A World Cup quarter-final. As a team, you are getting to the stage where you can smell fame and glory, but to be eliminated at this point still represents so near and yet so far. Semi-finals are remembered as the games that are either the gateway to the Promised Land or gallant efforts in defeat. For example, look how England reaching the 1990 World Cup semi-final is still venerated among the public there. But to lose in the quarter-final means that you narrowly missed out on future legend.
There have been some great World Cup quarter-finals over the years, and one needs only think back to England-West Germany in 1970 for a perfect example. But it also needs to be remembered that for several tournaments, there was no knockout quarter-final as we know it today. Instead, FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, decided to play around with a second group phase from which the winners would go on to meet in the final.
While this system did have its drawbacks – highlighted by Argentina’s 6-0 drubbing of Peru in 1978, where they conveniently played last and knew exactly what result they needed to reach the final at Brazil’s expense – it also produced some famous games, the highlight being the Italy-Brazil duel in 1982 that saw a titanic battle in Madrid end in a 3-2 Italian victory courtesy of a Paolo Rossi hat-trick.
FIFA decided to move away from these second group stages and go to traditional knockout football from Mexico 86 onwards, which resulted in the quarter-final clash returning to the party. This led to an instant classic in 1986 as Diego Maradona and Argentina defeated England 2-1 in the Azteca in front of over 100,000 spectators.
Italia 90 again saw England in another classic battle, this time running out 3-2 victors over a strong Cameroon team who probably deserved to win on the day, while USA 94 witnessed Brazil defeat the Netherlands 3-2. France 98 gave us Dennis Bergkamp’s famous last-minute winner against Argentina.
But has there ever been two days to rival what the footballing world witnessed on 2 and 3 July 2010? I would argue that those two days saw more action, drama, controversy and excitement than any other in living memory – and I’ve been fortunate to have seen many.
To help set the scene, the 2010 World Cup had been awarded to South Africa, the first time the tournament had ever been staged on the continent of Africa. Thirty-two teams attended, including Slovakia and Serbia making their maiden appearances as independent nations, North Korea making their first appearance since famously beating Italy in 1966, and Spain entering the competition as European champions and favourites.
The action kicked off on 11 June as South Africa earned a 1-1 draw against Mexico in front of 84,000 at Soccer City in Johannesburg. The world was instantly introduced to the hitherto unknown vuvuzela, a plastic horn commonly blown at South African matches that threw broadcasting organisations for a loop.
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The group stages saw inevitable drama, including the implosion of 2006 finalists France, Rob Green’s howler for England against the USA, Italy finishing bottom of its group, and Spain losing its opener against Switzerland. The highlight of the round of 16 was Germany’s dismantling of England 4-1 and Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal that crossed the line, leading the way to goal-line technology. All this led to the four quarter-finals.
The drama started on the afternoon of 2 July at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, with two of the titans of recent World Cup history, Netherlands and Brazil, going head-to-head for a place in the semi-final. Brazil, the five-time winners, the team that gave us Pele, Jairzinho, Romario, Bebeto, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, against the Netherlands, twice defeated finalists in 1974 and 1978 who gave us Cruyff, Neeskens and Rep. O Jogo Bonito versus Totaalvoetbal.
Brazil had eased to this stage by topping their group, with their game against North Korea representing the highest ranking gap between two teams ever, before soundly beating a strong Chile team 3-0. The Brazil side included an attack of Luis Fabiano, Robinho and Kaka, as well as Dani Alves and Maicon.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, topped their group with a 100 percent record before defeating Slovakia 2-1. Like Brazil, their team also included a fearsome attack: Van Persie, Robben and Kuyt, supplied by the sublime Sneijder and backed up by the steel of Van Bommel and De Jong.
Kicking off against a backdrop of yellow and orange throughout the stadium, Brazil played in their change strip of blue shirts while the Netherlands were decked out in traditional orange. Early on, Dani Alves burst forward on the left before crossing for a simple Robinho tap-in. As Brazil started to celebrate an early breakthrough, a late flag from the linesman indicated that Alves was marginally offside, a correct decision when viewed on the replay.
Robinho wasn’t to be denied a second time, however, and after just ten minutes, Felipe Melo hit a beautiful pass through the heart of the Dutch defence for Robinho to run onto and score past Maarten Stekelenburg with just one touch. The perfect start for the Samba boys.
On the half-hour mark, a beautiful Brazilian move saw Robinho weave down the left flank before passing inside to Luis Fabiano, who played a first-time back-heel to Kaka. His first-time curler was brilliantly saved by Stekelenburg. A goal of the tournament contender denied at the last.
Brazil were really flowing by now and another chance saw Maicon blaze a shot from wide into the side-netting, a dangerous position given that he had scored a wonder-goal from a tighter angle earlier in the tournament against North Korea. A mightily relieved Oranje got into the half-time break just the one goal down.
The second half started with Robben causing problems for Brazil before he fed Wesley Sneijder, whose first-time cross went over everyone’s head and into the net for the equaliser. Julio Cesar, Brazil’s goalkeeper, had come out to punch the ball but inexplicably missed it.
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Fifteen minutes later, Robben fired in a corner and Sneijder was once again on the spot to head home his second. The Netherlands had turned the game around to lead 2-1 after 67 minutes. Sneijder ran off to the hordes of orange fans, slapping his forehead in celebration. The two footballing superpowers were slugging it out in Port Elizabeth.
Worse was to come for Brazil as, just five minutes after Sneijder’s second goal, Felipe Melo tripped Robben on the wing, before then deciding for some reason to stamp on his thigh as he lay there. The referee had no choice but to give Melo a straight red and, as he disappeared down the tunnel, so did Brazil’s hopes.
The Selecao did push for an equaliser but never really threatened. In fact, the Netherlands almost grabbed a third when Van Persie set up Sneijder, but he couldn’t grab his hat-trick. As the final whistle blew, the five-time winners were going home at the quarter-final stage and manager Dunga confirmed he would leave as manager when his contract expired. The 48 hours of drama had truly begun.
After a couple of hours to recover from that initial feast, TV audiences were then treated to the evening game as Ghana took on Uruguay in Johannesburg. Many neutrals were rooting for Ghana who, if they won, would become the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final. To do so on their own continent would make it sweeter still.
Ghana had managed just two goals in the group stage – both penalties converted by Asamoah Gyan – but had still taken second spot behind Germany. Then, in the round of 16, Gyan was once again the hero as he scored his third goal of the tournament in extra time to defeat the US 2-1, meaning he had almost single-handedly taken Ghana to the quarter-final.
Their opposition were Uruguay. While Gyan was leading Ghana on, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez were doing something similar for La Celeste, with Forlan scoring two goals in the group stage against South Africa as Uruguay topped Group A before Suarez then added two against South Korea in the round of 16. And if those two players weren’t enough, the other forward was Edinson Cavani.
The game started slowly and didn’t spark into life until just before half-time. Forlan and Suarez had buzzed around effectively up to then, while Gyan had also come close. As half-time approached, the commentator made the observation that “if they [Ghana] are going to get a goal, they are going to have to get it in the next 20 seconds”.
At that point, Sulley Muntari picked up the ball around 40 yards from goal and suddenly cracked the ball into the corner, leading to the comment “what did I say?”. Ghana had opened the scoring at the perfect moment, right before half-time, to a sea of red, yellow and green flags around the ground.
The lead was only to last ten minutes, however, as John Pantsil cluttered Fucile to the ground just outside the area. With a cross expected by most, Forlan instead whipped the ball past goalkeeper Kingson and Uruguay were level. Forlan and Suarez now had three goals apiece in the tournament.
Extra-time saw Kevin-Prince Boateng narrowly miss, but as time progressed, penalties appeared inevitable. Then, with just 30 seconds left, Ghana earned a free-kick, giving them one last opportunity to throw it into the mixer. The free-kick was whipped in and a frantic scramble ensued before falling to Stephen Appiah, whose shot was cleared off the line by Suarez before being headed back on goal by Adiyiah. As the ball was about to go in, Suarez, still on the line, threw a hand up and pushed the ball out, thereby denying Ghana a certain winner.
The referee immediately pointed to the spot and Suarez was shown the red card. Distraught, he left the field, head pulled down into his jersey. With what was likely to be the last kick of the match, up stepped Asamoah Gyan, scorer of the two penalties in the group stage and hero against the US, to put an African team into the semi-finals for the first time.
Muslera dived low to his right; Gyan hit it hard above him and then watched in horror as the ball struck the top of the bar and flew behind. The referee immediately blew for full-time as the striker held his hands to his head and the goalkeeper tapped the bar in thanks before the TV cameras panned to a shot of Suarez in the tunnel pulling his head from his shirt and celebrating wildly, fists pumping.
As Gyan’s teammates tried to console him, the whistle went and the game moved to a penalty shootout. Forlan started proceedings by scoring, and then came one of the most amazing acts of bravery ever seen in a World Cup.
Just a couple of minutes after having missed the chance to put his team through, Gyan stepped forward to take Ghana’s first penalty of the shootout. Few of us can imagine what emotions must have been flowing through him at that point, but all of us can appreciate the guts it took to step back into the spotlight again. He was coolness personified as he drilled the ball successfully into the top corner. Was redemption on the way?
After five successful penalties, John Mensah saw his penalty saved from a short run-up, meaning advantage Uruguay, before Pereira duly blasted his penalty over the bar, meaning all square once again. As spectators’ nerves were stretched to breaking point, Adiyiah, whose effort had been blocked by Suarez, stepped up next and saw his penalty saved, meaning that if Uruguay’s final penalty taker, Sebastian Abreu, scored, they would progress.
As his teammates held their breath, Abreu stepped up and dinked a Panenka past Kingson. Uruguay were into the last four, Ghana were inconsolable, and the world was treated to the sight of Suarez celebrating with his team on the field.
Naturally, what followed was an outpouring of discussion around the world. Was Suarez a cheat? What if a player on your team had done the same, would you endorse it? Suarez had broken the rules with the handball but the proper punishment had followed with a red card and penalty.
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The striker himself commented that he had “made the best save of the tournament” and that “the Hand of God” now belonged to him, hardly endearing himself to neutrals. It was left to Gyan to add, ”I would say Suárez is a hero now in his own country, because the ball was going in and he held it with his hand. He is a hero now.”
Eleven years later, if you bring up the Suarez handball in a pub with friends, it can still spark an in-depth debate about morals and justice. But at the end of a dramatic day, the Netherlands and Uruguay were on their way to the semis, while Brazil and Ghana were no more.
As the world woke the next day to inflamed passions as to what punishment should befall Suarez, the World Cup continued on its merry way as Germany and Argentina lined up for the third quarter-final in Cape Town. Like Brazil against the Netherlands, this was another clash of the titans, with two teams that had won the World Cup a combined five times.
Germany had suffered a shock in the group stage, beaten 1-0 by Serbia, before overcoming Ghana to top the standings. They had then proceeded to thump England 4-1 in an outstanding display, marked by two goals from Thomas Muller who was supported by a young Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Argentina, meanwhile, boated Diego Maradona as their manager along with a peak Lionel Messi, whose form for Barcelona was taking Europe by storm. They had won all three of their group stage games, with Gonzalo Higuain grabbing a hat-trick against South Korea. They had then comfortably disposed of Mexico 3-1, Tevez scoring two and Higuain again on the scoresheet.
After just three minutes, a Schweinsteiger free-kick was nodded home by Muller. What followed was wave after wave of German attacks, with Klose wasting a good opportunity before Argentina started to find their feet. The second half began with Di Maria and Higuain both going close for Argentina.
The 68th minute saw the next breakthrough as Podolski made a fine run before crossing for Klose to walk the ball into an empty net, giving him his 13th goal in World Cup finals. Six minutes later Germany struck again, with Schweinsteiger weaving to the byline before passing back inside for an easy tap-in for Friedrich.
Argentina were being handed a footballing masterclass by the Germans, and salt was rubbed into the wound in the final minute as Klose scored his second and Germany’s fourth. La Albiceleste, the two-time champions, winners of their four games to date in South Africa with ten goals, possessors of an attack including Messi, Higuain, Tevez and Di Maria, had been thrashed 4-0.
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As evening rolled in, there was just one quarter-final left to play, which would see European champions Spain take on Paraguay. Spain had overcome their shock opening defeat to Switzerland to still top their group, before winning the all-Iberian clash against Portugal 1-0. David Villa was driving the team from the front, scoring four of their five goals.
Paraguay, meanwhile, had topped their group too, which saw the surprising elimination of Italy. The round of 16 had seen them pushed by Japan all the way to penalties following a goalless draw, where Paraguay converted all five of their kicks successfully to reach their first quarter-final. Spain were viewed as clear favourites as they kicked off in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, but had to also play against the burden of having never fully realised their potential in past World Cups.
The first half saw Paraguay open the scoring, only for the goal to be wrongly ruled out for offside. A cross into the box saw an offside Oscar Cardozo try to head the ball, but actually miss it, before it ran on to an onside Nelson Valdez, who converted from close range. Spain had dodged a bullet to get into half-time at 0-0.
The second half then saw the tie really spring into life, as a Paraguay corner saw Cardozo wrestled to the ground by Gerard Pique leading to an immediate penalty. Cardozo himself stepped up to take the kick only to see his shot easily saved by Iker Casillas. Once again, the Spanish had narrowly avoided going behind, which spurred them into action.
Moments later, Villa ran onto a through ball and went to ground following pressure from Alcaraz. Again the referee’s reaction was immediate and the penalty drama now centred on Spain. It was Xabi Alonso’s turn to shoot from the spot.
The midfielder cooled stepped up and slotted the ball to the ‘keeper right before bursting into celebration, only for the referee to whistle for a Spain infringement in the area before the ball was kicked, which on review was only literally half a step. So we moved to the third penalty. This time Alonso shot to the ‘keeper’s left, only to see him save it this time. A scramble ensued, including another penalty shout, but Paraguay survived.
As extra-time loomed, Andres Iniesta burst through before passing to Pedro, whose shot struck the post. The rebound came out to Villa whose first-time shot struck the opposite post before crossing the goal and finally going in. Three touches of the woodwork but Spain had the lead through that man Villa once again.
Seven minutes later, Spain could finally celebrate reaching a World Cup semi-final for the first time, breaking their World Cup curse along the way.
As night fell, the world could reflect on four matches in 48 hours, the likes of which have rarely been matched. Normally one or two quarter-finals would live on in memory from a World Cup, but here the footballing gods had bestowed four classics onto us. Audiences had seen favourites defeated, pantomime villains, African heartbreak and bravery, ruthless goal-scoring, penalty dramas and broken curses.
Spain would go on to beat the Netherlands in the final thanks to an Iniesta goal in a game that is more remembered for the combined 13 yellow cards and one red earned by the Dutch, including De Jong’s karate kick on Alonso. But while the final was certainly not a classic, the 2010 World Cup had already delivered enough drama to live on in the memories of all who witnessed it.
By Dominic Hougham