytale ends in tears after shootout

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

EVEN fairytales have boundaries. History wasn't made in Soccer City; instead it was repeated.

Not just because this was the evening where Uruguay, the first winners of this tournament, booked their nation's return to the business end. Overall, it was an eventful day that re-enforced the traditional values that separate the wheat from the chaff.

You can spend hours analysing trends that develop from the first half of a World Cup, be they related to the dominance of a continent or a prevailing style of play, but when you reach this stage, it ultimately comes down to nerve. To bottle. To balls.

Unfortunately, Asamoah Gyan learned that in the harshest way possible with his 120th-minute spot-kick miss which would have secured Ghana's passage. Sebastian Abreu demonstrated cojones in abundance with the cheeky conversion to wrap up the shoot-out that.

In doing so, he justified Luis Suarez's decision to punch the goal-bound ball to safety, the action which presented Gyan with the shot for glory.

Holland v Uruguay? It sounds damn strange alright, but there was a bit more to the South American's victory than their deadball efficiency and late stroke of fortune.

They're a dogged bunch, who came from behind with the majority of the 84,017 crowd willing on the opposition, and without the bedrock of the defence which has been the core of their strength in this tournament.

Gyan may have delivered them a get out of jail card but the Uruguayans will argue that they were denied a fair penalty shout beforehand, in the first period of extra-time.

The sum total is a semi-final that FIFA could never have imagined. Of course, they didn't expect a Friday evening prime-time quarter-final at World Cup HQ with this cast either.

At the outset, the authorities would have envisaged a marquee encounter. Indeed, if affairs had proceeded according to ranking, then it would have brought together England and France.

Without unity, however, it's extremely difficult to last the course in a competition of this length.

The French and English implosions were born from disharmony and the knock on lack of organisation. Uruguay and Ghana may lack the star quality, but the tightness of their respective squads has been evident in their surprise runs to the latter stages.

Both camps have exuded a relaxed vibe, a sense that they have genuinely savoured this experience rather than being overcome by the self-loathing which got the better of the aforementioned higher-profile rivals.

This week, Diego Forlan posted pictures on his Twitter page of a good spirited Uruguayan team barbecue, while the Ghana stars have won admirers in Sun City for mingling with fans, wandering around a casino -- even until the early hours -- and breaking in to dance when the moment takes them. The 'happy to be here' mentality isn't the enemy it is sometimes made out to be.


Alas, the script for this novelty clash was dramatically altered by events in Port Elizabeth earlier in the day. Suddenly, it got very serious.

The assumption was that the winner of the less glamorous encounter would go on to face the might of Brazil in Cape Town on Tuesday as massive underdogs, and take a beating befitting that status. Holland's incredible success changed everything.

It meant that the protagonists here went to war with more than just the richly symbolic prize of a place in the final four at stake.

There was now a realistic path to the final; good as they may be, today's Dutch side do not strike fear in the same manner as the Samba Boys.

For Uruguay, the favourites for this unlikely gathering, there was a particular psychological importance. The aura surrounding Brazil is sometimes too much for their South American neighbours. But the Dutch? Different story.

Amid all the theorising about the depth of the competing squads, there is a basic simplicity about the Uruguayan model that makes it well suited to progression. They rarely concede sloppy goals, and they have a pair of strikers with the ability to produce them from nothing -- although Suarez will be suspended for the semi-final.

Oscar Tabarez's charges -- who only progressed by virtue of a play-off against Costa Rica -- had looked the part in progressing to this juncture. They had shipped just one goal prior to last night, with a battle hardened rearguard protected by holding midfielders, Egidio Arevalo and the impressive Diego Perez.

However, the loss of Diego Godin to a thigh injury robbed them of a key factor in their stinginess, and when injury claimed skipper Diego Lugano in the early exchanges of this match, their reserve was tested; 34-year-old defender Andres Scotti was sent into the fray.

Uruguay had already overcome an intimidating atmosphere in their thrashing of Bafana Bafana in their second group match in Pretoria, but they managed to prick the balloon there with their absolute dominance over the host nation. It would be a different story against the team playfully christened Baghana Baghana as they adopted the role of home favourites, with the continent weighing in behind Milovan Rajevac's charges.

The Ghanains have emerged as clear best of the African representatives because they have solidity at one end of the park, and attacking prowess at the other.

With a back four comprising individuals who either played in the Premier League or the Bundesliga last season, they have stayed resolute. The three goals they had conceded prior to this encounter were courtesy of a wonder strike, penalty kick and a goalkeeping howler from the unconvincing Richard Kingson.

After a sluggish start, with the blue shirts to the fore, the local darlings had gripped control of this game by the interval and a long-range goal from Sulley Muntari sent them to the dressing-room with a lead they just about deserved.

Diego Forlan's brilliant free-kick pegged them back, yet the Black Stars failed to relent. With the core of last year's U-20 World Cup winning side in reserve, Rajevac was able to spring promising replacements into the fray.

They had the legs to bounce back from a tough period in normal time -- when Uruguay could have won it -- and laid siege as extra-time ticked towards the conclusion that will haunt Gyan for the rest of his life rather than Suarez.

Football will always serve its unique brand of justice.

Irish Independent

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