Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Paraguay hold nerve amidst tedium
John Brewin, Loftus Versfeld Stadium
The knockout stages are often lazily described as the time when a tournament gets going. To suggest that would ignore some of the excellent group games served up in South Africa and to forget that games like this one too often occur in the latter stages. In this case, fear of the unknown brought Japan and Paraguay into footballing stasis, as time was marked out until penalties could provide a winner and an acceptable narrative to Pretoria.
• Party time for Paraguay
• Okada admits he may quit Japan
• Photo gallery
Japan's biggest game since their co-hosting of the World Cup in 2002 took them to this stage offered them and Paraguay the chance to break the seal of the last eight; the South Americans had previously lost on three occasions at this juncture. Such pressure, with the idea of making history enmeshed in minds overflowing with nervous energy, can often serve to stagnate knockout matches.
A quietish Pretoria, signing off its hosting of South Africa 2010, has provided a not unpleasant alternative to nearby Johannesburg, but did not seem likely to lend this perhaps unlikely second-round game a sense of fervent occasion and the calm did not precede a footballing storm.
Barrios's chance in the 21st minute may have served to briefly light up a game that was tentative at best prior to Kawashima's legs saving what looked a certain goal. When Matsui soon crashed a long-range effort off the crossbar, there was evidence that the early shackles might just have been cast aside. Yet caution is an enemy of excitement and Japan seemingly lacked the desire to support lone attacker Honda. Paraguay, despite their formation allowing for the inclusion of three strikers, barely provided more in the way of offensive play and indeed grew in conservatism as extra-time drew on and penalties approached.
Efforts on goal had become routinely snatched-at towards the end of an often deathly first half, the first of the knockout round not to feature a goal. The second began with similar stultification as players who had looked relaxed and on their game in the previous matches looked infected by the haphazardness that a fear of not wishing to make a mistake can bring. Every tournament has a game like this, and England-Algeria's previously unmatchable ineptitude suddenly found itself with a competitor in drudgery.
Hopes of a second-half bringing a change in attitude and quality were dashed by 45 minutes of monotony as extra-time's inevitability hove into view. Both teams began impassioned rituals ahead of the 30 minutes of extra play that promised to deliver little more in the way of entertainment. Memories began to cast back to similar matches from previous World Cups with Switzerland v Ukraine in 2006 and Ireland v Romania in 1990 being the only two equivalents from this stage of a World Cup.
The question of who would emulate the Swiss misses of four years previously or the winning kick of David O'Leary in Genoa began to surface. This time, it was Yuichi Komano who was the tearful fall-guy and Oscar Cardozo the supplier of the winning kick. A player believed to be at odds with coach Gerardo Martino put his nation, the smallest left in the competition, into uncharted territory with a nerveless effort. Paraguay coach Martino happily acknowledged the scorer of the winning kick, saying, "If you have a player that can be that tough then you use him in that situation."
But before the inevitable there had actually been a flourish when excitement had briefly flickered at both ends. A great save by Kawashima in the 98th minute from substitute Nelson Valdez was swiftly followed by Justo Villar palming away a vicious Honda effort. The play even began to stretch. Perhaps both teams did fear penalties more than a mistake. Tanaka nearly made the telling error when his clearance smashed off Barreto's head and then drifted on to the roof of his own net. The same Japanese player then missed a headed chance in the second period of extra-time when clearly unmarked from a chipped free kick from Endo. A rare frisson of excitement greeted that, but it almost seemed as if the largely neutral crowd were themselves willing on penalties and their synthetic thrills.
The public's wish was soon achieved. Prior to the shoot-out beginning, the Japanese players clothed themselves in big coats, as if to protect against the cold reality of the next few minutes. Paraguay's preparations were more upbeat, and they looked supremely confident as they soon did when taking all five of their kicks. Once Komano had crashed off the bar and successful attempts then exchanged, up stepped Cardozo to send the small contingent of Paraguayans into raptures.
Back in Ascunsion, the street parties were beginning. Martino had a message for the revellers back home. "We are having a party here," he said. "The players made a huge effort and we can celebrate. We are now in the top eight teams in the world."
He reserved sympathy for the vanquished Japanese, even admitting that Paraguay had been lucky in the penalty shootout. His counterpart, Takeshi Okada, for whom this was his last game in charge, broke from his usual measured manner to hail the efforts of his own players. "In terms of how we played I have no regrets," he said. "The players were wonderful, truly wonderful and represented Asia as a whole." Taking his leave, after his second finals, he signed off with a simple "I don't feel I have anything left to do here" and exited the room with loud applause from the Japanese contingent ringing in his ears.
For Paraguay, the smallest nation left in the competition, virgin territory and a continuation of South American dominance was theirs, even if it was achieved by the medium of tedium. "That's the way it is," reflected their unrepentant coach.
MAN OF THE MATCH: It was extremely difficult to select one in a game shorn of quality. That said, no player lacked in effort, just perhaps in ability and belief. This shall remain an unclaimed award.
PARAGUAY VERDICT: The attacking quality of their first-round matches was almost totally absent. If either of the teams could be said to be playing for penalties then it is the South Americans, who were clearly - and rightfully - confident of shootout success. They cannot expect to hang on so grimly against their next opponent.
JAPAN: They were the team chasing for an elusive goal as the match drew to its long-expected destiny. A conservative approach from Okada yielded little support for Honda's efforts in attack and they were reduced to long shots for much of the game until extra-time, when the depth of the occasion began to tell and the chance of regulation victories were slim. Nevertheless, a fine tournament by their standards, their best yet on foreign soil.
FAREWELL TO LOFTUS: The leafy surroundings of Pretoria's stadium and the ability to actually visit a street of bars and restaurants make this a fine place to catch a game and quite unlike the no-go zones that surround Johannesburg's twin stadia. This second-round game was the retiring of this historic rugby venue for World Cup 2010's purposes.