Spain's local supporters exhale as team overcomes Paraguay in thrilling finish.
Special to The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Spain's tense World Cup quarterfinal game against Paraguay left Lebanon's numerous supporters of the Spanish national team on the edge of their seat until the thrilling finish. The restaurants of Achrafieh's ABC mall were packed with soccer fans, the vast majority of whom wanted to see Spain progress on Saturday night, and get a chance to hoist the World Cup for the first time. Several dozen restaurants offered the games on brand new flat-screen televisions or projected it onto giant screens, as the available seats quickly disappeared prior to the kick-off.
The restaurant Waterlemon was the center of the action, with dozens of supporters brandishing Spanish flags, a few holding the now-notorious vuvuzela horns, and a table with staff from the Spanish Embassy, which included Spain's Ambassador to Lebanon Juan Carlos Gafo.
The ambassador said he thought Lebanon was a fantastic place to experience the World Cup, citing how intense the climate is and also how the Lebanese party and celebrate each victory.
"We have great potential; I hope we will win and be able to reach the level of play that let us beat Germany and win the Euro in 2008," he said.
Gafo wasn't the most vociferous fan during the game, but his diplomatic status didn't prevent him from sporting a Spanish flag, painted on his cheek.
La Furia Roja has a sizable amount of local supporters, albeit considerably behind Brazil or Germany.
For high school student Carl Farra, "Spain has the best players, best tactics, best style, and play the most beautiful football," which is why he's behind Spain for this World Cup. Spain's fan is growing in Lebanon, boosted by their 2008 European championship, and it's easy to find supporters of clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The game's opening was a signal for everyone to concentrate intently on the screens, while the owners of vuvuzelas re-created the atmosphere of the stadium in Johannesburg. A first half saw the Spanish side unable to control tournament upstarts Paraguay, which were attacking dangerously and defending well, and the tension mounted. Five minutes before the half, Paraguay's Nelson Valdez received a dangerous cross in Spain's penalty box and beat the keeper. A round of gasps filled the restaurant, followed by an offside call by the referee, and a second round, this time of sighs of relief. As the teams returned to their dressing rooms for half-time, the diners took advantage of the much-needed break to focus on their meals and discuss Spain's handling of the first half, as waiters bustled about.
"Spain can do better and they have to do better. If they win this game, they will go on to beat Germany," predicted Angela Moreno, a Spanish-Lebanese fan, ready with an instant history lesson: Spain is on course to top its greatest success, when it reached the semi-final in 1950.
Three penalty kicks and a goal meant the second half was even more dramatic. Shouts and yells greeted the referee's decision to grant Paraguay a penalty, followed by a tense silence as the kick was lined up.
When Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas managed to save the shot, the fans erupted with joy, waving flags and honking as though Spain had won the final, and moments later, another penalty was granted, this time to Spain.
Xabi Alonso took the penalty and netted, sparking a vuvuzela concert throughout the mall, but the celebration was premature. A moment of complete confusion resulted, as the referee ordered the penalty to be retaken due to players advancing into the box too soon. This prompted patrons to stare in disbelief, while a few teenagers gestured impolitely at the screen. When the second penalty was saved, the fans were certain that they had been cheated.
But David Villa's dramatic 83rd-minute goal sent the crowd into raptures and around 10 minutes later the fans began to ask for their checks, relieved at not having to deal with extra time and a possible penalty shootout.
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