All hail Haimez
After the first match of the knockout round went down to penalties, the World Cup was going to have to offer up something special in order to keep our attention. Or, in fact, to keep us from curling up in a little ball, clutching an empty bottle and intermittently muttering phrases such as "No more Charles Aránguiz," "I miss Alexis Sánchez's shorts," and "Pinilla...REALLY?"
Fortunately, this World Cup gave us James. Just 22 years old, James Rodríguez has taken the tournament by storm, surprising a vast majority of those watching, who'd expected the bigger names to dominate the world stage. It's a bit odd, though, that he's caught everyone off-guard. After all, Monaco paid €45 million to woo him away from Porto last summer, so it's not as though his talents were unknown.
But let's face it - most of us don't regularly watch Ligue 1. Those that do have mentioned James was a bit disappointing last season, despite leading the league in assists. They were wondering if, maybe, Monaco had overpaid. Just a tad.
€45 million is going to be a drop in the bucket now, though. The attacker lit up the pitch in the group stages, and he did it again last night, pushing all thoughts of Chilean tears to the back of our minds. Colombia looked as though they might be stifled against Uruguay's defense, with the albiceleste intent on sitting back, knowing that, in the absence of Luis Suárez, they had little to offer going forward. The plan seemed to be to wear down Colombia, then hit them in a set piece situation, perhaps featuring savior Diego Godín.
James blew that plan to pieces. In the 28th minute, he sent in a goal that left the vast majority of the world speechless. But really, it was quite simple: just an ordinary ball that James controlled with his chest, then volleyed in on the turn, hitting the underside of the bar to drop in behind Fernando Muslera.
Really, anyone could've done it.
If the first James goal was a moment of individual brilliance, the second showcased the synchronicity of this Colombia side. A series of low passes put the ball at Pablo Armero's feet. The left-back lifted his cross to Juan Cuadrado, racing into the box on the right. Cuadrado's perfect header landed inches from James' right foot, allowing the boy wonder to simply side-foot it home.
Brazil's up next for Colombia. That defense doesn't exactly look up to the task of keeping James at bay ...
Football can be a funny game. On Saturday we were treated to what will surely be one of the iconic moments of the World Cup: James' first goal against Uruguay is set for highlight reel immortality, as well it should be. That first touch, the perfect turn, the volley blasted at speed over the heads of a startled defence, killing Fernando Muslera's outstretched glove in happy greeting before finding the roof of the net via crossbar and ground. It was a magnificent strike by a magnificent player, and it deserves all of the priase it's getting.
We also could easily be living in a world where it didn't happen. Two millimetres lower and Muslera gets enough on the shot to tip it over the bar and to safety, any higher and it misses the net of its own accord. That actually makes the shot more impressive, of course -- the margins were impossibly tight, and James' effort navigated them anyway -- but it's a reminder nonetheless of how close these iconic moments are to being something else entirely. Had James missed, there would have been oohing and aahing at his skill, a mention in the analysis at halftime ("They'll have to close James down better, he's nearly punished them already.") and then no more.
So what of the moments that don't make it? Not the ones that never came close but the goals denied by those narrowest of margins, bringing brief cheers before scurrying into the dark recesses of the collective memory. The moments that nearly were, but weren't.
In the 120th minute of Chile vs. Brazil, with the score locked at 1-1 in extra time, Mauricio Pinilla received the ball at the top of Brazil's box. Given a helping hand by the utter discombobulation of the Selecao's exhausted defence, he made space to shoot, firing past a helpless Julio Cesar ... and back off the crossbar. Brazil had held on by the slimmest of margins (and Chile, of course, would end up losing the penalty shootout by millimetres once more).
It's not difficult to imagine a world where that shot goes in. Chile become instant heroes, the giant killers who took out the hosts at the death. Howard Webb becomes a marked man in yet another country. Cesar in tears of a different sort post-match. This Brazil team never plays together again. There are physical riots in the streets, verbal ones in the halls of the Brazilian congress. James' goal becomes an afterthought in the wake of Pinilla's. The tournament stops being Brazil's party.
None of this happened, but for a fraction of a second, when boot met ball and the shot marched off to its destiny, it looked as though it might. Football can be a funny game.
An honourable defeat
And so plucky Chile's journey comes to an end. Not with a whimper, but with a great big BANG. Gonzalo Jara struck Julio Cesar's left-hand post with such venom that the ball was almost to the touchline, the woodwork still ringing, by the time anyone started celebrating. Or un-celebrating, in Chile's case.
Taking Brazil, the hosts and favourites, down to penalty kicks is no mean feat, but that's scant consolation to the horrible feeling that accompanies a loss by shootout. La Roja had done tremendously to battle back from an early deficit (this side was never going to be good at defending corners against the Selecao's centre back duo), going level before halftime through Alexis Sánchez, and gave virtually as good as they got for the rest of the match, nearly winning outright through Mauricio Pinilla. And then they lost.
It was not a good shootout. Both sides had kickers embarrass themselves. Willian set the keeper the wrong way before sending himself the wrong way and scraping a sad orphan of a shot past Claudio Bravo's right hand post. Sánchez, no longer the ruthless killer of open play, had a tame effort saved by Cesar. Hulk put one in the same place, Bravo matched his counterpart in stopping that too. All in all, half of the ten penalties were missed or stopped.
It's difficult to come out of a penalty shootout with any credit at all if you're not a goalkeeper. Unlike any other time in football, the kickers are expected to score, and the focus during the first five rounds is on avoiding shame rather than blasting their way to glory (the goalkeepers, meanwhile, are put in the enviable position of being either heroes or at no fault whatsoever for a heartbreaking loss). But there was one notable exception here: Charles Aránguiz.
It was 2-0 Brazil. David Luiz and Marcelo had scored, Pinilla and Sánchez had missed. And up stepped Aránguiz, knowing that a mistake would have allowed Brazil to win outright with the next kick. And so he walked nonchalantly to the spot and sent the ball into the roof of the net, the shot entering the goal in the top right corner.
It's difficult to overstate how good that penalty was, and hyperbole is probably not a clever undertaking when talking about the losing side in a mostly-bad shootout, but if Chile can rightly take pride in their tournament despite early elimination, Aránguiz's effort epitomises that pride. Cool, collected and awe-inspiring, even in defeat: I hope this team is still around in four years.