Soccer has no mercy.
Romanian Coach Anghel Iordanescu said it and who could argue? The game doesn't care who it strings along and who it uses up. Soccer gives no thought to expectations or hopes or promises. The game dashes all that. The game always wins, and it is only for one team to survive.
Sweden did that Sunday, defeating Romania, 5-4 on penalty kicks after regulation ended in a 1-1 tie and a 30-minute overtime ended 2-2. It was not a match that either team won so much as endured, Sweden all the more as it played a man short for the bulk of the overtime.
Sweden was rewarded for its perseverance and advances further than it has since 1958, when it lost to Brazil in the World Cup championship game. Sweden will play Brazil again, Wednesday at the Rose Bowl, in the semifinal. The teams will reprise their meeting from the first round, which ended in a 1-1 tie.
For Romania, too, the echoes resonate: It is the second consecutive World Cup in which the team was ousted on penalty kicks--the sport's cruelest solution.
"It was a heart-attack game," Iordanescu said, and, indeed, his team succumbed. Despite Sweden's obvious intention to never stop working, and the fact that Sweden scored first, Romanian players betrayed an arrogance that seemed to indicate that no matter the circumstances the team expected to win.
There were high expectations before the game that both teams would offer an attacking, creative show. However, a header by Sweden's Martin Dahlin that hit the post in the fourth minute was the sum total of either team's offensive production in the first half.
So unappealing was the play that the crowd of 81,715 in Stanford Stadium spent much of the first half perfecting the wave while Romania incessantly backpassed the ball from its midfield to its defense, until, finally, goalkeeper Florin Prunea gathered the ball and booted it forward.
Romania's much-vaunted counterattack never materialized as Sweden--which was reticent to attack--never offered the opportunity. Romania's puzzle: How to counterattack a team that doesn't attack?
Sweden had worked through a puzzle of its own, solving a tenacious Romanian defense. Swedish Coach Tommy Svensson said that during the week's closed practices the team drilled on the set play off a free kick that led to Sweden's first goal.
It was suggested by Tomas Brolin, who learned it from his Italian club team, Parma. Svensson liked the play and said he'd remember it. During Sunday's game, he reminded Brolin to try it.
It worked perfectly because Romania failed to cover its left side on the free kick. Sweden's Stefan Schwarz stood in front of the ball and pushed it to Hakan Mild. When Mild got the ball, Brolin broke toward the goal, around the wall of Romanian players, took a pass that left him alone against Prunea and scored.
That goal in the 79th minute might have been enough if not for Florin Raducioiu. He and Romania's other top offensive players, Gheorghe Hagi and Ilie Dumitrescu, had been thwarted by Sweden for most of the game. The trio teamed for Romania's tying goal off a free kick in the 89th minute.
Hagi slid the ball to Dumitrescu who gave it back to Hagi. Hagi's powerful left-footed shot ricocheted off Sweden's wall and Raducioiu picked it up and scored.
Raducioiu gave Romania the lead in overtime when the Swedes couldn't clear a ball near the top of the box. Raducioiu slammed his shot home in the 101st minute and Sweden was in trouble.
Romania's task should have been to sit on its lead, but to do that it would have been necessary to keep the ball. It didn't. Sweden stepped up its attack and the tireless Brolin appeared to be everywhere on the field, intent on winning the ball.
"When it was 2-1 for us and we had seven or eight more minutes, there were times when the players tried to keep the result as is, and probably exaggerated it," Iordanescu said. "That's why they made a mistake. What I asked for them in the last minutes of the game was to possess the ball."
Sweden struck quickly. Roland Nilsson lofted a high cross to Kennet Andersson. The 6-foot-4 forward was unchallenged in the penalty area and outjumped Prunea, heading the ball into the net virtually out of the goalkeeper's hands.
"All of their players just stood there like they were waiting for the goalkeeper to take it," Andersson. "They just stood there and watched."
What Romania saw was its hopes slipping and the inevitability of the dreaded penalty kick shootout.
It is an odd and dramatically different way to end a soccer match. As the players from both teams flopped on the grass to watch, five players from each team were designated to take the kick from the penalty spot, 12 yards from the goalkeeper.
Sweden went first and started badly. Mild's shot flew over the crossbar. After that, each player, in turn, made his shot until Dan Petrescu's shot was parried by Swedish goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli. Ravelli allowed himself a pump of his fist and Sweden had remained even at 3-3.
The score was 4-4 after five shots each and, in keeping with the game's mood, even the shootout went into sudden death.
Sweden's Henrik Larsson went first and his curling shot hit the back of the net.
Solemnly, Miodrag Belodedici walked forward to place the ball on the penalty spot and stepped back to face Ravelli. The Romanian hesitated, then strode forward, striking the ball sharply to the right. Ravelli had guessed as much and his diving save ended the game.
Maybe there was mercy on the day. The game was over.