I don’t believe one can write too many words about what transpired this afternoon. The meaning of the moment, the thrill of the game, one could go on and on. But to ensure that I don’t overwhelm ESPN’s system, I’ll try to keep my thoughts to only a few posts. First a recap of the match, because really, who doesn’t want to relive it?
Slovakia came out fighting. Fighting on the endline and sidelines for possession, fighting in the midfield, in the air. Fighting for the little things. And because of that fight and that hustle, they began to make something out of nothing. They earned corners, held possession, saw good looks at the goal. They were creating opportunities through hustle and grit. Helping their cause was the lackluster play of the careless, uninspired Italian side and it’s nervous goalkeeper Frederico Marchetti.
Then came the breakthrough. In the 25th minute, Juraj Kucka intercepted a lazy pass from Daniele De Rossi and fed Robert Vittek right through the heart of the Italian defense. Vittek buried the pass in the back of the net and took off in celebration. The Italians had been put back on their heels, as Slovakia continued to outplay them.
Coming out for the second half, the odds were stacked against Italy, at least statistically. They had been out shot 7 to 5, had controlled only 44 percent of the possession, and historically were 1-6-2 when trailing at halftime during the World Cup. Italy manager Marcello Lippi made two changes coming out of halftime, swapping Christian Maggio and Fabio Quagliarella for Gennaro Gattuso and Domenico Criscito.
Vincenzo Iaquinta had an opportunity off of a header, but each minute that ticked by built Slovakia’s confidence a little more. In the 55th minute, Lippi played his last card. It wasn’t a desperation move, but it was all the Italian had left. Veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo replaced Riccardo Montolivo and his impact was immediately and largely felt. The playmaker began doing what he did best, setting up teammates, controlling the tempo and marshalling the Italian offense. Antonio Di Natale had a close, close chance in Italy’s first productive sequence of the game but turned poorly and sent the ball wide.
Then, in the 66th minute, I had my first heart attack. Simone Pepe sent a soaring cross that Jan Mucha misjudged. As he harmlessly punched at air, the ball fell to Quagliarella who chested it and volleyed it towards the unguarded goalmouth. But standing in the way of the ball’s almost guaranteed connection with the back of the net was Martin Skrtel who had planted himself firmly on the goal line. The ball deflected off of his knee as Slovak defenders scrambled to clear. Exhale.
As the clock hit the 70th minute, the dream started to become clearer. And with Italy pushing forward more frequently, they left more room for Stoch, Hamsik and Vittek to run in space on the counter attack, creating several close chances.
At 72 minutes, Robert Vittek sealed the win….or so we thought. Marek Hamsik sent a corner into the box, which popped back out to the Napoli midfieler, who sent it back into danger. Stationed in the perfect spot was Vittek, who tucked the ball in between Marchetti and the post. Italy was becoming frustrated, committing foolish fouls. They knew their fate. The win was as good as ours.
Then, in the 80th minute, I had my second heart attack. Di Natale scored on a wide open net after Mucha deflected a Quagliarella shot. The defending champions were still breathing. And worse, they had stolen the momentum and were looking to tie. Scenes from the New Zealand match flashed through my head. Winston Reid’s late header. Utter shock. Gutting disappointment. It was happening again.
Slovakia’s players must have had the same flashbacks as me. Panic struck the entire squad. Italy seemed to be everywhere, at every ball, pushing forward and poking holes into what had become a shaky, frantic defense. The pressure they had felt by the hometown media in the run up to the match was nothing compared to this pressure. In the 84th minute, it all came crashing down only to be restored an instant later, as Quagliarella’s goal was called offside, a call that one U.S. Website delightfully chalks up to karma.
I began to internally celebrate at every small victory for the Repre that would waste time, inch the seconds closer to 90:00. A cleared ball, a throw-in. Anything but a shot by Italy.
But then, we were saved for good…or so we thought. Making his first touch of the game a legendary one, Kamil Kopunek popped a perfectly placed Marek Hamsik throw in over Marchetti and into the net. 3-1 with only one minute plus stoppage time left. Surely this was it!
Although Slovakia’s fate wasn’t completely in it’s own hands. We had to hope for a little help from our South American friends from Paraguay who were currently deadlocked with New Zealand. If their 0-0 score stood, Slovakia would go through. But as we learned only 9 days before, one should never underestimate the last-minute power of the All-Whites.
The clock hit 90:00. Only stoppage time to go. But Italy just would not die. Quagliarella netted a goal in the 91st minute to again cut the lead to one. Slovakia then began to do everything it could to delay the Italians and inch closer to the final whistle. Several players suffered “injuries” that took several precious seconds off the clock, and Weiss substituted. The Paraguay-New Zealand score went final. Italy continued to press. Pepe’s shot went wide. My heart continued to race. Only a few more minutes. But with Italy frantically going forward, the game still felt fragile and shaky.
Then, after what seemed like ages, the final while blew. Slovakia had done it. Italy’s players dropped to the carpet, weeping for the Italian tragedy. Slovak players sprinted around the pitch, celebrating the Slovak miracle.
Even then, we all knew that this match was a gem, soaked with emotion, passion, intrigue and spirit. And as the hours pass, the enormity of the moment becomes even more astounding. It was truly the best game I have ever seen, and the greatest moment in Slovak football history. No matter what happens in Slovakia’s showdown with the Netherlands, nothing can take away from the pure magic of the Miracle at Ellis Park.