With the Women’s World Cup kicking off in France and the U-20 World Cup beginning its quarterfinal round yesterday, the summer soccer season felt like it was kicking off in earnest. Add to that the fact that the Summer Special edition of World Soccer arrived in my mailbox and that, at least in my little corner of Wisconsin, it was not only the last day of school but also the first day of uncomfortably warm sunshine, and it really felt like the beginning of the summer season.Embed from Getty Images
Sadly for neutrals, the World Cup opener between France and South Korea wasn’t so much a game as a bullying, with France absolutely dominating proceedings. It was not a performance to win over neutrals, as their was something ugly in the absolute, crushing dominance France displayed while going 3-0 up in the first half. The second half was more restrained, but no less dominated by France. Interestingly, the French domination was more physical than technical, as they outran and outmuscled South Korea in a performance that felt more like the non-stop blitz of the United States team than the technical game more traditionally associated with France. One thing is certain: France have come to win this tournament, and the home crowds will be happy to cheer for their victories–no doubt, the uglier the better.Embed from Getty Images
Those seeking a more interesting game will have had to tune into the morning’s U-20 offerings. Truthfully, though, the early tilt between Ukraine and Colombia was not much better in terms of entertainment value. Ukraine have been one of the more impressive teams in the tournament, but they are a defense-first, counter-attacking squad that is happy to sit back and soak up pressure regardless of what the neutral spectator might wish. When the Colombian keeper, Kevin Mier, came 30 yards out for a ball he couldn’t reach, allowing Danylo Sikan in for an early empty net goal, the likelihood of an entertaining game dropped considerably. While Colombia had looked exciting in a fantastic Round of 16 battle with a well-organized New Zealand squad, they simply weren’t up to breaking down what has probably been the best defensive set-up in the tournament. In fact, it was Ukraine who looked more likely to score on the counter throughout the game, and they deservedly advanced to the semi-finals as the closest thing to a home side with Poland having been eliminated in the previous round.Embed from Getty Images
It seemed as if the same would be true of Italy – Mali when, already down from an own goal off a corner, Ousmane Diakite, one of Mali’s best players, was sent off for a late tackle with less than a quarter of the game gone. Up to this point, Mali had undoubtedly been the most entertaining team in the tournament, following a 1-1 draw against Panama with a 4-3 win against Saudi Arabia and 2-3 loss to France before beating tournament heavies Argentina in a Round of 16 shoot-out following an electric 2-2 draw. In fact, “entertaining” doesn’t do Mali justice; they have been a first-rate side, willing to play against anyone and incisive in attack. The early red card seemed likely to rob one of the most promising games of the quarterfinals of its luster.
Fortunately for viewers, Mali refused to accept that script. Babou Fofana and especially Mohamed Camara (who had himself missed the previous game through suspension) visibly cheered Diakite’s spirits as he left the field, and Mali continued to play like a team expecting to advance to the semifinals. Before halftime, Fofana drove into the middle from his right back position and fed striker Ibrahima Kone, who back heeled an assist to strike partner Sekou Koita for an equalizer of real beauty. They nearly had another counter-attacking goal before halftime.
Italy did go back ahead at 60′ off a brilliant narrow-angle finish from Andrea Pinamonte, but roughly 10′ after his introduction, substitute Baboucar Traore beat his defender down the right to feed Camara for a second equalizer. Sadly, the tie lasted only a few minutes, as goalkeeper Youssouf Koita gave up a penalty scored by Pinamonte, with Davide Fratessi heading in an insurance goal shortly after that. But even then, Mali continued to press, earning a penalty in the 6′ of injury time that was brilliantly touched wide by Alessandro Plizzari. Even a man down, Mali produced a stunning performance from start to finish, and they will be sorely missed in the semifinals.