Triumphs of character
© Foto-net

THE DAY REPLAYED- Football is a game played as much with the brain as with anything else, and evidence of that hoary old truth was in abundance as the Round of 16 got underway at Canada 2007. Tested to the limits, the United States, Austria, the Czech Republic and Spain all showed immense character to qualify for the quarter-finals.

The Stars and Stripes have been putting together highly competitive teams at every age group for a number of years now, but their inability to confirm their status as favourites has proved a recurring problem. So much so that it has almost become a syndrome, and, after an impressive group-stage showing that yielded nine goals and two wins including the defeat of Brazil, Thomas Rongen's men found themselves in familiar territory against Uruguay.

For 87 minutes, it looked as if the outcome in Toronto would be all-too-familiar as well. More creative than their opponents, they nonetheless went a goal down 20 minutes before the end and seemed too exhausted to drag themselves back in to the contest, especially when striker Josmer Altidore left the field through injury.

Instead of succumbing to their fate, though, the USA showed remarkable mental strength to strike back - Danny Szetela winning the ball on the edge of the area and releasing a shot that caused Mathias Cardaccio to put through his own net under pressure.The team's most tenacious player Michael Bradley then sent his side on the way to victory in extra-time, before his team's newfound character spilled over into an all-out brawl with the South Americans at the final whistle.

There was plenty of zeal on show in Edmonton too, where Gambia were reduced to ten men for the second time in two matches and refused to let their heads drop after the imposing Sebastian Proedl (1.92m, 85 kilos) put Austria ahead seconds before the break. On the back foot as they had been against Portugal, the Baby Scorpions managed to draw level after the restart and no doubt fancied their chances of pulling off another thrilling comeback win.

The European team's star player Erwin Hoffer had other ideas, however, not least since he had been forced to watch most of the encounter from the bench. If it had been coach Paul Gludovatz's plan to feed his hunger with a spell on the sidelines it clearly worked, as the Rapid Vienna striker fired his colleagues through to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history after being sent on in the 71 st minute. Beaten but not bowed, their opponents can also reflect on a historic campaign that saw them progress farther than any other Gambian side in an international tournament.

Shaved heads and Spanish comeback
In Victoria, temperatures soared to highs not seen in 40 years, which may well have explained why the entire Czech Republic line-up took to the field with shaved heads. Either that or they hoped it would improve their aerial ability from set-pieces, the part of their game the Japanese had feared most.

Knowing they were up against the tallest team in the competition, with an average height of 1.83m, the Asian contenders had spent an inordinate amount of time practicing how to defend against dead-ball situations, so there was irony aplenty when they themselves took the lead from a corner. As if to rub in the point, they then scored a second from the penalty spot.

With that, the Japanese players celebrated by collapsing to the pitch, perhaps gently suggesting the Czechs were suffering from sunstroke after their trip to the barbers. If so, they could not have been more wrong, and, on a day of teams digging deep, the Europeans displayed real character to level the scores courtesy of two penalties in three minutes.

The two sides deadlocked, it took even more penalties to separate them after extra-time and the Czechs ultimately came out on top, once again demonstrating their mental strength to swing a tense shoot-out.

Mental strength has often been Spain's failing in the past and many observers anticipated further evidence as they warmed up to face Brazil. It mattered little that the Iberians had navigated the group stage with relative ease, give or take a few defensive errors, nor did it seem important that the Auriverde had set national records by suffering two defeats and conceding five goals in their opening three games: as favourites, the Spaniards were expected to choke in time-honoured fashion.

The players seemed almost willing to oblige as well, wasting chance after chance in Burnaby. At the other end, the Brazilians struck twice in two first-half minutes, including a stunning effort from Leandro Lima, but there was clearly something in the Canadian air on Wednesday and Spain eventually found the resolve to pull themselves back from the brink.

A scrappy first showed them the way before Javi Garcia equalised from a free-kick, and in extra-time they stepped up a gear as Alberto Bueno and Adrian made sure of the result, the latter moving into top spot in the scoring charts with four goals. Perhaps the Spaniards have finally shaken off their complex after all.