Switzerland versus Ecuador was perhaps the least heralded of any of the World Cup matches we've seen so far, but, as if to remind us not to judge books by their covers, it provided what will surely go down as the most exciting moment of the competition. With the score locked at 1-1 in the 93rd minute, both teams seemed prepared to settle for a draw but knew a win would all but knock their opponents out of the tournament.
So Ecuador gambled. Xherdan Shaqiri turned over the ball and then Antonio Valencia went surging down the right flank dashing through the shambolic mass of bodies that posed for the Swiss midfield and defence before seeing up Michael Arroyo for what was surely set to be the game winner. Except it wasn't -- the substitute dallied on the ball, Valon Behrami flew in with what turned out to be a vital block and then launched a counterattack of his own.
The Napoli midfielder was taken down by Carlos Gruezo as he tried to move through the centre, but he sprang back to his feet and kept on charging forward, leaving the Ecuadorian lines in disarray. Eventually, possession was worked out to Ricardo Rodriguez on the left flank, and his cross was met at point-blank range by Haris Seferovic, who slammed in to give Switzerland a precious, precious opening game victory.
There are heroes to go around on the play -- Behrami's contribution was magnificent, and both Seferovic and Rodriguez will have difficulties paying for their own drinks in Switzerland again -- but it wasn't just the players who contributed to the winning goal. The Swiss were aided by perhaps the best bit of refereeing we've seen so far in Brazil.
When Behrami went down under Gruezo's challenge, Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov saw a clear foul in the centre of the pitch, and he raised his whistle to blow it -- before he noticed Behrami scrambling back to his feet. This was an application of the advantage rule, and it was brilliant.
What does "advantage" mean?
Essentially, whenever a referee sees an offence committed on the pitch, he can allow play to continue as long as the team that's been sinned against has not actually been disadvantaged by the foul. So if a player from team A commits an illegal tackle on a player from team B, but takes himself out of position and team B manage to keep the ball and attack the space he's vacated, the referee can choose to allow play to continue and see what happens -- sometimes a referee will even play advantage and then go back to issue a yellow card at the next stoppage of play.
How often does this happen? Fairly regularly, generally once or twice a match, but it's normally in a low-pressure situation where there is, in practice, little difference between having the ball at one's feet in possession or a free kick. When there are goals at stake, advantage becomes much harder to call, and you'll sometimes see players racing through on goal raise their hands in frustration that the referee has pulled the ball back for a free kick rather than let play continue.
Advantage applied perfectly
In this case, Gruezo's foul on Behrami was blatant and ridiculous, and in that particular situation it's exactly what you'd want your midfielders to be doing. Ecuador needed to do everything in their power to slow the game down -- there was less than a minute to go, and so fouling Behrami there was perfect. Even if a free kick had been given, the defence would have had a chance to regroup, and if Ecuador could get players back, a draw was virtually assured.
And then Behrami got up and kept running, the referee dropped his whistle, and Switzerland won the game. There was a fairly lengthy pause before Behrami knew what to do, but Irmatov was on top of it all the way, waiting to see whether Behrami would recover before blowing the play up for a foul. It was smart, sensible refereeing, and it gave us what might turn out to be one of the best moments of this World Cup.
In a competition which saw its first game marred by shoddy officiating, it's gratifying to see a referee influence the match in a positive way. Switzerland deserved their win, but it was all made possible thanks to the quick thinking of Ravshan Irmatov. How often do you say that of a referee?