After the excitement of Euro 2008, came the drama of the Libertadores Cup. The second leg of the final, played last night, between Fluminense of Brazil and LDU of Ecuador, promised much. A jammed Maracana Stadium, LDU surprisingly leading, 4-2, from the first leg -- and so there was to be expected the thrill of an all-out attacking game from Fluminense.
More or less, that's what happened, and it was pulsating stuff. But two things also happened in the first half that upset the proceedings. Firstly -- and amazingly -- LDU got on the scoreboard almost immediately through Johnny Bolanos. Fluminense now needed three goals to tie the game, but that still looked quite possible for them. Six minutes later, Thiago Neves tied the game, and on 22 minutes, he put Flu ahead.
Then came the second disturbing factor: referee Hector Baldassi from Argentina -- who I would rate without hesitation as one of the best in the world -- ignored a blatant foul by LDU's Paul Ambrossi on Washington as he broke in on goal, in the penalty area. A clear penalty kick, and a red card to Ambrossi. But Baldassi waved play on.
You always assume that if a penalty kick is awarded, a goal will follow. Probably it would have done -- in which case, Fluminense would now likely be the Libertadores champions. Instead, they only managed one more goal, tying the overall score at 5-5, with Thiago Neves getting all three of their goals.
Then came another of soccer's not quite satisfactory arrangements. Thirty minutes of overtime. This had been a high-paced, tension-filled game for the 90 minutes of regular time. Inevitably, we not got a scrappy overtime, full of petty fouls, as two tired teams tried to find the energy to stage a stirring finish.
And every time I see this situation -- it is the usual state of affairs for important overtime games -- I wonder why a slight rule change is not made, allowing teams to use at least one more substitute when overtime arrives.
This was disappointing. What had started off as a rip-roaring game, full of skill and commitment, was now dying on its feet. In the end, maybe the bad call by Baldassi on the penalty kick was canceled out -- because with four minutes left in the second overtime, LDU's Claudio Bieler headed what would surely have been the winning goal, only to have it canceled by a bad offside call from the assistant referee.
By that time, the soccer had deteriorated to an alarming extent, but there was, of course, worse to come. The penalty kick shootout. The Libertadores Cup is no stranger to shootouts -- six of the last 10 titles have been "won" via the penalty kick route.
No one can consider that satisfactory, surely. And this one had an extra element of farce to it, again thanks to referee Baldassi. As the overtime wound down, LDU's goalkeeper Jose Cevallos had repeatedly indulged in blatant time-wasting, until Baldassi, with just two minutes left, tardily gave him a yellow card.
Then, as the kicks unfolded, Cevallos put on a series of little acts -- all clearly designed to break the concentration of the Flu players. Baldassi allowed him to do it -- including one absolutely absurd moment, when he walked off his line, appealing to Baldassi exactly as Thiago Neves was running up to take his kick.
To say that is unsportsmanlike is putting it mildly -- it should have meant a yellow, and that would have meant the end of Cevallos (already cautioned) for the evening. But Cevallos was not cautioned, Baldassi merely sent him back to the goal line -- where he saved Thiago Neves's kick.
So LDU went on to become the first Ecuadoran team to win the Libertadores. A deserving winner? I think so -- they had outplayed Flu in Quito, and they stood up well to the Brazilians' attacking barrage in Maracana. They never sunk back into a totally defensive mode, were always ready to break speedily and skillfully, with Luis Bolanos and Joffre Guerron, their flank players, a constant menace to Flu's defenders.
This was soccer with a slightly different flavor from that seen during Euro '08. Much more open, less tactical, with more emphasis on individual skill, particularly from the Brazilians.
There were also a lot more errors than the Europeans ever produced, a good deal of sloppy passing, some of it causing huge defensive problems.
I'm not about to recommend poor passing, but it certainly added its share of excitement to the game. For me the game ended sadly -- not the sort of sadness that the Flu supporters were agonizing through -- but a feeling of disappointment that a game that started so brilliantly, that was so full of life and great soccer, should gradually fade rather tediously into the obscenity of the shootout.
The marvelous soccer theater that is the Maracana, seen here at its best, alive with fans and flares and fireworks, deserved better.