By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Saturday: Germany entered the day as the underdog in a 2006 rematch against Argentina. But less than three minutes into the match, they'd taken the lead on a Thomas Muller header, and by the match's end, Die Mannschaft had emerged as the World Cup's top-scoring team after demolishing Argentina 4-0.
The four goal performance was the Germans' third of the tournament and its second straight after defeating England 4-1 on Sunday. The team, known for its youth, actually benefited from the finishing touch of some of its more experienced players in the second half. Miroslav Klose, 32, scored twice, sandwiching a 74th minute strike from Arne Friedrich, 31. Off the scoreboard, Argentina looked clueless for much of the match. Despite controlling possession throughout, they were unable to put together scoring opportunities against Germany's machine-like organization. Any wind in the Albiceleste sail was abruptly lost after Klose's first goal in the 68th minute put the score at 2-0, and the Germans rolled through the final 25 minutes to earn a spot in the semifinals.
Following the loss, Argentina coach Diego Maradona offered little in the way of the entertaining babble for which he's known. Instead, the fiery manager came off more sympathetic than clown-like in offering a somber meditation on his future, clearly heartbroken in defeat. Say what you like about the guy but there's no denying his passion for the game and especially for his team. Here's hoping he keeps providing his outspoken commentary throughout the rest of the tournament.
Consistently shut down by Paraguay's impenetrable defense, it seemed as though Spain may need to go into extra time or even a shootout if La Furia Roja was to emerge victorious against the side they were so heavily favored to beat. But in the 83rd minute, Spain was able to work its way behind the vaunted rearguard. Young striker Pedro sent a ball rattling off the post but David Villa collected the rebound and put home his fifth goal of the tournament, giving Spain a 1-0 lead. Spanish keeper and captain Iker Casillas and the defense before him withstood a late onslaught from the South Americans and held on for the victory to gain a spot in the semifinals.
The match saw an unbelievable sequence between the 57th and 63rd minutes, starting when Spanish defender Gerard Pique drew a yellow card conceding a penalty kick. Casillas made a great save on Oscar Cardozo's attempt and sent the ball back into play. Less than a minute later, Spain was granted a penalty shot of its own. Xabi Alonso looked to have converted, but the officials called the goal back, ruling that Spanish players had encroached into the box prior to the kick. Alonso gave it another go but this time keeper Justo Villar turned it away. In a matter of minutes, each side experienced the game's ultimate frustration and ultimate relief. For Spain, the sequence will go down as an interesting caveat on the road to eventual glory. Paraguay, on the other hand, is sure to dwell on the missed opportunity.
Also Saturday: There was some talk that Uruguay's Luis Suarez would face a two-game suspension after his handball denied a Ghanaian goal in the waning seconds of extra time, setting up Asamoah Gyan's missed penalty kick. Such measures would have prevented Suarez from playing in the final should Uruguay make it that far. But FIFA decided that the ban would only cover the team's semifinal match. The immediate reaction to Suarez's handball saw commentators questioning why he'd done it, and even Suarez himself seemingly saw little value in the play as he made to leave the field in tears. Since the dust has settled, Ghanaian supporters and many observers have become more accusatory, with the kindest of these folks bypassing profanities and simply labeling Suarez a cheater.
But a small segment sees what I see: Suarez forced Ghana to work for an otherwise sure victory even if it meant picking up the red card and incurring much of the globe's wrath in the process. I don't think Suarez consciously thought all of this out as evidenced by his disappointment in himself after the play but I think he knew what was at stake and as a competitor, he acted instinctively and sacrificially to win at any cost. And it worked. We can debate its fairness, but the play was a remarkable demonstration of competitive spirit highlighting the measures an athlete will take in the pursuit of victory.
Brazil's Coach Dunga hinted that he probably won't return in his role. If he leaves the post on his own terms, it makes things easier for the country's Football Confederation. It's unlikely that he's wanted back after Selecao's very disappointing quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands.
What it all means: In decisively eliminating England and Argentina in back-to-back matches, Germany has gone from young upstarts to a legitimate threat to win the Cup. Prior to the tournament, the Germans had hoped that with such an inexperienced and young squad, they could reach the quarterfinals in a rebuilding effort. But they have proven they're capable of far more, easily dissecting two quality teams in knockout play (yes, disappointing though they may have been, England still counts as quality). Klose, with 14 career World Cup goals, is now just one behind Brazilian living legend Ronaldo for the most ever in tournament play.
Spain, the tournament's clear favorite in light of Brazil's elimination, breaks the reigns of history in advancing past the quarterfinals for the first time. Their semifinal contest against Germany arguably makes for the best tournament match yet. Villa's fifth goal makes him the front-runner for the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer.
Argentina's exit at the hands of Germany for the second straight World Cup seems very abrupt given how strong they'd looked to this point. Until today, Maradona's squad was one of only two to have won every match in the tournament (the Netherlands being the other). Argentina will always be a threat and barring disaster should get another try with Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, but Saturday's result marked the quarterfinals' second disappointment for a South American power and tournament front-runner in as many days.
Paraguay has long been heckled as one of the weakest South American soccer nations but made it as far as fellow continentals Brazil and Argentina in 2010. Conceding only two goals in the tournament, the team established itself as a defensive force and will be worth keeping an eye on over the next World Cup cycle.
Through the Round of 16, there was plenty of talk that South American teams were dominating the tournament and that, compared to tournaments passed, Europe had disappointed mightily. Now, the final four consists of just one South American squad Uruguay compared to three European sides in Holland, Germany, and Spain.
What happens Sunday: The semifinalists will get a couple of days off before Uruguay and the Netherlands meet on Tuesday afternoon. There will be plenty of off-the-pitch news, however, as the 2010 World Cup enters its final week.
Question of the Day: Is there significance to Spain's breaking through to the semifinals? Three times eliminated in the quarters, La Furia Roja is certain to see its best finish ever in this tournament. Does overcoming past disappointments help the team in terms of confidence, or does the pressure only get greater as the team moves forth into historically uncharted territory?
Quote of Note: I told my players, you are younger, faster, more enduring. We were able to put Argentinas defense under pressure and take it apart completely. - German coach Joachim Low after his squad's thrashing of Argentina.