Now that the men are separated from the boys…

HARI SHENOY writes: 52 matches down and 12 more to go, and the FIFA World Cup 2006 promises to be quite an interesting one. The group stages had some exciting matches that had quality football. But one got the feeling that things weren’t exciting enough for football at its highest level.

With the sole exception of an injury-ridden Czech Republic (minus Milan Baros and Jan Koller among other prominent players) being eliminated at the first stage itself for the minnows Ghana to make it to the knock-out phase for the first ever time, everything else that transpired seemed pretty much normal.

All the usual players and the big stars have, in the least, made their presence felt with their performances. Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England, Portugal, Italy, Spain who can be dubbed as the usual suspects have made it to the knock-out stage without much fanfare.

There have been some memorable moments in the first round, such as Philip Lahm‘s first goal in the WC for Germany against Costa Rica, Henrik Larsson‘s 90th minute equalizer for Sweden against England, Ghana’s 2-0 drubbing of the Czech Republic and so on.

But the first four matches of the knock-out stage have made even the least-interested ones among us who like football all the same, to sit up and take notice.

First up was Germany against Sweden,at the Allianz arena in Munich, with the game slated to go either way before it had started. Speculators were of the opinion that Sweden had what it took to demolish Germany on its day, and people were looking forward to a good battle on their hands.

A certain Miroslav Klose and a certain Lukas Podolski had entirely different ideas. Within 11 minutes of kick-off Klose had managed to setup his precocious team-mate twice for two brilliantly crafted goals. Sweden’s misery was compounded with near chances as well as a Henrik Larsson’s penalty miss, and they were never really able to recover from the blitzkrieg they had to endure in the first 11 minutes.

Argentina vs Mexico at Leipzig was the first game to have gone into extra time in this World Cup. Any game that goes into extra time has that ‘extra’ element of excitement associated with it. When teams are really desperate to prevent their elimination, quality football is on the anvil.

The second match in the round of 16 did ample justice to this assumption, with Maxi Rodriguez coming good in the 98th minute, to ensure that Argentina were pitted against Germany in the quarter finals. Diego Maradona, always in the VIP area watching his country play, was as pleased as punch, as were all the other Argentinians who harbour such high expectations from their team.

England vs Ecuador at Stuttgart was supposed to be a relatively tame match that England was supposed to win hands down, but trust them to make total hotch-potch out of this one too. Star striker Wayne Rooney has just recovered fully from an injury to his metatarsal, which has literally become a bone of contention for the England supporters, with David Beckham injuring his, four years ago in the 2002 World Cup.

At almost the same time, Newcastle and England striker Michael Owen decided to take a bow from the tournament with yet another injury, leaving Sven-Goran Eriksson, the not-so-smug-Swede with just enough of choices to scrounge a decent team.

England’s performance has not really been out of this world so far, and they have just managed to keep themseleves afloat, doing just what is required of them to get ahead. Their supporters are hoping that what they’ve been saying all along comes true in the quarter-finals -“the best is yet to come!”.

Getting back to the match, it took a free kick from captain David Beckham in the 60th of the game to tilt it in favour of the English. England was not without some hiccups, as Ashley Cole brilliantly managed to fend off onto the crossbar what would’ve been a certain goal, as John Terry almost gifted the ball to Ecuador’s Ricardo Tenorio, who almost found the back of the net.

The fourth match in the knock-out round at Nuremburg was between two highly talented teams, Netherlands and Portugal. It was a really fast paced game that Portugal won 1-0, although at a heavy price. Mid-fielders Costinha (45th minute) and Deco (78th minute) were sent off in a match where emotions were running high. These two players are vital cogs in Portugal’s machinery and will be sorely missed in their quarter final match against England.

Christiano Ronaldo, of Manchester United fame, was also substituted in the 39th minute by Simao Sabrosa after having suffered a couple of rough tackles from the Dutch midfielders, including a painful kick on his thigh from Khalid Bouhlarouz, who was eventually sent off in the 63rd minute. 

Ronaldo was in tears as he was told to come off the field, though in retrospect, it might have just proved to be a good move, given the mayhem that was to follow. Maniche added the final touch to an exquisitely setup goal which had Deco and Ronaldo as its architects, to put Portugal one up in the 23rd minute.

Though Netherlands had possession of the ball for most of the time, they were never really able to penetrate the Portuguese defence, and ended up on the losing side. Giovanni Van Bronckhorst became the fourth player to see red in the 95th minute during injury time, and Portugal cruised through, sort of, to face up against England in the quarter-finals. For the record, this match had the referee showing no less than 16 yellow cards to the players!

Things can only get more intense from here on, with France vs Spain, Ghana vs Brazil, Italy vs Australia and Switzerland vs Ukraine providing all us fans with ample action over the next two days, after which come the quarter finals.

The Teamgeist keeps rolling on!