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I sit up and write this morning knowing it will be the last time I'll be up at dawn to talk about football for another four years. My heart wants to cry for France. I feel so much as though something, somewhere, was robbed. But I watch the Italian boys petting their trophy in anticipation, having a party on the field, being happy, and I think, well, they deserved it. They did deserve it. And yet for all who would spoil for a fight about good sportsmanship, I think this was a fight that ultimately upheld that ideal.

A Circular Tale )
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KAHN! *hero worship* ♥ !

Hey, I spent 3/4ths of this World Cup whinging about how he's not on the field, and now he's on the field with the Captain's band. It's a bit of a cheat, as far as concessions go, but it is good to see him on the field, and good to see him getting some respect.

This first half has had great pacing. Solid, fast attacks from the Germans, who seem to be playing with heart -- something I just haven't seen enough of this time around. I've wondered if being host nation hasn't dulled them a bit. I could be stretching it some, but I think, "This is what happens when you have Kahn on the field!" I am very fond of seeing Klose out there as well, he has beautiful skill with carrying the ball through, but does seem to be a moving target for the other side in this match. I like him, and Neuville, who has tended to make appearances as a substitute during the second half in this World Cup. Schweinsteiger does an excellent save against two Portuguese defenders, falling to his knees by a foul and still managing to hold the ball away from Costinha.

The Portuguese side have excellent legwork, beautiful, accurate passes. Ricardo is a lovely goalkeeper to watch. I really liked how he went right across the field to join his teammates for their final minute set piece against the French, even helping head the ball back towards the goal himself. I just admire the initiative. He does good work in this match too, stopping a hard high kick from Kehl by just inching it over the net and an equally strong free kick from Podolski. Deco's got wonderful dribbling - truly, the Portuguese seem to be good at this in general. In one of the candid camera moments, one of Deco's attempts at goal resulted in a neat catch behind the net by one of the media. There's also a really cute but weird moment where one of the Germans, Metzelder I think, fouls Rinaldo and hops right over his head. Rinaldo's face said it all there.
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FRANCE WINS! THEY WIN SO HARD!

There are three reasons I watch the World Cup. The first is style, how individual players bring their characters to the field and how teams come together as a single force. The second is strategy, because I like to see how teams wrap around each other in a game. The third is spirit, some magical alchemy between the players own fight and the fans who cheer for them. It's not often all three happen at the same time.

I cannot praise France enough. They exploded onto the field. The Brazillians are a wiry team. The French know how to close their gaps fast. The Brazillians play at close quarters. The French take advantage of small spaces. Zidane, he is absolutely godly. The kick between Ronaldo's feet and out the other side was incredible. The pass to Henry that gave France their goal deserves to be spoken about for years to come. Everyone remembers France from 2002, when they effectively fell off the radar. This has truly been a match between two World Champions. It is frightening how fast Brazil can be taken apart if the other team knew all the seams. Vieira, Makelele, Malouda -- Ribery was gallant and took so many hits for France, of course, Zidane. So many good players, so much beautiful soccer. This France will make it to the Finals. This France will defeat Germany. I certainly hope so.

And the spirit at the end, where Zidane gets the respect of everyone, and especially the hug he gives Robinho, who we are bound to see more of in the future, not just because of Real but because it would be a shame if he did not make it to the next Cup, all this spirit is wonderful. Adriano hugging Henry, I think it was Henry too. Such a beautiful, honourable game. You don't feel there was a losing side at all.
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This, this is why I watched 390+ combined minutes of brain-crackingly dull Quarter Finals. This was the beautiful game. This was awesome. This was two perfectly matched teams fighting with beautiful spirit, playing beautiful ball. I expected France to put up an honourable fight, but they have gone beyond anything anyone could've anticipated. They have played honourably and elegantly. Zidane's two-footed wonderment and those amazing tackles by Abidal and Malouda. They are beyond words. I've forgotten how physical Brazil could get. This is the first time I've seen them so unnerved in this World Cup. They are hanging on to their defense, but just barely. The yellow card nuttery is going to cost Brazil at some point. Certainly, I hope it doesn't lead to an accidental red card of a key player later. Zidane makes Ronaldinho look clumsy here, it's surreal. And it's only the first half!

Note: Among the wonderful things in this wonderful game, was that really Robinho hugging Zidane when he came off the field?
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Back in 2002, I remember watching David Beckham take a flurry of shin injuries, wander off field for his anesthetics and run back into the fight. That was the image that stuck in my head about the English team. They were always willing to get back up and fight. And in a match where I must say the Portuguese were not lacking in tragic falls, and especially in the situation England found themselves in for the last hour of the game, this particular fighting spirit has just stuck to my brain. I know I'm not the best fan of the English soccer team any day, but I admire what they've done here. They have played very hard, the best they've done in this World Cup, and defended themselves against 11 men under exhausting circumstances.

I am of the opinion Rooney did bring his red card upon himself. The two man grab resulting in Carvalho's groin kick didn't look pretty. The other thing I do remember about the English, apart from [insert judicious mention of David Seaman here], is their penchance for physical games.

That all said, this match just about put me to sleep for the first 100 minutes. I spent all 121 regulation minutes including extra time hoping someone would score already, because it was really long, and again, for the first 100 minutes, two well-matched teams who otherwise hadn't much chemistry between them. History, I'm told, very much so. But chemistry, no.

Nonetheless, I have a real admiration for goalkeepers on both sides. Compared to the unfortunate circumstances that took out Roberto Abbondanzieri from Argentina's match yesterday, the two goalkeepers left at the post for the penalty shootout today were equally matched. A combination of luck and skill allowed Ricardo to have the upper hand in the end. Another thing that did stick to me about the match regarding Ricardo was his doubled save during the first half, where he swung from end to end of the net to make two excellent saves within seconds.

Whatever else the English fans have been known to do outside of matches, they have great spirit. Their voices were amazing echoing through the stadium.

And so, we have Brazil. Good heavens, someone better play something interesting soon, and it might as well be Brazil.
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A much better game than the Quarter Final opener with Germany and Argentina. The Italians reclaimed whatever pride was lost in their match against Australia, with three stunning goals. A very strong showing by the Italians, with their incredible defensive strategy and a much better attacking one since the last game. Ukraine was the team that looked underclassed here. Quite a physical team too. Gattuso just had the worst luck with injuries in the first half because of it. Buffon's head smacking into the pole was not really anyone's fault, but is probably a testament to his all out style of play -- it looked painful, and he still saved the ball first. There was a great run by Camoranesi in the second half too that took about four Ukrainians to take down, which I thought was awfully cool. The Italians definitely showed they have the better style, but again, Ukraine did seem underclassed rather than an equal -- they will face Germany next.
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First: Happy Birfday, ccfinlayCharlie. :)

Then, Germany vs. Argentina. A well-matched set of opponents stuck in a game with inadequate chemistry between the two teams. Barring a few minutes of fast movement and both Ayala and Ballack's goals, this was a disappointing match. Germany can play better. I've seen them play better in the last World Cup. Whether it's by virtue of the morale boost from being host nation this time, or having just enough skill to hold on, I've yet to actually see a game I felt they deserved to win to any large degree. They've fast become a team I wished would bow out honourably and soon. Argentina's only marginally better. They played a soft first game, went on to play another two devastatingly beautiful games, and then a final two games where they've just fizzed out. They could've played a much more offensive game, they could've brought on better players (and one wonders why they got rid of Riquelme and never brought on Messi), but they didn't. More than that, the game didn't have to last as long as it did if either one of the teams took on a more active role to cause damage, and they did both have the strategy to do that, if they'd gone for it (though Klinsmann does get credit for the better strategy out here -- and I do credit him for getting his team this far into the Cup). Penalty shoot-outs are an undignified way to decide games, at best. Tension was highest during the shoot-out and the closing moments though. Adding insult to injury, the actual shouting match between the two teams as they left the field was shameful.

In one of the cheapest camera moments ever, I thought Kahn approaching Lehmann before the penalty shoot-out was a bit of a rip. Lehmann proved his worth though. He is a skilled goalkeeper, with an amazing eye for the ball.
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This is another great game, great European football. I've always associated that term with a clean, sharp style of play, and there's lots of it here. Spain are insanely energetic, and their passes are superb. I hate penalty shots, though this was well-deserved and well used. Barthez leapt out of the blue at one point to collect the ball for Spain (at 20-something minutes). It made my brain do a, "David Seaman!" for some reason. You've probably already noticed I like goalkeepers, and I've spent most of this World Cup either whinging about Kahn (because it is not Germany unless it has Kahn!) or mourning the loss of David Seaman (who is retired, and honorably so).

The French are a well-seasoned team, experienced, skilled and more than capable of holding their own. 1998 was an exam year for me, and 2002 was dead awful for France in general. Thanks to gory timing for all of France's matches in 2006, I've managed to miss every other match they've been in. It would be a total coup if they won this match and ended up against "a team called Brazil." It would be such a coup. Ribery's goal was amazing. Thierry Henry did good to pass when he did, and Ribery just wandered past the goalkeeper and got it in before the Spaniards could run him down. After that, the French snapped awake, resulting in five minutes before halftime of frenetic football. Great playing overall.

Refereeing in this match was also top notch. Referee and assistants were precise and called everything on time. The Thierry Henry handball that cancelled the free kick in the first ten minutes was an excellent call. Though it would've been good reason for a yellow card too, based on the replay, it was probably not intentional.

And finally, the commentator rocked, whoever he was. I suspect he's not an SBS commentating git for a couple of reasons. First, it's clear he watches UEFA, and keeps providing wonderful feedback on everyone in the most unbiased fashion. Second, he sounds horribly English, and reminds me of a commentator we got in Malaysia for 2002. (In Malaysia, all our World Cup coverage operates off English commentators -- I do believe we get the same transmissions as seen on local satellite TV -- and I miss them a lot.) Wherever he came from, he has reaffirmed my faith in World Cup commentary.
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If any team deserved a goal against Brazil, it would be Ghana. They worked so hard. They played so well. And though the African style of play hasn't been known for its gentility, I'd say this was one of best shows of great sportsmanship on both sides. Everyone helped everyone else when they fell. Everyone patted everyone else on the back. Best example of this: Dida falling all over the ball and a Ghanaian falling all over him. Dida got himself whacked in the shin in a piece of really brave goalkeeping (could've been worse -- he was that close to getting whacked in the face). But, pat on the head (funny thing I noticed, the Ghanaians are big on patting people over the head), smiles all around, and no hard feelings. It's things like this that I believe highlight the true meaning of "Making Friends."

Cut because this game was so cool I had to write an essay. )
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I am currently trying to figure out how I managed to miss every one of Ghana's games thus far, and kicking myself for it. What an excellent bunch of scrappers. No, really, what an excellent scrap this has been. Ghana are a solid side, with fast runners and slick attacks. I can't praise them enough. They've just been so much fun to watch. They have given Brazil a run for their money, and we are looking at the Brazil as we should be knowing it to boot. Ronaldo's fifth minute sneak was definitely worthy of his name. The 46 minute goal with Lucio bringing the ball down the field, an angled pass by Cafu and Adriano's hit was all mechanically beautiful, but possibly quite offside.

It's just really tough on Ghana to have this goal gifted to Brazil, and hardly because they didn't work enough on their own. I'd read an interview with Ronaldinho earlier that basically confirms my suspicions -- Brazil really were using a strategy of putting their entire team into play while they had the chance against "softer" teams. Ronaldinho was one to notice they wouldn't be able to do this with Ghana, and they haven't. It's the entire Brazillian dream-team at work today. But man, Ghana are so cool. They had ball possession, and Amoah was great with attempts. The pile-up that landed his face smack into white paint was just one of so many scraps in this thing that would carve Ghana's name in history -- they deserve to be here, and this is definitely a team that can go home proud for playing beautiful football.
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A match that might be interesting for all the wrong reasons, really. First, I want to say that Italy's defense was strong and well-coordinated, maybe too much, as they ended up playing an extremely defensive game. Buffon and Schwarzer are both great goalkeepers, though in spite of how the numbers worked out, Buffon appeared to be the more overworked of the two. Australia played a good game, with admirably intuitive passes. Perhaps one of the more unusual things I noticed about this game was that Australia's style kept reminding me of Argentina, where the team in question probably weren't playing in their usual style again for their own game yesterday. Back to the numbers, it is interesting to note that Australia led ball possession, but Italy always managed to make more attempts at the goal. It was an interesting strategy, perhaps telling of the latter's experience. Whatever the cause, Italy held out with ten men for most of the second half, including extra time.

Having said that, Materazzi's red card, and the trip-that-wasn't by Neill at the end were both crucial errors in refereeing. Much as I would've liked to see Italy win, much as Totti' shot was good, I don't think Italy deserved to win that way. Interesting question to ask: what would've happened otherwise? Truth be told, I really think Italy and Australia were at a stalemate in terms of strength, though Italy was the technically stronger team. Don't shoot me yet. Italy did hold out against Australia with one man down and Australia at otherwise full strength. They did manage to get more shots at the goal, even with ten men. For 10 blue shirts to 11 yellows, they pulled down attack after attack on their own goal. I wouldn't have been surprised if it ended at a penalty shoot-out. But it didn't, and now we have to see if Italy will keep up this style of play for it's next match.

Portugal vs. Netherlands: Watched the replay for this in bits and pieces due to work. Did manage to see the last three red cards get handed out, but missed the one goal. Violent and bloody it was, but it was also a fast, hard spat.
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Quite a clinical game, in terms of style. German precision definitely showed, about time it did. They were there to slice past the Swedes and that's what they did. Sweden, in comparison, seemed quite awkward. Two goals for Germany in about ten minutes. Poor Isaksson, he did have that first goal in his hands before Podolski lunged at it out of thin air. Podolski again for the second goal, past a gap between three Swedes. Rather thought it was awful form for Podolski to be patting the referee on the back after he handed a red card to Lucic. But just as bad when Metzelder's boot got kicked away by a Swede as he was reaching for it.

German games don't have quite the same air without Kahn, and the cameras seem to share that thought. It is quite distressing to watch Kahn moping on the bench. Lehmann just doesn't have quite the same presence.
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A rather more civilized, if also much more subdued first half compared to Crotia vs. Australia. Brazil still aren't playing quite to form. Actually, they're playing quite lazily. With the slower Brazillian game, Japan's apparent style-similarity with Brazil becomes a bit more obvious. Japan is no Brazil, but basic bits and pieces, certainly not in the way they can't finish what they've started, but in the way they pass, the way they have stolen the ball before and now, little things. I wonder if this is the Zico touch? Brazil and Japan both have great goalkeepers in Dida and Kawaguchi, somewhat out of necessity. Brazil's defence is a good offense, and they've depended a lot on the goalkeeper and the one or two players willing to run end-to-end across the field for a tackle (in the case of Ze Roberto and Lucio, great running and tackling, but still). Japan needs Kawaguchi to save them from their own holes.

The highlight of the first half has got to be Japan's goal vs. Ronaldo's header. Both stylish, both neat, both pretty much the only things worth watching, apart from Kawaguchi's accuracy.

Speaking of globalization, Japan has one Brazillian player and a Brazillian coach. Alex is an enthusiastic anthem singer. It was quite cool to see how into it he was. Am I biased, hell I am.

"You'd never think he was Brazillian." - SBS commentator jock, about Zico, the Japanese coach. Compared to the team of immigrants, I suppose that made a lot of sense to say.

Second half, and Brazil are still playing lazy. One gets the idea they're toying with Japan for the good part of it, though they did snap awake the moment there was blood in the water. Juninho shot a fine goal right into the middle of the net, followed by a hard angle by Gilberto and Ronaldo doing a perfect Ronaldo. 4 to 1 against Japan.

Brazil were not playing with a full deck, with normally substitute players taking over roles. They probably did think it better to save their strength. I thought it was a real pity about Cafu, and strange without Adriano or Roberto Carlos. The second half even went without Dida. Then again, if they were making a statement about how Brazil is a team of strong individuals all around, they did great. Most of Brazil's goals and key passes in the first round have come from unusual players, a strategy designed to counteract the sheer walls opposing teams build around the usual scorers. With Ronaldo being walking wounded, Robinho has proven to be a real gem and a half. He's not quite got the aim yet, but he does have the reach and skill to do a lot. Kaka already has a goal to his name and reminds of Roberto Carlos -- he'll try to shoot from anywhere and he will attack anything.

So did anyone else seem to hear Ronaldinho's name being sung to one of the World Cup themes by Brazillian fans? I could swear that was what they were singing, but I haven't slept in 24 hours, so I'm lucky my brain isn't all theme from Eek! the Cat out here...
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I should probably make clear right now that I started watching this match with a gigantic sneer. I credit globalization. This has been a World Cup of mass migrations. Dual-citizenship is just one of those topics that gets absolutely no sympathy from me. So finding out that three Crotian players were technically Australian and seven Australians were technically Croatian just made me horribly ill-humored.

Game-wise, this is a technically interesting match. Both teams are physical teams of the shirt-pulling, leg-kicking, leapfrogging variety (maybe it's a Croatian thing?). Both teams are capable of aggressive attacks, and aren't afraid to use it. Unlike in matches against their group mates, both teams will also be similarly-sized, so we won't have that problem of tiny Asians or South Americans vs. gigantic Caucasian types. Watching the first half, I'm tempted to say it was rather a match of brute force vs. skill. Australia, however higher its ball possession (that wasn't a pun, but they do have balls) and however high the shot count, were simply no more able to produce a goal without a clear field than Croatia was (and I'm getting to them in a minute). I know the shot count says Australians 8, Crotians 2, but one has to remember for all their 2 shots, Crotia hit one home. Croatia too, Prso is a terrible shot.

Second half, much more interesting. Quite the comedy of errors. Croatia's second goal by N. Kovac kind of fell out of Kalac's hands. There were those handballs, also by Croatia. The two red cards, including Simunic's two red cards for just not leaving the field the first time. Pletikosa, man, what a goalie. Saved a lot of great shots, saved a great shot by Kewell, I believe, fell flat on his face and got himself flattened some more by two Australians in his own goal. Australia deserved it's second goal even by sheer execution. I'm going to say this again, Crotia is still the more skilled team here, but the Australians do play a consistently determined game. And so, they face Italy.

I take this brief moment to remind everyone the SBS commentator jock still annoys me in annoying commentator jock ways. And the booing crowd stuff is still bad form. Now when in the bloody hell will they show Brazil vs. Japan?! I want to see Brazil score three and Japan squeeze one!
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Due to work and not particularly inspiring sounding match-ups of late, I've been missing out on a lot of games. I still hope to pick up when the second round starts.

Argentina vs. Netherlands: Argentina requires so much worship. They're playing stylish, beautiful football and have come a long way since their opening match. I only wished Brazil would do something about playing a consistently good style or strategy. Maybe they'll do something about that in the next round, but it's not like they're lacking individual greats. With Argentina though, Messi is amazing. But it was a pretty rough game too. Argentina practically strangles one, the Netherlands shoved at least twice. I haven't been paying attention to the Netherlands prior to this, but based on what's here, they deserve whatever they can squeeze out of the second round. And definitely, so does Argentina.

Côte d'Ivoire vs. Serbia & Montenegro: The teams with nothing left to lose really let it rip. This was a great fight. Fast, hard game. Everyone really doing their best to score, and they did. Serbia & Montenegro had the purely bad luck or bad sportsmanship to concede two penalty kicks, both of which the Ivory Coast made goals of. Always good to see a game full of spirit like this.
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Brazil actually looks more like Brazil in the second half. Seriously, the Ronaldo vs. three passing to Adriano was great stuff. Last minute changes resulting in some solid attacking by Robinho and the uncanny goal by Fred were definitely fun watches (props to the coach for the strategy). There should be much good things said about Ze Roberto's defending and Dida's work too. But there is one guy I can't help but like watching about Brazil, and that has got to be Ronaldinho. Ronaldo may be getting pudgy, but Ronaldinho is definitely the "smiling assassin". Did anyone else see that crazy trickster pass?

Australia was playing a solid game. There can and deserve to walk away from this with their heads held high. And if they do make it to the second round, then based on how they played here, they would deserve everything they've worked for. Schwarzer is good stuff.

As for the referee, it may have been a good thing he was turning a blind eye to as much of the blatant shoving and tripping that was going on as he did, given just how many players on each side were coming in with yellow cards, but he could've called on more of the clear falls. Those jeering fans are truly bad form. And the SBS commentator jock still gets on my nerves.
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Brazil are truly playing lazy. Australia have good defence going, and deserved to have the leads in shots. It is a sad state of affairs when even the passes are soft. There is also very little decent attacking, not enough coherent teamwork. It is definitely going to have to be their priority to really attack in the second half.

The SBS commentator jock is also grating on my nerves.
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Tie. Painfully lacklustre playing on both sides. I have no idea why the Japanese players need to get within 12 inches of the goal to even try shooting. Referee getting in the way of the ball was ridiculous. And what was it that SBS jock said about the Japanese fans including more of the female species?
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