Shootout brings game to life
PRETORIA, South Africa -- It was the only way to bring a merciful end to a terrible game that ultimately won't mean a thing.
Paraguay and Japan had ground each other to respective halts, together playing more than 120 minutes of defensive, tentative, boring, chanceless soccer. Neither country had ever advanced past the World Cup's round of 16, and each played scared, flat-out terrified to miss out on a historic opportunity to get throttled in a quarterfinal. It was as though the players had decided that if they just kept running around the field with a ball on their feet, someone would eventually step in, have mercy on their souls and declare everybody a winner.
Luckily, we have the penalty shootout to put them out of their misery instead.
Invariably, the sport's self-appointed defenders will ridicule the yawning masses for their failure to see the tenacious glory in a scoreless draw. They are the same kind of people who, as children, enjoyed pulling the wings off flies. For all the poetry written about this game, for all the insufferable comparisons to operas and battles at sea, most people watch soccer because they want to be entertained. They want joy. The games we play are meant to be fun, not some kind of exercise in attrition, not a way to decide who among us has the greater capacity for torture.
There are fantastic scoreless games, of course, in which brilliant tactics and defense conspire to repel assault after creative assault. There are scoreless games that can leave even novice soccer watchers on the edges of their seats.
This was not one of those games.
The sadder thing is, it easily might have been. On paper, this was a game between two of the World Cup's lesser lights, teams that had done well to advance out of the group stage and were not likely to be a factor in later rounds. Paraguay and Japan might have played as though they had nothing rather than everything to lose; they might have played the kind of wild, thrashing soccer that brought them here. But nerves got the better of them. So scared of making a mistake, they ended up making the biggest mistake of all: They played until they were both declared losers.
The shootout can sometimes seem like a cruel way to finish things. There are games that are so good, so great that nobody wants them to end, at least not with the psychological lottery that is the shootout. Better that two teams play forever than that one of them get sent home for missing a single kick from the mark.
This was not one of those games, either.
Today, the start of the shootout was literally the first moment since the anthems when the crowd was on its feet. The two teams each gathered near half and wished their keepers luck. There was finally something like tension in the air, a nervous anticipation that had been absent since the opening whistle -- absent from a knockout game at the World Cup, remember. The players stood in straight rows with their arms around one another, and the game, for the first time, was moving -- not in the sense that there was something like action on the field, but now it gave the people watching it a tightness in their chests.
The players each took their turns. The Paraguayans converted their first three chances, the Japanese their first two. Then Yuichi Komano beat the diving keeper but not the crossbar. And as the ball was deflected into the air, high above the goal, there was the immediate feeling that this game was finally over. It felt a lot like relief.
The Paraguayans, cold and clinical, finished the job, with Oscar Cardozo slotting home the final goal, 5-3. Now there was no way out for the tearful Japanese. They had been given 90 minutes to score, and they had been given 30 more -- extra time in a game such as this one feels like an undeserved second chance, we really mean it this time -- but they hadn't bothered to come close. Neither had the Paraguayans. Now they were both punished for their shared futility: The Japanese were being sent back over the ocean because one of their players couldn't hit the net, and the Paraguayans will face either mighty Spain or Portugal because one of their players could.
They had survived, just like flies without wings.
Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.