MAHONEY: Heroes on a night of high comedy

By Ridge Mahoney
in Nuremberg

The first few words of the Portuguese national anthem are, "Heroes of the Sea."

There isn't an ocean anywhere near the Frankenstadion where a fascinating round-of-16 match took place Sunday, yet those who wore the Portugal colors will be feted as such after they outlasted the Netherlands, 1-0, on a goal by Maniche to set up a date with England in the quarterfinals.

Sadly, this game rife with riveting drama and courageous performances won't be remembered for those elements. Instead, before Russian referee Valentin Ivanov had finished wiping the sweat from his face, rival coaches Marco Van Basten and Luiz Felipe Scolari had ridiculed his issuance of 16 cautions that left only 18 players on the field.

Sent off with second yellows, in order, were: Costinha, Khalid Boulahrouz, Deco and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, the latter two teammates at Barcelona who watched the end of the game together in the sidelines.
In many cases, Ivanov had no choice but to pull out the yellow card, yet his prickly adherence to the rules chopped up a match that featured some flowing, mesmerizing play from both teams as well as fierce 50-50 duels and frantic goalmouth scrambles.

When FIFA insists on rigid adherence to meting out cautions, and punishes officials who don't follow through, madness can take hold. Ivanov whipped out a yellow for Portuguese keeper Ricardo, apparently for time-wasting, although it took him only a few seconds to set up a goal kick after a Dutch shot had gone out of play.

Unfortunately, several melees broke out, and players were up off the bench throughout the second half. As just one example, John Heitinga was scythed down by Deco in midfield after he'd refused to kick the ball back to the Portuguese after they'd put it out of play so an injured player could be attended to.

The Portuguese were outraged Heitinga had breached protocol, the Dutch were incensed at Deco's tackle. After several minutes of arguing and pushing, and Ivanov consulting his assistants, Deco was cautioned, as was Rafael Van der Vaart for pushing Petit to the ground during the ruckus although it seemed on replays that Wesley Sneijder had done the shoving.

Deco got his second yellow for grabbing the ball and barking at the official after Ivanov whistled for a foul.  Deco may have thought he'd been fouled, but Ivanov had called it the other way and in a flash the card was out.
The madcap dismissal of players seesawed momentum between the teams and pell-mell, end-to-end sequences generated breakaways, splendid saves crunching tackles, and a crackerjack Phillip Cocu shot off the crossbar - but just that one goal.

Maniche scored to finish off a superb move triggered by Cristiano Ronaldo, who poked the ball out of a tangle into the corner for Deco, who whipped it low into the goalmouth. Pauleta, closely marked, trapped the ball and then prodded it a few yards for Maniche to drill it into the net.

So much more was memorable: Edwin van der Sar kicking away what seemed to be sure goal by Pauleta, Richard Carvalho three times blocking fierce shots with full-length slides, Robin van Persie tying two defenders into knots before just missing the far post with toe-poke from a tight angle, fans of both teams roaring and murmuring and then roaring again as the cards and fouls added up and the numbers dwindled.

Ivanov laid down the letter of the law regarding cautions for time-wasting, grabbing the ball to delay a restart, intentional handball, late tackles, etc. Costinha went off first, for deflecting a driven ball with his hand
after he'd earlier been cautioned for nailing Cocu. The Dutch couldn't exploit their 11-v-10 advantage, and the frustration continued as both teams were reduced.

The Dutch had obviously targeted Ronaldo Cristiano. The first two times he touched the ball, he was fouled severely enough that the perpetrators were cautioned. He needed treatment to continue after Boulahrouz cleated him in the thigh and valiantly played long enough to spark the goal but eventually had to be replaced before halftime.

Luis Figo, dazzling at times before fatigue forced him off in the second half, fooled Ivanov into sending off Van Bronckhorst after the Dutchman's flailing arm nicked his nose as they chased a ball. Figo crashed to the ground, stayed down, and arose holding an ice bag against his face.

It was all a bit much, and all the more unsavory since much of the soccer glistened when not tainted by theatrics and draconian oversight.

Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda, who sent off three players in the Italy-USA game, received some scorching criticism, including misguided proclamations from U.S. TV commentators that he'd be sent home. Instead, he was praised by FIFA and Friday officiated the France-Togo first-round game.

There won't be any such joy for Ivanov. By the time Scolari figures out his lineup for England without the suspended Deco and Costinha, Ivanov will be back in Russia.

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