The quarter-final stage is always a tricky trapdoor at a FIFA
finals. Four of Canada 2007's most impressive squads - Spain,
Nigeria, Mexico and the US - fell at the last eight hurdle.
Spain, champions of Europe and U-20 world beaters back in 1999, arrived in Canada expecting to challenge for their second crown. Loaded with attacking talent like Diego Capel, top scorer Adrian Lopez and full-fledged La Liga stars like Gerard Pique and Alberto Bueno, they roared through the group stages with a carefree, all-out attacking style that had many out west in Burnaby drawing deep breaths.
Finishing top of their group, they unlocked Brazil in the Round of 16 and looked heavy, almost prohibitive favourites up against the Czech Republic - who barely edged past Japan on penalties - in their quarter-final. But as is so often the case in the deadly last eight, the more organised, less-attacking side won the day, again on spot kicks after finishing in a 1-1 deadlock. Pique, who missed the crucial fifth kick for Spain was sure his side were better on the day. "All the guys are very sad and people were crying in the dressing room," the Zaragoza-man said. "Sometimes football is not fair but you just have to learn to accept it."
Speaking of unfair, Nigeria's 4-0 defeat at the hands of an outstanding Chilean outfit will have to go down in history as one of the most unrepresentative scorelines in a FIFA finals. Surviving a full 90 minutes and six of extra time giving as good as they got, the Nigerians - who attacked and created with style and spontaneity throughout these finals despite having a largely unknown team of mostly domestic-based players - finally capitulated. Fourteen minutes later, they had conceded four goals and gone down to ten men. The score flattered the Chileans and left the lone remaining African standard bearers - who came into the game with the second-best defensive record - sprawled on the ground, staring up at the scoreboard and wondering just what had gone wrong. "When we let in the first goal, we felt really down. We'd planned to go far and that goal made us feel helpless," said the outstanding Ezekial Bala after being eliminated. Despite the defeat, Bala, Brown Ideyie, and Chukwuma Akabueze all shined here in Canada and represent a high-flying future for the Super Eagles.
CONCACAF pride dented
Another side with a bright future is the USA. After drawing with Korea Republic in their first game, they went on to destroy Poland 6-1 and then edge Brazil to finish top of their group. They then struggled against Uruguay in the Round of 16, and eventually hit the wall against a rugged and direct Austrian outfit. Freddy Adu, the team's captain and creator, had no answer for the Austrians' efficiency and was at a loss after the defeat. "Sometimes the bounces go your way and sometimes they don't," he said. "It's about inches and bounces and they didn't go our way today." Things may not have gone the USA's way in the final standings, but coach Thomas Rongen has assembled a group of players with amazing futures in the game and the senior national team. Michael Bradley, Danny Szetela, Sal Zizzo, Tony Beltran and Josmer Altidore all did their part in proving the USA can play with style and verve.
Mexico, America's neighbour to the south, came into the Canadian finals as many peoples' favourites to take the title. With ten players in the squad from the team that won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru two years ago, Jesus Ramirez' men had organisation, style and a willingness to win. Led by Barcelona gem Giovanni Dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Cruz Azul's Cesar Villaluz, the CONCACAF giants roared to a first-place finish in the group stages and put African champions Congo to the sword 3-0 in the Round of 16. But in a tension-filled quarter-final against holders Argentina, one mistake was always going to make the difference. In the end, a defensive error just before the interval proved their undoing as they limped out of the finals on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline. Goalkeeper Alfonso Blanco, one of the best at these finals, was philosophical about the loss. "We were unlucky, but that's football," he said. "They scored and managed to hang on to the lead."