Friday, July 06, 2007

The Big Carve-Up

Can you believe that it's twenty-five years ago this month since the 1982 World Cup? I wouldn't say that it feels like only yesterday, but the time has certainly gone more quickly than I would have expected. The tournament, held in Spain, showed off the less seemly side of international football through the infamous match between West Germany and Austria in Gijon. The Germans had surprisingly been beaten 2-1 by Algeria in an earlier match, but knew that a one goal victory would be enough them and the Austrians to go through at the Algerians' expense. Having taken an early 1-0 lead through Horst Hrubesch, both teams gave up and passed the ball around amongst themselves for eighty minutes to send themselves through and eliminate Algeria. The result caused uproar. There were protests in Algiers, and both teams found themselves even being booed by their own supporters. The German newspaper Die Welt described the match as "legal fraud", whilst the German Financial Times' headline the following day was "Treason Against Sportsmanship". From 1986 on, FIFA ensured that the final round of group matches had to be played simultaneously to try and prevent this happening in the future.

All of the individual confederations followed suit, of course, with one notable exception - CONMEBOL, the South American confederation who, for reasons best known to themselves, still play the final round of group matches at Copa America at different times on the same day. It's almost as if they want to live up to their stereotype of being corrupt or corruptible. After a thrilling first six matches in the 2007 tournament, the final (and, therefore, most important) round of group matches were almost uniformly drab and dull. People paid good money to watch these matches, of course. One would hope that CONMEBOL will see sense and change this rule in time for 2009. Anyway, here's a brief round-up of what (didn't) happen in the final round of group matches.

Group A: Bolivia-Peru and Venezuela-Uruguay - The difference between what happens when you have something to play for and when you don't was starkly on show here. Bolivia led twice against Peru, but were pegged back both times. Jaime Moreno opened the scoring with a tremendous dipping volley, before Chelsea's new signing, Claudio Pizarro, headed Peru level. Bolivia retook the lead right on half-time through Jhasmani Campos. With five minutes to play, though, Pizarro scored a second goal to knock the Bolivians out. Knowing that a draw was enough to put both teams through, Venezuela and Uruguay knocked the ball about for ninety minutes without breaking into too much of a sweat, and both are now through to the quarter-finals.

Group B: Chile-Mexico and Brazil-Ecuador - The result from the match between Peru and Bolivia meant that Chile and Mexico already knew that a draw would be enough to send both teams through to the quarter-finals. Can you guess what happened? Yes. Another 0-0 draw, though this was a far better 0-0 draw than the one that had preceded it between Venezuela and Uruguay. Chile had a clear penalty turned down in the second half, and both teams created enough chances to win the match, but neither team looked particularly upset at the final whistle. Meanwhile, Brazil continue to underwhelm. A penalty from Robinho was enough to beat Ecuador, who must be very disappointed to be going home without a single point. Brazil are going to have to improve enormously if they want to win this. I suspect that they don't care too much whether they do or not.

Group C: Argentina-Paraguay and USA-Colombia - Results elsewhere meant that both of these matches were effectively meaningless. Argentina and Paraguay, with three points each, were both already through to the quarter-finals, and Chile and Uruguay had already qualified as the best third-placed teams with four points each, so both of these matches were largely being played for pride. Argentina took their foot off the pedal against Paraguay, but still looked comfortable enough in beating them 1-0 through a late goal from Javier Mascherano, with Manchester United's substitute bench's Carlos Tevez missing a couple of decent chances. In the final match of the group stages, Colombia battered the USA, but only contrived to beat them 1-0. Jaime Castrillon gave them an early lead, but they then missed a penalty and a hatful of chances. The USA had a goal (correctly) disallowed for offside, and Colombia's goalkeeper, the extravagantly-named Robinson Zapata managed to get himself sent off for two yellow cards, the second of which was for time wasting. One step forward and two steps back for the USA then. In spite of the defence that their team was not a full strength one, they finished the tournament without a point and with the worst record of all twelve entrants. The 2002 World Cup excepted, they still have to truly prove themselves on the international scene. Matching Argentina for twenty minutes just doesn't cut it, I'm afraid. Even England can do that.

The Quarter-Finals - Venezuela-Uruguay, Brazil-Chile, Mexico-Paraguay and Argentina-Peru.


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