I watched nearly every minute of the FIFA World Cup the past two days. I tuned into the France-Argentina match after 20 minutes, then watched the full 90 in Portugal-Uruguay, and the full 120 plus in both Spain-Russia and Croatia-Denmark.
France scored three second half goals to overcome a 2-1 deficit, then had to hold on when Argentina scored in stoppage time to cut the margin to 4-3. France held on to win by that score.
Les Bleus will play Uruguay Friday in the quarterfinals. The South American side scored early vs. Portugal and dominated the first half, leading by that 1-0 tally at halftime. The European champions scored just after the one-hour mark to equalize, but Uruguay came right back to regain the advantage. Portugal tried desperately to gain its second goal throughout the final 20 minutes plus stoppage time, but Uruguay did a great job of defending Cristiano Ronaldo and prevailed 2-1.
Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who played his final World Cup match for Argentina, both gone on the same day. However, France-Uruguay will not disappoint.
Speaking of not disappointing, today was something else.
The morning match in Moscow was expected to be a cakewalk. Spain has had issues aplenty since winning the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European championship, but it was expected to have no trouble with Russia, which took advantage of an ridiculously weak draw in Group A, defeating Saudi Arabia and Egypt before being hammered by Uruguay.
Just before the 12-minute mark, a Russian defender attempted to clear the ball deep in the penalty area, only to knock into the net. Own goal. Spain leads.
With five minutes to go in the first half, Russia had a corner kick. The ball flew into the box and went off the head of a Russian forward and then off the back of the hand of Spanish defender Gerard Pique.
Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers blew his whistle immediately. Pique knew he was busted.
A handball inside the penalty area by the defending team is an automatic penalty kick to the offense. If the handball is determined to be intentional, the offender is shown a straight red card, which means not only does he miss the remainder of that match, but he’s suspended for the next match as well.
Artem Dzuyba stepped to the mark for Russia. He blasted the ball past Spanish keeper David De Gea, and just like that, it was level 1-1.
It stayed that way throughout the second half, with Russia turning back numerous Spanish scoring chances. Kuiper blew his whistle after four minutes of stoppage time in the second half, sending the match to extra time.
In association football, extra time is 30 minutes, played in two 15-minute periods. The entire extra time is played, unlike the National Football League and National Hockey League, where sudden death applies.
From the opening of extra time, it was clear the Russians had one objective: get through the 30 minutes without giving up a goal, which would mean kicks from the penalty mark, or a shootout as Americans like to call it.
The Spaniards completed over 1,100 passes in the match and had nine shots on goal to Russia’s one, yet it did not score again after the early own goal. When the whistle blew to end the second 15-minute extra period, most of the crowd in Moscow cheered loudly.
They had good reason to.
Russian goalkeeper Igor Afkineev became his country’s conquering hero by stopping two Spanish kicks, which combined with a perfect 4-for-4 from Russian kickers, put the host nation into the quarterfinals.
Think about this. Russia, the lowest rated nation out of all 32 entered in this year’s World Cup (70th according to the most recent FIFA rankings prior to the tournament), is one of the last eight nations playing, yet Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, Portugal and now Spain are all gone.
Face it. Russia would be nowhere, either, if the host nation doesn’t gain automatic entry into the World Cup. Qatar will make its debut in the 2022 World Cup because of this rule. Canada is on its knees right now hoping FIFA will allow all three hosts (Canada, Mexico and the US) automatic entry in 2026.
Denmark and Croatia kicked off in Nizhny Novgorod about 80 minutes after Spain-Russia ended.
The Danes scored in the first minute, only to yield the equalizer to the Croatians less than four minutes later. We’re in for a barnburner, a high scoring affair, right?
Both teams had numerous opportunities to score throughout the remaining 84 1/2 minutes (plus stoppage time) of normal time and the first 24 minutes of extra time.
Then Croatia appeared to have its golden ticket to the quarterfinals.
Marcelo Brazavic took a pass at the top of the penalty area and maneuvered around Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel, the man who helped Leicester City win the 2015-16 Premier League championship. Nobody stood between Brazavic and the goal, but Mathias Jorgensen hauled him down just before Brazavic could put the ball in the net.
Croatia was awarded a penalty kick. Jorgensen should have been shown a red card for denying the obvious scoring opportunity, but only received a yellow.
In association football, any player may attempt a penalty kick. This is different from hockey, where the player who is denied an obvious scoring opportunity must take the penalty shot; for instance, the Capitals could not select Alex Ovechkin to take a penalty shot if Brooks Orpik is the one taken down from behind.
Croatia selected its best striker, Luka Modric, to challenge Schmeichel. Modric, one of the stars for Real Madrid, is ranked right up there with Ronaldo, Messi and Luis Suarez as one of the world’s best, and the commentators on Fox gave Schmeichel next to no chance to stop Modric from scoring.
Schmeichel, however, has been tested time and again in practice by Jamie Vardy and by some of the world’s best playing for the Foxes, and he showed it, diving to his left and stoning Modric.
The match soon slipped into kicks, and the commentators were now favoring the Danish thanks to Schmeichel.
Schmeichel stopped two of the four kicks he faced, but his Croatian counterpart, Danjiel Subasic, was even more brilliant, denying Denmark three times out of five.
With the shootout level 2-2, Ivan Raktic turned downtown Zagreb into the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day when he blasted the ball past Schmeichel.
I had mixed emotions. Yes, I picked Croatia to win, and I actually have them losing in the final to Brazil. On the other hand, Leicester City is my favorite football team anywhere on the planet, and I would have loved for Schmeichel to be the hero.
It will be Russia vs. Croatia Saturday in Sochi, in the same stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics were held.
Kicks from the penalty mark were not introduced to the World Cup until 1978, and it wasn’t until 1982 that it was first used. That year, West Germany defeated France in the semifinals in (ironically) Barcelona. Two World Cup finals have been determined by kicks, Brazil over Italy in 1994 and Italy over France in 2006.
I hate kicks from the penalty mark. Hate it. It’s the equivalent of overtime in high school and college football. Penalty kicks are not real football. It’s whether or not a goalkeeper can guess which way the kicker will go when he takes the kick, and if the kicker doesn’t bungle it by clanging it off a post or the top of the goal, or firing it into the crowd the way Roberto Baggio did for Italy at the Rose Bowl in 1994.
I’ve gone on too long. I’ll save how I would decide a match for another post.
Tomorrow’s fun starts at 0900 with Mexico vs. Brazil, then continues at 1300 with Belgium vs. Japan. I would expect Brazil and Belgium to win, but this World Cup proves nothing is guaranteed.
Oh LeBron is going to sign with the Lakers. That’s all I have to say about that subject.