What is it about the World Cup that makes all of us – and yes, I mean all of us – feel that overbearing, emotional sensation that engulfs us once in a blue moon? Portugal vs. Spain on June 15th, day two of the World Cup, perhaps epitomised that aforementioned, unfathomable emotion.
Prior to kick-off, the build-up ahead of this mouth-watering encounter perhaps led many to have high hopes. All too often we see highly anticipated games over-hyped, only to witness them fall hopelessly short of our romanticised expectations. But no, not this one. This Iberian clash of the titans reminded us why the World Cup truly is the greatest sporting spectacle to grace our planet. The highs, the lows, the uncertainty, the drama, the passion, Cristiano Ronaldo. All of the emotions that this game conceived all on its own is what football, and what the World Cup are all about.
The game itself saw two polar-opposite systems come into play. Portugal, a national team who since Fernando Santos took over the reins, pride themselves upon a resolute defence and rely on their scintillating counter attacks and/or individual brilliance to unlock defences. Their Iberian neighbours, meanwhile, tend to overcrowd the middle of the park and rely heavily on their passing game to bamboozle their opponents while they lie in wait for a lapse in concentration.
From the get-go, the disparate systems were all too evident. Portugal proceeded to come flying out of the blocks, over-crowding Spain’s left-hand-side and were rewarded amply for their persistence in the third minute, after Nacho brought down Cristiano Ronaldo inside the box. Portugal’s prodigal son converted the penalty with the utmost poise to give his country a richly deserved one-nil lead.
Spain responded well to going a goal behind and slowly began to assert their dominance through their possession-based game. Portugal’s two-man midfield of William Carvalho and João Moutinho began to become overrun by an onslaught of interchanging courtesy of Spain’s narrow, insatiably tricky midfielders.
Despite Portugal’s omnipresent threat on the counter which, in actual fact, should have seen them further their lead – La Roja’s dominance was becoming more and more evident. Twenty-four minutes in, the Spaniards were justly rewarded for their dominance, which ironically saw them score a very un-Spaniard like goal. A long ball to Diego Costa saw him hold off Pepe and dance with José Fonte before firing into the bottom corner.
The reigning European Champions at this point appeared to be running out of steam. Their narrow 4-4-2 isolated the wide-playmakers, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes – which in turn eradicated any threat from the reigning European Champions’ front men. As the half-time loomed closer, in truth, clear chances were few and far between. Yet, Portugal’s desire to spear passes in-behind the Spanish back-four saw them re-take the lead on the stroke of half-time. A piercing ball from their own half saw Gonçalo Guedes bring the ball down deftly, who then laid off Cristiano Ronaldo who unleashed a venomous effort straight at David De Gea – which he fumbled in an uncharacteristically un-David De Gea like manner.
As the second-half began normal service was resumed for La Roja, who came flying out of the blocks. The remedy came fast for Spain, too. A routine free-kick saw Iniesta clip a teasing ball to Sergio Busquets, who nodded deftly back across the six-yard box for Costa who finished effortlessly from close range. Spain, however, were not done. A mere two minutes later, as Spain proceeded to rampage down Portugal’s right-hand-side, a fumbled clearance came to Nacho on the edge of the area, who finished spectacularly with a Steven Gerrard-like half-volley.
Portugal at this point appeared to be bamboozled, and unsurprisingly so. Spain’s passing and interchanging became unfathomably crisp and quick – leaving much of the Portugal team chasing shadows. However, the Seleção das Quinas threw one last roll of the dice with yet another piercing long ball forward to their talisman, Cristiano, who was fouled abruptly by Gerard Pique.
The free-kick was position perfectly. The crowd were on the edges of their seats hypnotized by his theatre. Cristiano Ronaldo had not scored a free-kick at a European Championships or a World Cup in forty-four attempts. Surely, he couldn’t salvage a point with minutes to spare? May I remind you that this is a man that thrives off of doubt, hate, ridicule and any other gesture that most would deem derogatory. This is a man built for the occasions where others would wilt. It is, after all, his drug. Ronaldo struck the ball around and over the wall while David De Gea could only admire the brilliance of his strike with both of his feet planted firmly on the ground.
Indeed, this was one of – if not the greatest World Cup group game to have ever taken place. It had everything. It embodied the World Cup. It conceived emotions in people that aren’t even football fans. It was beautiful.
By: Marino Peixoto
Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images