Sunday, June 28, 2009

The 2009 Confederations Cup wrapped up today and what a day it was. Thrills, shocks and goals galore were served up from the last two matches.

With Spain-South Africa kicking off proceedings in the 3rd/4th place play off match, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the game was just going to be a bit of a non event, with some of the squad players being given a run out. Far from it as it turned out, with both teams fielding their top line ups.

South Africa would always have been playing for pride but when you saw that the Spanish had the dangerous Torres and Villa starting, you knew once again that both sides were really going to be going for it. No meaningless matches in this tournament it would appear.

I’ve never had much interest in the third place play off games in any tournament. It is just a battle of losers after all. If they all turned out liked this one though then I might have to change my opinions.

The two teams served up a thriller, with four goals in the last 17 minutes, before Spain eventually broke the deadlock with the decisive goal 17 minutes into extra time in a game where the subs shone.

South Africa once again showed that they weren’t overawed by superstar opponents and played the only way they seem to know, attacking and taking the game to the Spanish. The last two games though have also shown another side to the Bafana Bafana – resolute defending. Albeit with some late lapses.

There’s been a lot of sceptics about taking the World Cup to South Africa. Many feel that the game is not universally popular in the country, with the black population loving the beautiful game and the whites the egg chasing game. Stadiums with spare seats in this preview competition being cited as proof.

Well if the pictures of pure joy and disappointment that were seen on the faces of the South African fans in this game alone are anything to go by, then the passion amongst those that do love the game is immeasurable and are signs alone that taking the greatest show on earth there next year is well justified and an excellent decision. The emotions on display today were worn on their sleeves.

When substitute Katlego Mphela opened the scoring on 73 minutes with a well controlled finish from close range, it was all looking great for the hosts. The build up to the goal was delightful and as the minutes ticked by, the Spanish didn’t look like the attacking threat we all them to be.

That all changed in dramatic fashion when Spanish supersub Daniel Guiza hit two in two minutes, the second a goal which no matter how many times I watch it, I still can’t understand how the ball managed to end up in the net!

With the crowd silenced, bar a few of those annoying horns, it looked all over for the South Africans and when they won a free kick three minutes into stoppage time, they needed something spectacular with what would be the last kick of the 90 minutes. They got it and it was their own supersub Mphela who came up trumps again, lashing home a 25 yard curler into the top corner to send the crowd into euphoria.

With 6 goals in 12 international appearances so far, Mphela could be one to watch at next year’s finals. South Africa’s new Benni McCarthy perhaps.

Spain won the day though with a great free kick of their own from Liverpool’s Xabi Alonso and South Africa just ran out of steam towards the end.

Hard to take for the hosts, but they did themselves and their country proud and can go into next year’s finals full of confidence. They already have the flair and attacking prowess needed, they defend well too. They just need to tighten up a little at the back and keep their full concentration to the very end and they could be providing more shocks on a world scale in twelve months time.

Out to continue their own shocks, the US took on Brazil in a final which many felt would be one sided, after their group match up.

We said in the blog on Thursday that we thought we’d see a completely different game and US team from the one that showed up in that previous match up, but even we didn’t expect what we got.

Brazil had started the game looking pretty comfortable and in control but Clint Dempsey shocked the Brazilians and the watching millions when the US opened the scoring after ten minutes with their first real attack of the game.

You couldn’t help but think, you don’t want to annoy the boys from Brazil!

But before Brazil could take out their anger, they found themselves two down after a great counter attack and finish from US veteran Landon Donovan.

We were now looking at one of the biggest international final upsets of all time and a momentous day for American football.

The States now found themselves in a position though that not many teams have had to face. How do you defend a two goal lead against the world’s most skilful side with still over an hour to go? Do you keep attacking or do you sit back and defend? I’m always an advocate of attack being the best form of defence but for this to happen, the other team have to allow you to do this.

Brazil weren’t about to let the US do this and the second half started as it meant to go on and the South American champs pulled a goal back less than forty seconds in through Luis Fabiano.

The remainder of the game saw wave after wave of gold and blue attacks as Brazil pummelled the American defence.

Brazil had the ball over the line, but the goal was not given, and it was only going to be a matter of time before they equalised and when Fabiano hit his and his side’s second with quarter of an hour left, there was only going to be one winner and captain Lucio made sure that they Brazilians claimed their third Confederations Cup trophy with a powerful header with just six minutes remaining.

Brazil’s class of 2009 showed that they were just that, pure class. They controlled every game they played, bar their semi final against South Africa where they were really tested, and always seemed liked they could step up a gear when required.

As for the Americans, don’t undervalue their momentous fighting achievements in this tournament. They looked down and out and showed spirit and belief to literally storm their way to the final. Even though they fell at the final hurdle, they have made that breakthrough for their national team and set a benchmark for their future sides in future competitions. This will be a key cornerstone in America’s future footballing history, even if the American sports media still won’t take that much interest in them.

As a footnote to that point, it was funny watching ESPN's coverage of Wimbledon when the commentators were complaining that in all the football coverage in the UK press, there were ten pages talking about transfers and just a small paragraph saying that the US had reached the final. Pot and kettle sprang to mind.

It’s been a great tournament, far exceeding my expectations, and has whetted my appetite no end for next year’s World Cup Finals. Let’s hope we can be cheering Scotland on there.

Only 347 days to go till the big kick off!

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