By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Friday: Brazil collected a tenth minute goal from Robinho and held the Dutch scoreless through the first half. History told us that would be enough: before Friday, Selecao boasted a 37-0-2 record all-time when leading at halftime in World Cup matches. Halfway through the day's first match, you'd not just have been forgiven for penciling Brazil into a semifinal slot on your bracket you'd have probably seemed foolish not to.
That's especially true since it's not as if the Dutch had been all that impressive in the first half. Playing without Joris Mathijsen after the defender hurt his knee during warm-ups, the Dutch back line looked shaky in the early going as most clearly evidenced by a complete breakdown in allowing Robinho's goal. Meanwhile, the Oranje attack struggled for long periods to possess the ball and saw very little in the way of scoring opportunities.
But in the 53rd minute, Holland's Wesley Sneijder sent a wildly speculative shot into a crowd in front of the net. Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo went from hero to goat when his headed defensive bid instead deflected the ball past keeper Julio Cesar, marking Brazil's first ever own-goal in 97 World Cup matches. It was suddenly all systems go for the Dutch. In the 68th minute, Sneijder found himself unmarked on a corner kick in front of the net's far side, and the Inter Milan midfielder's second-touch header gave the Dutch a 2-1 lead.
Melo's bad day got worse when he was sent off with a red card in the 73rd minute after rather stupidly stomping on Arjen Robben's bare leg. Playing a man up, the Dutch controlled much of the match's final segment and completed the upset. Brazil, the world's number one team, sees its tournament end in the quarterfinals for the second straight World Cup.
Also Friday: Strong on soccer pedigree but absent as a power since 1970, Uruguay has returned to the semifinals. The victory comes at the expense of Ghana, Africa's last standing team. The match, frankly, was wacky, complete with an unbelievable ending. After 120 minutes, the score stood tied at 1-1. On Ghana's very last attack and in the dying seconds of extra time, Luis Suarez was booked for a handball on the goal line. Asamoah Gyan who scored the winner in extra time against the United States lined up for the penalty kick. Conversion would have made the Black Stars the first ever African team to reach the semifinals.
Instead, Gyan, who'd made two penalties in group play, missed and the match went to a shootout. After Uruguay's first three and Ghana's first two shots were converted, three straight misses gave Uruguay the opportunity to win on the foot of Sebastian Abreu. Abreu floated the ball over Ghanain keeper Richard Kingson to clinch the win and crash the hopes of Africa.
On Monday, England coach Fabio Capello was informed that the country's Football Association would have a decision on whether to keep him on in two weeks' time. They apparently came to a verdict quicker than expected, and it's unanimously in Capello's favor. The Italian will remain England's manager. This comes as a surprise, as it seemed nearly certain that Capello would be sent home to his renowned art collection following the Three Lions' 4-1 loss to Germany on Sunday. But as a team that too often operates on knee jerk reactions and a win-now mentality, England could benefit establishing some stability at its head.
FIFA told Nigeria's government that if it does not rescind the two year ban placed on its team from participating in international competition, it will suspend the country from world soccer on its own terms. Ibrahim Bio, the country's sports minister, has said that Nigerian soccer is in such poor condition that the government would willingly incur FIFA sanctions in order to fix the program as it sees fit. The ban in question was imposed by Nigeria's president Goodluck Johnson on Wednesday in response to the Super Eagles' poor showing in the opening round.
What it all means: The world's longest-tenured soccer power to have never won a World Cup, the Netherlands suddenly shift from potent but harmless to a very serious to win this thing after eliminating mighty Brazil. Now that I think about it, the international reaction is a bit like the natives' to Willard's execution of Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now. The fun-loving Dutch will have to deal with heightened expectations when they meet Uruguay, a team they should beat, on Tuesday.
Brazil's quarterfinal exit qualifies as a massive disappointment. Brazilians demand victory, and for the second straight World Cup their team exits without even finishing in the top four. Coach Dunga probably won't stick around after this result. His dismissal would please his countrymen, many of whom are tired of the defensive style that he emphasizes. But that justice won't be enough to cheer the country; an exit this premature is nothing short of heartbreak. You have to wonder if karma's at work against fans who were very vocal in 2002, saying that Selecao's last championship run was not pretty enough.
But just south of Brazil, Uruguay celebrates. Once a soccer superpower in the World Cup's early days, La Celeste has not seen such heights in years. A trip to the semifinal will only furthers the team's resurgence. The Dutch, however, are no Ghana, and Uruguay will be without Suarez, whose late handball against the Black Stars, bringing about Gyan's penalty shot, garnered him a red card.
At first look, it's a devastating elimination for Ghana, but the team has now advanced to knockout play in two straight tournaments and is establishing a presence on the world soccer stage. Gyan, despite the missed penalty that would have sent the team forth, has likewise claimed a place amongst the world's better strikers after his performance in this World Cup.
What to watch on Saturday: In a quarterfinal rematch from 2006, Germany and Argentina will meet in Cape Town. Four years ago, Germany emerged victorious after penalty kicks on home soil, and things got physical between the two sides immediately afterwards. That bad blood's carried over to this tournament with trash talking coming from both sides all week. The match is intriguing on its own, as it pits superstars against superstars Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez versus Bastian Schweinsteger and Mesut Ozil, for instance and makes for an interesting clash between Argentina's flashy skill and Germany's organized efficiency. Add what seems to be an intense budding rivalry to the mix and you have yourself a real Saturday morning treat to wake up to.
Also Saturday: Paraguay and Spain will play the afternoon match. Paraguay's surprising run has seen the team only allow one goal in its four matches. The problem is, that defensive success has occurred against the likes of Italy, Slovakia, New Zealand, and Japan. While Italy's pedigree is rich and Japan surprised in this year's tournament, none of these sides were close to the level of La Furia Roja, now the tournament's clear favorite with Brazil eliminated. Friday's upset reminds us that nothing can be assumed, but it would be even more shocking than Brazil's dispelling if Spain, the World's number two team, were to fall to its 31st-ranked opposition. A win for either side will send the victor to new World Cup heights: Paraguay is competing in its first ever quarterfinal on Saturday and Spain has never advanced to the semis.
Question of the Day: Admit it: you were cheering for Ghana. Even if they did eliminate the United States, how could you not be cheering for Africa's last standing team in Africa's first World Cup? So today's question is of the cheering variety: is Uruguay's victory a blessing in disguise? A match between Ghana and the Dutch would have made choosing a side quite difficult. Growing up, I was taught there are a few qualifiers that can help decide for whom to root, and that match would have enveloped them all: the lovable loser (Netherlands), the home team (Ghana), the best fan base (Netherlands again), and the underdog (...and Ghana again). Now, with Holland set to take on Uruguay, my loyalties are very clear.
Full schedule (all times EDT): Germany v Argentina Green Point Stadium, Cape Town 10:00 a.m.; Paraguay v Spain Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg 2:30 p.m.
Quote of Note: In the changing-room at half-time, everyone said to each other 'let's give everything' and that's what we did. We fought for each other. - The Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder following his team's upset of Brazil that sent the Oranje to the semifinals.