PAR 0 ESP 1: Penalties all round

WE used to play Single Cuppies in our lunch break when I was at junior school. (Do I have to explain the rules? OK. One goalkeeper, several players all trying to score in the same goal, you’re through to the next round if you score, last outfield player remaining is eliminated. It was brilliant.)

On an average lunch break, we’d probably get a game starting out with six or seven players wrapped up with a winner in about 20 minutes. That’s probably because we never had anyone from Paraguay’s 2010 World Cup squad involved.

Paraguay would have been a nightmare at Single Cuppies. Firstly, they always press high up the pitch, so none of the other players would have been able to get anywhere near the goal. Secondly, they never bloody score.

How can a team get to the last eight at a World Cup with a tally of three goals? Answer: By conceding only one. That was Paraguay’s record before they faced Spain in Johannesburg. They have exceeded expectations by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in their history under Gerardo Martino’s guidance, but it has not been pretty to watch.

Although it livened up considerably in the second half, I would still say this was the worst of the four quarter-finals. (And for that reason, I’m giving both teams one point on the World Cup Gubbometer.) Paraguay’s match against Japan had been the worst of the last-16 matches, so a pattern has developed.

(Paraguay’s stalemate with New Zealand might have been a contender for worst match in the group stages but for Switzerland’s goalless draw with Honduras, which was possibly the worst game of professional football I have ever seen.)

There was never any likelihood of Paraguay v Spain being settled inside 20 minutes, put it that way. And that is despite the fact that Spain have a player who would be amazing at Single Cuppies – David Villa.

Barcelona’s new boy has a valuable ability to convert half-chances when the ball is bouncing around the penalty area. (This would happen a lot in Single Cuppies, were it not for the fact that it’s not really a game that needs a penalty area, as I’ll explain shortly.) It won them their last-16 game against Portugal, and it was decisive tonight – but only after both sides did their best to emulate another element of Single Cuppies.

In our school lunchtime games, the goalkeeper – who was a neutral player – also acted as referee. And if one of the players committed a handball, then the punishment was penalties all round. Every player except the handball offender would get a penalty, and a chance to go through to the next round. (If it was a foul, only the player fouled would get the penalty.)

Just before the hour mark at Ellis Park, we had a deluge of penalties (though sadly, none for handball, which ruined the authenticity for me). First, Spain defender Gerard Pique grabbed Oscar Cardozo by the arm. But the Paraguay midfielder’s kick was saved by Iker Casillas.

Then, within two minutes, Antolin Alcaraz – who will be playing for Wigan next season – brought down Villa, and should have been sent off. Penalties all round! Xabi Alonso scored, but the referee ordered a re-take for encroachment. Keeper Justo Villar saved the second effort, then brought down Cesc Fabregas as he went for the rebound. More penalties all round! Well no, actually, as the ref didn’t see it.

Villa made the difference in the final 10 minutes with the closest you’ll ever see to a Single Cuppies-style goal in professional football. Substitute Pedro hit the post, and the ball rebounded to Villa, who speedily controlled the loose ball, then hit a rebound that went in off both posts. Quick reactions, scrappy finish.

(Of course, in real Single Cuppies, we used jumpers for goalposts, so Villa’s celebrations would have been replaced by a 10-minute argument over whether the ball had gone in or not, followed by someone storming off in a huff. These are things that I feel this World Cup has been lacking.)

Spain are into the World Cup semi-finals for the first time, and Villa is the tournament’s outright leading scorer with five goals. And for just a few minutes in the middle of a slog of a match, all 22 players managed to recreate the feel of a lunchtime kickabout. As Ron Manager from The Fast Show would have said: Marvellous.

World Cup Gubbometer

1. Paraguay: 3 (CI: 3/5)
2. Algeria: 2 (CI: 2/3)
3=. Japan: 2 (CI: 1/2)
3=. Portugal: 2 (CI: 1/2)
5=. Cameroon: 1 (CI: 1/3)
5=. Ivory Coast: 1 (CI: 1/3)
5=. France: 1 (CI: 1/3)
5=. Honduras: 1 (CI: 1/3)
5=. New Zealand: 1 (CI: 1/3)
5=. Switzerland: 1 (CI: 1/3)
11=. England: 1 (CI: 1/4)
11=. Slovakia: 1 (CI: 1/4)
13=. Brazil: 1 (CI: 1/5)
13=. Spain: 1 (CI: 1/5)
13=. Uruguay: 1 (CI: 1/5)
16=. Everybody else: 0

CI=Capello Index

(NB. Teams are awarded one point every time they take part in a game so mind-numbingly tedious that it would almost certainly have been last on Match of the Day had it been a Premier League fixture. Teams level on points will be separated by the Capello Index – the number of points divided by the number of games played.)

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