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Four down, four more to go

There is no heartache like losing a penalty shootout.

After 120 minutes of hard-fought play, to go down in a penalty shootout is one of the most devastating feelings that can occur on a soccer field.

The proof was written on the faces of Argentine and English players over the weekend.



What’s so sad about penalty shootouts is that a good team can lose after a dynamite performance. Case in point was Argentina and Germany. Both teams deserved to advance, and in many ways, that game might have been the true World Cup final.

Both teams battled. German general Michael Ballack was cramping up and hardly able to walk by the time the second overtime period came to a close. But he stepped up and buried his penalty.



In the end, that is what penalties are ” nerves. The team with the most players able to quiet the crowd, ignore the fatigue, focus on a corner and have the confidence to stick with their decision and bury their shot will win.

Of course, having a goalkeeper like Jens Lehmann or Portugal’s Ricardo, who guessed right on every single shot, is key, too.

Even though Germany, with its home field advantage and strong, young team deserves to advance to the semifinals, fans of good quality soccer hate to see a team like Argentina fall out. And the look on Esteban Cambiasso’s face when his final shot was decisively stuffed by Lehmann was heartbreaking.

Cambiasso will see that replayed in his head for the next four years; the ball bouncing off the authoritative gloves of Lehmann and his World Cup title dreams instantly bursting.

While coach Jose Pekerman’s defensive gamble didn’t pay off, subbing in two defensive players after gaining the lead ” and losing a starting goalkeeper to injury is never good when things go to penalties ” Pekerman cannot be blamed for the loss.

In true dramatic fashion, two very good teams battled to the end, and in penalties German goalkeeping will almost always be favored.

As far as England-Portugal, one never wants to make excuses, but seeing players carded and ejected is getting pretty old in this Cup.

In a World Cup quarterfinal between two European teams, one would think the official would allow some hard play, solid challenges and minor emotion to thrive.

So to toss out, without warning, Wayne Rooney, who had just been manhandled by two defenders and then pushed an in-your-face Portuguese player away from him, was uncalled for.

Maybe Rooney deserved a yellow, maybe he just deserved a verbal warning, but he did not deserve an ejection.

Why the referees in this tournament seem to feel the need to influence games I will never understand.

Despite the loss, England did very well to hang on so long and put up such a strong fight a man down. One wonders what the English might have done with equal numbers and their star striker for the entire game.

Without a doubt, the biggest quarterfinal surprise was France taking down Brazil.

With something like 7-1 odds at the bookmakers, there are undoubtedly some happy Frenchmen with recently deepened pockets.

While Brazil is always the favorite, those who remember the 1998 World Cup final will remember what Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira are capable of.

They proved it again Saturday.

Despite being the heavy favorite, Brazil really did not have a stellar World Cup.

Brazil substantially beat plenty of teams, but was never really challenged until France. And when up against a solid team, the Brazilian’ weaknesses were exposed to the world ” namely their lack of defensive discipline, for it was that exact weakness that cost the them the game.

Sure, Henry’s finish to take the lead was stellar, but he was completely unmarked on the back corner of the six-yard box.

That’s what I call a silver platter.

In any case, the semifinals still promise to be entertaining, with an all-European powerhouse quartet playing for glory.

Germany’s technical precision should be a good test for Italy’s speed, flair and ability to manipulate refs.

Portugal’s heart and flashy talent will be tested against the experience and momentum of Zizou and Les Bleus.

As the sun begins to set on another great Cup that has given the world so many great matches, some of the best is still to come.

Alex Close is a sportswriter with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at aclose@tahoe-world.com.


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