Possession, the saying goes, is nine tenths of the law, but should be ten if you are a soccer team playing in the World Cup leading 2-1 with only seconds to go – and you have possession of the ball at mid-field.
To the frustration of your opponents and its fans you play a tickey-tacky crisp passing game moving the ball swiftly from team-mate to team-mate as the clock ticks down with metronome slowness. But you retain possession because you know the opposition can’t score without the ball. And if you are playing for the United States of America on Sunday, June 22,2014, you know if you can just hang on, that 2-1 lead over Portugal will bring you and your country its greatest international soccer victory since 1950 when USA defeated England 1-0 in a World Cup..
Much was made of that 64-year old game in Brazil with English newspapers lamenting the fact that Stanley Mathews wasn’t selected to play. Sir Stanley, as he later became, was on a soccer exhibition tour in Canada and was in Victoria BC when he got the call to fly to Brazil too late to play against the USA.
It was suggested the weakened English team virtually guaranteed a USA victory. It’s a suggestion that brings embarrassed laughter from soccer buffs who can recite the English star studded line-up with Bert Williams in goal and Alf Ramsay, John Aston, Billy Wright, Laurie Hughes, Jimmy Dickinson, Wilf Mannion, Tom Finney, Jimmy Mullen, Stan Mortensen and Roy Bentley – all from the Premier league of English soccer.
On June 22 Portugal was lamenting injuries had sidelined two key players, others, including their super star Ronaldo, were not fully fit. And for most of the game played in the jungle heat of Manaus, Portugal played a game lacking in consistent energy. In contrast the USA ran hard, passed and finished well and were deserving of their 2-1 lead as the game swung into injury time play.
With less than 60 seconds to go USA midfielder Michael Bradley controlled the ball in the centre circle in Portugal’s half of the field. He had played brilliantly throughout the game but floated rather than struck his possession pass to a teammate. A Portuguese defender intercepted the pass and quickly snapped the ball to unmarked Cristiano Ronaldo who, having played miserably all night, danced down the right side, reached the edge of the box and at his immaculate best crossed a head-height pass to Silvestre Varela who met it in full flight. Goal tender Tim Howard had no chance. A 2-1 win had suddenly become a 2-2 tie.
Next Thursday, June 26, the USA plays Germany. It will be its toughest assignment to date. Should it be fortunate enough to hold a one goal lead against the German powerhouse with only seconds left on the clock it must remember possession is only nine tenths of the law. In soccer it needs to be ten.