Tension was running high as the knockout stage started a day early, with the final day of preliminary group matches do-or-die for nine teams in the men’s competition.
Due to the shortened tournament schedule (no quarter-finals), only the winner of each group would progress to the knockout stage, and with Groups A, B and D to be decided by a single match, the pressure was firmly on the players, which lead to some excruciatingly close fixtures (with the exception of Brazil comfortably defeating Switzerland 7-4, to top Group A).
In the Battle for Group B, European powerhouses Spain and Italy contested a fiery match, with the Spaniards taking an early one goal lead after 90 seconds. However, they couldn’t shake the World No 4, who always kept themselves within striking distance, and after Alfio Luca Chiavaro (ITA) started getting under the skin of a few Spanish players, tensions were just high enough for Italy to strike, scoring three goals in four minutes, to steal victory 5-4.
Group D delivered another intense struggle, with Russian Federation and Japan trading goals for the first two periods. It looked all over, with Russia leading 5-4 with just over two minutes remaining, but Japan had one more trick up their sleeve, equalising through Naoya Matsuo, and forcing the match to extra-time.
The match looked to be going to penalties, until a late challenge from Japanese captain Ozu Moreira, gifted Russia a free kick and Artur Paporotnyi didn’t need a second invitation, putting Russia ahead with 38 seconds remaining. Ozu was visibly frustrated with the previous decision and after a Russian player was slow to handover the ball, his frustration boiled over and began pushing over any Russian nearby, basically rendering him useless for the remaining 20 seconds, allowing Russia to progress to the semi-finals 6-5 (a.e.t.).
While the equation was simple in other three groups, Group C was wide open, with Islamic Republic of Iran, Paraguay and Senegal all still in contention to progress to the semi-finals. The equation was simple for Iran, win in regulation and progress to the next round, if not, both Paraguay and Senegal would have a chance to move on.
Iran kept it very close against Paraguay, maintaining a one goal lead for most of the match. This one would also go down to the wire. After Senegal defeated Ukraine on the other field, they bolted over to catch the end of Iran v Paraguay, throwing their support behind the South Americans, knowing a victory to Paraguay would allow them to progress, but it was not meant to be, with Iran securing a close 5-4 win, all without their captain, Mohammad Ahmadzadeh, who went off with a leg injury early in the match and didn’t return.
Even with their sports secure for the semi-finals and today’s final group matches merely a formality, Spain, Brazil, Great Britain and Russian Federation looked to keep their winning form in the women’s competition.
After yesterday’s penalty shootout victory against Mexico, many would have expected Brazil to struggle against Spain, who easily disposed of Mexico 9-1 on the first day of competition.
However, the Brazilian women held their own against the European No 1, leading the Spaniards by one at the end of the second period. Spain went on a 4-0 run to end the match and claim victory, but Brazil not only proved they deserve their spot in tomorrow’s semi-final, but will be looking for a permanent spot atop the world stage.
Tomorrow, Tuesday 15 October, will be the semi-finals, with Brazil v Great Britain and Spain v Russia in the women’s division, and Russia v Iran and Brazil v Italy in the men’s.
Tournament goal tally is 336 goals.