Who on earth would have predicted a World Cup semifinal between South Korea and Germany this time last month?
The World Cup took another mad twist when South Korea beat Spain 5-3 on penalties in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Turkey then added to the mayhem with a 1-0 golden goal victory over Senegal and now faces Brazil in the second semifinal tomorrow.
Tonight in Seoul, however, all the pressure will be on Germany to bring a halt to the astonishing run of cohost South Korea. If anyone can handle what promises to be a red-hot atmosphere in Seoul, it is the Germans.
But if lightning does strike for the fourth time and the German players are left with the same distraught feeling as Portugal, Italy and Spain before them, let us hope they depart with at least a bit of grace and dignity.
It would be nice (although probably a little naive) to think that a team could lose to South Korea without whining about conspiracy theories and blaming FIFA for fixing the result in advance.
Yes, Spain deserved sympathy after having two perfectly good goals disallowed but officials make mistakes.
How much sympathy was there for Germany when a shortsighted Russian linesman awarded England a dubious goal in the 1966 World Cup final?
There were no linesmen involved in the penalty shootout in Kwangju. Just five Spaniards and a stadium full of fanatical Korean fans. Spain flinched first. Game over.
As for Italy and Portugal, why waste your tears? The finger pointing and arm-waving coming from both camps since they lost to South Korea has been frankly embarrassing. Talk about sour grapes.
Why not blame Christian Vieri for missing a sitter in the last minute or Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni for trying to bolt the gate with his team leading 1-0?
The decision to replace striker Alessandro Del Piero with Gennaro Gattuso after 61 minutes clearly backfired.
South Korea hardly needed a second invitation to attack and it was no surprise when Seol Ki Hyeon snatched a dramatic 88th-minute equalizer to send the match into extra time.
But why ask logical questions when you can blame the referee for ruling out a goal and sending off playmaker Francesco Totti in extra time?
No, Totti did not dive (on this occasion) but he had already tried to con the referee at least twice during the game, and was on a yellow card, so the decision was hardly as “outrageous” as some Italian players and journalists have claimed.
Then to add insult to injury, Perugia chairman Luciano Gaucci went bonkers and announced that he had fired South Korean striker Ahn Jung Hwan for daring to score the golden goal that knocked Italy out of the World Cup.
This, like a lot of the whining that has come from Italy since, smacks dangerously of racism and a member of the European Parliament has already called for the European Union to investigate whether Ahn’s sacking breaks anti-discrimination laws.
Gaucci reportedly said: “Do you think I am going to pay the wages of the man who ruined Italian soccer? Let him go back to Korea, where he can earn 100 lire a month.” Is this man serious?
The situation grew even more preposterous when Italian broadcaster RAI said it was considering taking FIFA to court over the refereeing decisions made in the second round match, which, it said, “could only be the product of serious fraud.” Heavens above.
Furious politicians have demanded answers in Italian parliament over the 2-1 defeat, while FIFA has become public enemy No. 1 for the press in Italy.
“Shame on FIFA for your dirty games,” ran one headline, “Thieves,” screamed another, while one daily launched a personal attack on match referee Byron Moreno of Ecuador, who they called “chubby,” “bug-eyed” and “immature.”
Apparently there is no equivalent for “the pot calling the kettle black” in Italian.
Lost among all this madness was the exit of cohost Japan, England and Senegal from the World Cup.
True to form, Japan confounded us all by topping Group H only to crash out 1-0 to Turkey in the second round after one of the most abject displays of the World Cup — at least until England lost 2-1 to Brazil last Friday.
How ironic it was that Pele noted before the quarterfinal in Shizuoka that England goalkeeper David Seaman was “no Gordon Banks.” Oh dear, oh dear.
England captain David Beckham opted for a day off working on his suntan as he handed the “playmaker” role to right-back Danny Mills, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for the way the team played.
It was spineless, clueless stuff and generally akin to watching Rushden and Diamonds train, only without the huff and puff. Sven-Goran Eriksson has two years and counting to deliver. Only a place in the semifinals will do at the 2004 European Championships.
One team England will not need to worry about in Portugal is Senegal, which is a blessed relief since the African side reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup despite being coached by a second-rate pop star.
Have you ever seen Bruno Metsu and Michael Bolton in the same room? Thought not. It will remain one of life’s mysteries, like how South Korea and Turkey reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup and how Vieiri missed that open goal.