Shaqiri show seals Swiss progress
Three thoughts from Switzerland's 3-0 hammering of Honduras in their final game of Group E.
1. The tune of 'Shaqiri, Shaqiri, Shaqiri' drowns out Honduras
Built like a rugby player and just as ferocious with his kicking, Xherdan Shaqiri's tournament finally had liftoff on Wednesday night with a fine hat trick -- the 50th in World Cup history.
This was beauty and the beast, the sequel; Shaqiri's three strikes finishing off a rough Honduras side whose elimination will not be mourned.
Obdurate in South Africa four years ago and brutish at times in Brazil, Jorge Claros being penalised for a foul after six seconds into Honduras' match with Ecuador was a neat summary of their approach. But they had no answer to Shaqiri, a precocious talent whose wings have been clipped at Bayern Munich.
His first goal in Manaus was delectable, a thunderous effort that kissed the crossbar before sailing in. From power to poise, his second was tasty, too; the gloss a searing counter-attack deserved. The third summed up Switzerland's strength in breaking quickly, with Josip Drmic's fine run from Ricardo Rodriguez's pass culminating in a cool finish.
The 22-year-old Shaqiri has 12 goals in 36 caps for his country and a decision on his hands. It is clear he thrives in a system that affords him the responsibility he relishes, and that's something he simply won't get at Bayern. Strong, skillful and dynamic -- although underwhelming at the tournament before stealing the show here -- a move away from Pep Guardiola seems a safe bet. Liverpool are watching, and you can see why.
Carlo Costly's injury in the first half curtailed Honduras' endeavour and robbed journalists of punning on "a Costly error" but it's hard to sympathise with their plight when their ambitions barely extended beyond disruption.
2. Ottmar Hitzfeld in no mood to retire
At one point this summer, der General will bring the curtain down on a 31-year managerial career that includes 19 trophies -- but he is in no mood to walk away just yet.
Hitzfeld promised a victory before this match, and exactly four years to the day that Honduras wrecked Switzerland's World Cup in South Africa, he was true to his word. In a quirk of fate, this match was a repeat of the critical showdown in Bloemfontein back in 2010, where Switzerland were held to a 0-0 draw when they needed to win by two in order to progress. Revenge is sweet.
Shaqiri's treble adds a further glimmer to Hitzfeld's career, erasing the misery of 2010 in the process. A man who knows what he wants -- he turned down the chance to manage Manchester United in 2002 because he felt speaking German would hinder him -- Hitzfeld rejected a new contract from the Swiss ahead of the tournament.
The national team has flourished under his tutelage to the point where they were seeded in a group that included France, as well as reaching the heights of sixth in the FIFA rankings. He has developed a well-drilled Swiss side, who now face Argentina in the round of 16, although not even the great man can totally iron out their obvious defensive deficiencies.
Switzerland will now hope to reach the quarterfinals for the first time at the World Cup since they hosted the tournament in 1954, although this defence against Lionel Messi represents a red rag to a bull.
Regardless, Hitzfeld continues on his path and football is richer for his presence.
3. What next for the Arena Amazonia?
And so farewell to the Arena Amazonia, a $300 million white elephant of a stadium that defined the chaos in the lead-up to what has been a thrilling tournament so far.
An existing ground was torn down and three construction workers died for this one to play a part at the World Cup. In a nod to Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, tons of steel and heavy equipment were transported 800 miles up the Amazon to construct what one observer called the "world's most expensive bird toilet." And as the end credits roll on Arena Amazonia this summer, its future is uncertain.
More than 140,000 flocked through the doors to watch just four matches that were high on drama. Fears over the stifling heat and humidity (88 percent for this match) were fair, but ultimately the quality of the entertainment did not suffer. Mario Balotelli's England heart-breaker for Italy, Alex Song's moment of madness in elbowing Mario Madzukic while playing for Cameroon, the thrilling battle between the U.S. and Portugal and the Shaqiri show does not justify the serious problems encountered in the stadium's conception or its legacy, but they are gripping and notable footnotes in this wonderful World Cup.
But what happens now? Once the seats are cleared and the hubbub dies down, where do we go from here? One in four households does not have running water in the most populous city of Amazonas, once called the Paris of the Tropics. They now have an empty 41,000-seat stadium smack-bang in their city, too.