By Geoffrey York -
In a year of upsets at the World Cup, another gigantic upset seemed to be looming on Saturday night. For 83 minutes, the superstars of Spain were unable to break through Paraguay’s impenetrable defensive wall.
When a Spain penalty kick also shockingly failed, Paraguay’s aura of invincibility rose. Their indefatigable defence had allowed only a single goal in the entire tournament, and Spain appeared increasingly frustrated.
But with seven minutes remaining in regulation time, David Villa fired a ball that caromed off two posts and into the net, giving Spain a dramatic 1-0 victory and putting them into the semi-finals against Germany next week.
It was a historic victory: Spain’s first in the quarter-finals of any World Cup. After the stunning exit by Brazil on Friday, the second-ranked Spaniards are now the highest-ranking team remaining in the World Cup – although on today’s form Germany will be heavily favoured in the FIFA semi-final next Wednesday.
It also means that three of the four semi-finalists are Europeans – an unexpected result after the early domination by South American teams in the opening rounds of this World Cup.
Entering the match, Paraguay had been one of the surprises of this tournament. Ranked just 31st in the world, the stubborn Paraguayans astonished everyone by going undefeated and finishing first in their group, following Italy’s collapse. In the knockout round, they defeated Japan, blanketing them in a suffocating defence.
Spain, meanwhile, had narrowly survived the opening round after suffering a shocking defeat to Switzerland. But they were still strongly favoured to defeat Paraguay in the quarter-finals.
Those assumptions were soon tested. Paraguay fought ferociously in the first half, smothering Spain’s fabled snipers of Villa, Iniesta, Torres and Xavi. Whenever Spain gathered a pass, Paraguayan defenders were onto them, surrounding them and defusing the threat. Despite its dominance of possession, Spain managed only a single shot on target in the first 45 minutes, and the half ended scoreless.
Paraguay’s patience and discipline were finally rewarded in the 57th minute. On a rare Paraguay corner kick, a scramble in front of the goal led to a foul by Spain defender Gerard Pique, who yanked blatantly on the arm of Oscar Cardozo as he raced to the ball. When a penalty kick was awarded, it was Paraguay’s best opportunity of the match – yet they were thwarted by Spain’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, who brilliantly outguessed Cardozo, dove to the left and caught the ball.
Just two minutes later, it was Spain’s turn to be awarded a penalty kick, after Villa was hauled down as he collected a long pass and broke away from the Paraguay defence. But again the result was astonishing.
At first, Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso appeared to score on his penalty kick, but it was disallowed when the referee judged that his teammates had encroached too soon. On the subsequent penalty shot, Paraguay keeper Justo Villar dove to the left and deflected the ball. Spain nearly scored on the rebound, with Villar out of position, but a Paraguay defender managed to knock away the ball.
It meant that four quarter-finalists had failed to score on six penalty shots on Friday and Saturday nights – a remarkable string of failure in a sport where penalty kicks are nearly always automatic goals.
Finally, in the 83rd minute, Spain’s high-powered offence found an opportunity. After a spectacular series of passes and back-heeled taps by the Spaniards, Andres Iniesta evaded the defenders and passed to Pedro, a second-half substitute, who was in the clear. Pedro’s blazing shot beat the keeper but hit the post. On the rebound, Villa was all alone. His shot hit the right post, caromed to the left post, and fell into the net – triggering a huge celebration by the pro-Spain crowd of 55,000 at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg.
As the match ended, the Paraguay players were in tears. Their unexpected success had already stunned the tournament, and they were convinced that they could have kept their dream alive. It was not to be.
Geoffrey York is a sports writer for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper. The story appeared in today’s (July 3, 2010) Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/soccer/villa-propels-spain-to-semi-finals/article1627632/ (http://www NULL.theglobeandmail NULL.com/sports/soccer/villa-propels-spain-to-semi-finals/article1627632/)