As I lay my 1982 World Cup champion Italy – the Azzurri’s third World Cup title and first in my lifetime – T-shirt back in the drawer after the group stage for the second time since it won its fourth global crown eight years ago, I turn my personal attention to the United States and Mexico.
Both North American teams advanced as runners-up from the group stage into the “Round of 16″ or “Knockout Round,” where they were joined by group winners host Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Argentina and Belgium; and other group runner-ups Chile, Uruguay, Nigeria, Algeria, Greece and Switzerland.
After the weekend elimination matches, two of the World Cup favorites, host Brazil and powerful Netherlands, somehow escaped being ousted by the proverbial “skin of their teeth” by Chile and Mexico, respectively.
Chile had the Brazilians on the ropes and came within inches of shocking the five-time champions, but the ball bounced off both the cross-bar in extra time, and the post in the deciding, and excruciating, penalty kickoff.
As both a player and fan, the last thing you want the final outcome to come down to are with penalty kicks, with fatigue at that point of the match for the players being a factor in their team’s fate, and the stressful to elation or heartbreak for the fans being their fate.
Mexico outplayed fast and dangerous Dutch throughout the first half of their knockout match in blistering heat, then quickly scored a goal after the break and committed one of the most common and egregious mistakes in game or match management, being conservative and playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
Sustituting a defensive player for an offensive one while holding on to a narrow 1-0 advantage, but with nearly a whole half to go, finally stung the Mexicans as Netherlands always dangerous strikers continued making runs at the goal and got numerous corner kicks that led ther undoing.
The Dutch tied the match with three minutes to go, and, then in extra time got a questionable – though Mexico put itself in constant second-half peril – penatly kick and converted it to make their great escape, as did Brazil, and both countries are now on a still-possible collision course to meet in the final.
But Holland and Brazil better watch their luck facing other underdogs in the quarter- and semi-finals, who might complete their bite on the two favorites, who next face knockout-match winners Costa Rica, which sent Greece packing on penalty kicks, and Columbia, which eliminated Uruguay, respectively.
As for Uruguay, it played without their suspended infamous star Luis Suarez for another biting incident, this time against one of my Italians, and it most justifably cost him a suspension of four months of club play and eight matches with his country team.
Yesterday’s Round of 16 matches pitted Germany against Algeria, while France faced Nigeria – results not available at presstime – and today, Argentina plays Switzerland, and the U.S. battles it out with Belgium, which is young and strong and some say could reach the semifinals.
But the Americans survived this World Cup’s “Group of Death,”
beating Ghana, being tied in the final seconds by Portugal, and falling 1-0 to mighty Germany, while still advancing on points.
So I wouldn’t be to quick to count the U.S. out against Belgium, because I think the Americans have talent, are tough-minded, and improving with each match under their strong-willed, experienced coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who instills confidence and is making most of the right moves.
The one move he should make, because the U.S. could use more scoring, is to put in the Bay Area’s and San Jose Earthquakes’ goal-making machine Chris Wondolowski, who has a sense for the ball and knows what to do with it when it’s in his possession.
While the World Cup group play had action, successes, surprises and shocks, the current knockout Round of 16 is upping the temperatures both with the weather and on the pitch, making for a testy challenge to reach the quarterfinals, the semifinals, and the final.
One note on baseball – the season has three months to go and the San Francisco Giants might have blown their big 9-1/2-game National League West lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers, but they’ve shown what their capable of accomplishing on the field and will get hot again, because they’re still one of the best teams.
Of course, so are the Dodgers – the best team right now are the Oakland A’s – which makes for a highly competitive race to the N.L. West title and playoffs, where both teams should end up.
The Giants are still capable of returning to the power, defense and solid pitching that made them the best team in baseball the first two month of the season and repeat them over the final two months, or even six weeks, while the Dodgers do some late stumbling.