Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Buenos días and sayonara

A World Cup victory uplifts the spirits of the winning team and, by extension, its entire country.  A defeat, no matter by the narrowest of margins, sometimes, is very unforgiving for the losing team.

The opportunities for Japan and Paraguay during their Round of 16 elimination game Tuesday afternoon at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, were so scarce that a penalty kick shoot out was necessary to decide the winner. After playing 90 minutes of regulation time, plus two 15-minute overtime periods, the score was tied nil-nil.  Neither team converted any of its shots on goal (Paraguay had six, Japan five).

So, the match would be decided by a penalty kick shoot out, the first in the 2010 World Cup tournament.  The rules are simple:  First team to score five goals and outscore their opponent by at least one goal would be declared the victor and advance to the quarterfinals.  The losers would be eliminated from the World Cup.

Talk about agony and ecstasy in this most international of sports.

It's a very dramatic way to decide a match, but is it fair? Sure, you say it's equitable since each team would be given five tries to score.  But skeptics ask if the penalty kick shoot out does the sport justice? Whether you agree or not, it certainly provides an exciting means to an end.

A penalty kick shoot out creates a very unforgiving experience for the goalkeepers, and a very tense one for the kickers lined up in the midfield circle, awaiting their turn to take their shots. Before the penalty kick shoot out commenced, the television cameras showed the Paraguay players rushing over to hug their goalkeeper and team captain, Justo Villar, before he calmly marched into the battlefield to defend his team and country's honor ~ and, hopefully, stop at least one shot.

Paraguay won the toss and elected to kick first.  Each team would alternate taking shots.

One by one, Paraguay converted all five of its kicks against Eiji Kawashima, including the clincher by the cool and calm Oscar Cardoza, whose jersey bore the lucky number 7,  that sent his team into its very first World Cup quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, Japan made its first two penalty kicks.  Then, on its third try, no goal, it hit the crossbar.  Japan made its fourth try, but it was too late to reverse the outcome.  The miss cost Japan the match against Paraguay, which advanced on penalties 5-3.

One minute, the two teams were on even ground.  The next, Paraguay was exultant while Japan was despondent.  The penalty kick shoot out was over in a matter of a few minutes.

I really feel for Yuichi Komano, who missed the decisive third kick for Japan, and will forever wear the goat horns for the remainder of his career.  However, he shouldn't be the scapegoat for an entire nation.

Afterward, there were many tears of happiness on the field, and in the stands, for La Albirroja.  There were plenty of tears of disappointment throughout for the fallen Blue Samurai.  Lots of emotions flowed on the pitch.  One team showed flutey, the other solemnity, each a reflection of their respective country's national anthem.

Fortunately, it's the memorable, thrilling endings to games like this one that stick in our minds.  Win or lose, it's all about the courage displayed by the players for both teams.  And they certainly put it all on the line for their country today in the World Cup.  Despite Japan's misfortune, there was plenty to feel good about underdog Paraguay's victory.  Advancing to the quarterfinals is new territory for Paraguay, which was one of four South American teams to reach the final eight.  Their next adventure is Saturday in Johannesburg's Ellis Park, against Spain.

Still, you have to empathize with poor, poor Japan.  After all, it was the cruelest way to lose.

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