world cup

Paraguay, Spain to the Quarters; Ronaldo to the Tanning Bed

Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today … the last matches of the Round of 16.

This just in: Crossbar to be hailed as national hero in Paraguay. Poor Yuichi Komano. The guy might go on to design a nuclear-powered jet pack, or even a more adorable version of Hello Kitty, but he’ll forever be remembered in Japan as the guy who hit the crossbar and missed his penalty kick, thus ending his country’s World Cup dream.

I don’t think anybody feels good about the way this game ended, but it had to end some way. Neither team seemed to have plans to score anytime soon and if not for penalty kicks things might have stretched on for days, leaving Japan and Paraguay to solve this fight the way these two historic enemies have ended their many skirmishes and wars – by playing Pachinko.

Japan seems to have a sponsorship deal with Sun-in, and its lineup of interesting hair decisions includes central defender Yuji Nakazawa, who could easily find work as Lisa Rinna’s stunt double. Paraguay is the least famous South American country, and its team stars the poetically named Roque Santa Cruz, once named handsomest man in the German bundesliga (at least according to a friend of mine). This is a team clad in what I consider to be the tournament’s strangest uniform. It has three variations on red and white stripes and looks wholly different depending on which angle it is glimpsed from. My fiancée, a fan of Japan, referred to the Paraguayan socks — rightfully, I think — as “clown stockings” and said that overall the uniforms looked like “Ronald McDonald costumes.”

These are the conversations you have while watching soccer this dull. It was all I could do to not become overwhelmed with memories of Team USA, thinking, “We are so much better than these guys.”

For long stretches, announcers John Harkes and Ian Darke were left to fill the air while nothing happened on the pitch. Darke seized upon a cracker of a subject: the dramatic time difference between South Africa and Japan. Darke said that half of all Japanese citizens were supposedly staying up late to tune in, and every few minutes he would update the time in un-dramatic fashion. He would say, “It’s now quarter to one in Tokyo” and then “it’s now five minutes to one.” By the start of extra time, he said, “They call it the Land of the Rising Sun and they might be up until sunrise tonight.” Actually, dude, it wasn’t even 1:30 a.m. The only thing they were accidentally staying up for is Carson Daly.

In overtime, Paraguay began to take over, as only a team of Musketeer-haired candy stripers can do. They had at least three good chances at goals, all of them foiled by Kawashima, the Japanese goalie.

Our referee was the Belgian who waived off Clint Dempsey’s perfectly good goal against Algeria, and though he didn’t make any newsworthy blunders, he did hand out three yellow cards for unintentional handballs. That’ll teach these cheating bastards to accidentally bump into a flying ball with their biceps. (But you know, if Luis Fabiano wants to use his upper arm — twice! — to direct the ball, that’s fine. It’s not a card; it’s a goal!)

In the end, Paraguay prevailed in penalty kicks. And as we all know, penalty kicks suck; they’re every bit as arbitrary a way to end a competitive sporting event as using a putting contest to un-tie the Masters. But if not for this merciful conclusion to yesterday’s contest, I fear these teams might have played long enough that it actually would have been late in Japan.

Cristiano Ronaldo will now return to tanning. Spain and Portugal: the Iberian War. Or, as some prefer, the Battle for Bacalao. What’s that? No one uses this title? Well, they should! Actually, these two neighboring cod lovers haven’t played each other in six years, since Portugal knocked Spain out of the 2004 European Championships.

If you were a casual observer, it might appear to you as if Spain was constantly on soccer’s version of the power play. La Furia Roja tends to pitch camp outside the opposition penalty box, throw down some lawn chairs, pump up the boom box, and commence team volleyball, I mean soccer, happy to tap the ball around while discussing the news until somebody gets antsy and decides to take a chance at goal. The problem here is that Portugal defends well. Cristiano Ronaldo’s team of hair-gel enthusiasts hadn’t been scored upon in eleven international matches and featured the stout defending of Meireles, who seems to be much happier now that he’s no longer drumming for Blink-182. (On the other hand, you can sometimes catch Spain’s Carlos Puyol gazing wistfully into the stands, fondly reminiscing about his days on the road with Motorhead.)

If you believe the leprechauns behind the stats machine that is the NYT Goal blog, Spain had 70 percent of the first-half possession, yet just a few more of the threatening chances. Portugal chose its counterattacks wisely and actually made Iker Casillas stop staring at his smoking-hot TV-newscaster girlfriend once or twice*** and Spain only barely led in first-half shots, 9 to 7.

You just got the feeling, though, that Spain would prevail. It can be maddening to watch them pass the ball for minutes on end, often sideways and backward, but these guys do know what they’re doing, and eventually, if you slowly wave the pocket-watch in front of the defense’s eyes for long enough, they’ll begin to get sleepy.***** And that’s when Xavi back-heels a ball to David Villa, and the dashing Spanish striker drills it home.

Portugal could never find enough possession to make a decent charge, despite deploying its secret weapon in the 57th minute. Of course that would be Danny, but not even Danny — Danny! — could save Cristiano Ronaldo’s tournament. And as the Portuguese pretty boy left the field, you could just see him imagining the thong he’ll be wearing on Madeira by week’s end.

***There was a bit of a kerfuffle back in Spain during the first round, when a newspaper suggested that said girlfriend was distracting the nation’s beloved goalkeeper, who has a contract for life with Real Madrid.
*****The effect on me was that I caught myself thinking that Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque looks exactly like the Spanish coach would look on an episode of Bullwinkle. I don’t entirely know that means, but I’m also certain it’s true.

My own (very good) bad news bears. Seeing Cesc Fabregas on the Spanish bench, where he spent the entire game, I started to think: I should go to South Africa and handpick a team from the all-stars who’ve been collecting ass splinters at the World Cup! Then my team will play the winners. Just for starters I’d take Fabregas, and Diego Milito of Argentina, as well as Dani Alves and Elano from Brazil, Germany’s Mario Gomez, Holland’s Eljero Elia and Rafael van der Vaart, Portugal’s Deco, and of course Danny — Danny boy! — the linchpin of my squad. For kicks, I’d even take Peter Crouch, England’s human-giraffe hybrid. It was fun to think about, and also kind of sad. Why? Because these guys would totally maul Team USA.

And now about today … Today’s games feature — oh, no! Today we have nothing. What the hell will I do with myself?

Paraguay, Spain to the Quarters; Ronaldo to the Tanning Bed