This time it’s Andy to whom I raise my voice after a moment of drama. “Do you think they’ll go and forget everything they’ve done in the last hour?” I ask in the wake of Cardozo’s disappointing, completely unexpected penalty. “Look! They already have!!” comes the response, and I turn my eyes back towards the pitch just in time to witness David Villa, streaking unattended through the inside-left channel for the first time that night, being illegally halted by Antolin Alcaraz. Two or three absurd minutes later and this match has become yet another in our World Cup to read like an Ian McEwan novel – painstaking, predictable pattern-building followed by a cataclysmic, barely believable passage of events that changes everything and gives little time for incredulity as the narrative’s accumulated power sweeps you along.
Paraguay v Japan had been deathly dull but, as I’d said ad nauseam before last night’s game, not a match of ineptitude – just one of interminable sparring involving two middleweights stiflingly unwilling to give anything away. Perhaps Gerardo Martino disagreed with me somewhat – he made six changes and altered his formation – but they lived up to the prediction that they’d come to the party for this one. They gave Spain more of a game than did Portugal, and this was pretty much expected. The gameplan worked perfectly for an hour – they stepped up the energy and also stepped up the field, pressing high up from the front as Uruguay had done the previous night but with far greater success, matching the Spaniards blow for blow. As Spain gradually earned more possession, Paraguay formed two notably narrow banks of four, barely a few yards from one another, and said “go wide”. When Spain did, the result was much as when Brazil stifled Chile, with crosses easily snuffed and success only likely to come from a dribble or piece of skill from Villa.
Something new was needed. I’m no fan of playing Alonso and Busquets together, especially against opposition set up as Paraguay were, but the upside of introducing Fabregas for Torres (strangely stationed on the right at the start, although the front three interchanged) was that his role would be far forward, essentially a free one, operating wherever he pleased between the margins of four. As we saw in the first half of the Premier League season, particularly, there are few more devastating in such circumstances. He brought better out of Iniesta, who grew into the game’s best player, dragged Paraguayan defenders and midfielders into areas they didn’t appreciate, added variation and depth to a setup that had looked uncharacteristically flat. He didn’t win the game alone for Spain but the change of structure itself – along with Cardozo’s miss, which was always going to be more defining than Alonso’s – certainly did.
It was hard on Paraguay, but at least I don’t have to make good my promise to pay someone to take my ticket to a Uruguay v Paraguay final. For Spain, next, comes the final this confusing tournament should probably have seen. Are we going to learn not to write off the Germans? Enough will be written about that match and I’m very short on time – but what a fine blend of the modern and a few traditional habits that side is. It’s not even that they’re the most clinical German side ever – but they’re by far and away the best in this tournament at turning defence into attack. In style, attitude and approach, Germany has learned its lessons in the same manner that England has refused to. Spain will need, for once, to start well in the semi-final because I think first goal wins in this one. Much as we pondered with the Brazilians, how would Germany react to going behind? And what will happen to the Spaniards if it, once again, takes than an hour to start playing? In a tournament that’s seen a number of sides promise much before fizzling startlingly, we hope these two can produce something special at the same time.
In other news, a whole week with no game to attend. This might start to feel like a holiday. From noon today is the 400-strong mega-party that seals the culmination of Julia and Vuli’s home blessing. Bouncy castles and inflatable table football for the kids mixed with the more traditional sights, smells and sounds brought by the sizeable representation from the Eastern Cape – the place extraordinary to behold already. Many of Vuli’s family have arrived from Umtata, two hours away by plane. A large number are of the Madiba clan, Nelson Mandela’s own, and we were invited to sit in a circle with them early yesterday afternoon as ‘Mqomboti’, the Xhosa beer that has the taste and consistency of a not-so-innocent smoothie, was passed around and stories told. We had to make our excuses early – but all that we do, see and hear today should more than compensate.
Then, early tomorrow morning, we leave for Livingstone in Zambia. That’s a little bit of a personal pilgrimmage for me, having spent a memorable summer there at the age of 17 a decade ago, and I cannot wait. We even met an old guy, now resident in Kitwe, on the bus last night who knows former Zambian MP and lodge-owner Rolf Shenton, whom I befriended back then. I’ll blog more about that once we’ve arrived, because the party is soon to begin. That’s also going to be true for one of Spain, Germany, Holland and Uruguay just one week from now.
(PS – I promise these articles will, for the next week at least, no longer be headed by hastily-taken Blackberry shots of players taking penalties. Variety is a USB lead from my camera…)