Underdogs win the hearts

Underdogs win the hearts
The ankle injury suffered by Ogenyi Onazi spelt disaster for Nigeria.

The underdogs lifted the World Cup's flagging spirits.

All tournaments sag in the middle. Performances plateau. Attacking enterprise gives way to tactical caution.

For the first time, there are thoughts of finals. With an eye on the prize, the other is taken off the ball.

Brazil, France, Holland and Germany all stumbled. Hesitation replaced the hubris of the group stages. This record-breaking, goal-plundering, soul-restoring tournament was threatening to take an unwanted turn towards mediocrity. Safety was getting in the way of the samba.

But those uplifting Africans had other ideas. Their race was already run. Their World Cup was won the moment they qualified for the knockout stages. They had their cake. Now they wanted to eat it.

Fear stifled their opponents in the Round of 16. But the Africans came to party, keeping this tournament's engaging narrative on track.

Even in defeat, they danced. Spirits soared in the stadiums and on sofas everywhere. The underdogs barked loudest and their bite was no less tenacious.

Nigeria and Algeria grabbed the baton from the group stages and handed it on to the quarter-finals.

Their losses should not denigrate their achievements. They refused to play safe, park buses and kowtow to higher powers. They took their fight forward. They showed that the cynicism of South Africa is well and truly dead. Long live the kings of attacking football.

With the French and Germans simmering in the pressure cooker, the impudent Africans were content to close the door and turn up the heat.

France assumed their creative Tricolor of talent would fly highest against the limited Nigerians. Mathieu Valbuena, Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema had the firepower to sustain the French revolution, but they met the most obdurate of opponents at the gates.

ENERGETIC

Ogenyi Onazi was a Duracell bunny of durability, snapping on tackles when those around him were running on empty. He offered suitable containment in central midfield and Nigeria lost their impetus without him.

Didier Deschamps has garnered much praise for his tactical introduction of Antoine Griezmann, moving Benzema into his preferred central role, but the saddening sight of Onazi leaving the field on a stretcher broke the Nigerians.

He was the unfortunate victim of a cynical, poor challenge from the otherwise excellent Blaise Matudi. France's creative swagger has won many friends in Brazil, but Onazi's cruel exit left the moral majority with the underdogs.

Vincent Enyeama won over any remaining romantics.

Something has happened to goalkeeping minnows at this World Cup. They're all auditioning for rom-com leads. They have all turned into Jerry Maguire. Unassuming, foppish and effortlessly charming, their quiet resolve, dignity and tenacity have charmed us all.

They had us at the first save.

France threw everything at Enyeama, but he palmed away one kitchen sink after enough. He saved everything but himself.

Sadly, fate conspired to make a martyr of the Nigerian goalkeeper. The French couldn't beat him, so he beat himself.

He dropped a cross and Nigeria lost the plot. Sporting cruelty can be so mercilessly sadistic.

Rais Mbolhi, the Algeria goalkeeper, was spared personal humiliation, but shared in the collective grief.

For an hour, the Desert Foxes of Algeria left the Germans in a sandstorm; parched and delirious. Faouzi Gholam proved an oasis of opportunity for the Africans, flying through Mesut Oezil and Shkodran Mustafi on the left.

He supplied Islam Slimani, who had chances to put daylight between Algeria and the dozing Germans in the first half. But Manuel Neuer once again proved that when it comes to sweeping up the mess left by his dithering defenders, he's more Oliver Twist than Oliver Kahn.

Still, the Algerians made a mockery of their lowly status. They had qualified for the knockout stages for the first time, but this was no victory lap. The underdog tag was beneath them. They were dogs of war.

Mbolhi was a solid wall of gloved latex, standing firm against one Teutonic raid after another, refusing to yield.

Germany charged, but he denied them all. He stood tall.

As the relentless action moved into extra time, all around were losing their heads to exhaustion. But Mbolhi kept his. In the end, fatigue finished the Algerians. Only their legs betrayed them.

They were out of the tournament, but certainly not down. Pride will return soon after the fall when the magnitude of their achievements is fully recognised.

As they dropped to their knees, they lifted a tournament.

The Round of 16 fumbled in terms of quality, but delivered a fine romance instead. The tournament tantalised once again.

Even in defeat, Algeria and Nigeria continued to win the war for this wonderful World Cup.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 02, 2014.
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