The World's Blog: Day 12

Countries began playing their third match of group play today. Some are advancing through, others are done for tournament with another four years to dream. The World Cup's Day 12 was not nice to many nations.

South Africa 2, France 1


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With South Africa up 2-0 at halftime on a dispirited French team down to ten men, and Uruguay ahead of Mexico by a goal, I couldn't have begun writing a better fairy tale.

But then in the second half Bafana Bafana lost the plot.  When Mphele hit the post immediately after the break, missing a golden opportunity to set the dream in motion towards a 4-0 win, I felt a sense of resignation -- just like when he hit the post during injury time in the opening game, with a winning goal at his mercy. Shabalala's point-blank miss at the end of today's match pretty much summed up the offensive output by Bafana and most of the African teams.

South African fans were already skeptical of their team's chances entering the World Cup They're at least happy now to see the team they love -- but sometimes have little faith in --get a win and go down fighting after the Uruguay debacle left us all disillusioned . That could answer why there was a lack of urgency from Bafana Bafana, content to just seal a win against the 2006 finalists, who defeated them in their very first World Cup outing at France '98.  Not a bad accomplishment for a team which failed to even qualify for the African Nations Cup at the start of this year.

Still, all the vuvuzelas and waves of euphoria generated by the Rainbow Nation deserved a better fate on the field.

After the midweek coup d’état staged by the most senior and skilled members of Les Bleus, was there any question what today’s result would be?

Nevertheless, this reporter arose at 7 a.m. to watch my national team: the laughing stock of world football. Not surprisingly, from the opening whistle, sans Anelka of course, Les Blues seemed more focused on planning disguises to avoid an egging at Charles de Gaulle rather than playing football — even though qualification was still possible.

Gourcuff snuffed any dim hopes of such qualification with a blatant red card issued for a dangerous elbow. Hugo Lloris’s performance in goal was at best "un cauchemar," an absolute nightmare. What else could I, a diehard fanatic of Olympique de Marseille, expect from men who play for far inferior Girondins de Bordeaux and Olympique Lyonnais (add Alou Diarra, Govou, Réveillère, Planus, and the grey-haired Toulalan to that list).

Franck Ribéry, the ex-Marseillais, said it best yesterday : « J’ai honte. » Translation: I’m ashamed. But today, Ribéry and Malouda proved their worth even in the darkest of times, but every single other member of the team should echo Ribéry’s statement (snitching trainers and captain-not-so-fantastic Patrice Evra included).

As Nicolas Sarkozy and the French nation demand blood, at least I’ll take pleasure in knowing that the only club stupid enough to give Domenech another chance would be the Portland Timbers (probably the only way they could get even worse).

On this tragic day, I’m also hopeful for the future, and, in particular, for two compelling items. First — and I think I speak for every non-Irishman on the planet — Tommie Smith can finally shut his mouth and stop complaining about Henry’s handball (it’s getting as old as you are, Tommie). And second, Les Bleus trade off World Cups making it to the final and getting humiliated in the group stages. That’s why I’ll be putting my money on France come 2014.

Uruguay 1, Mexico 0

Phew! What a day! I was able to catch about 15 minutes of the Uruguay-Mexico game prior to making my way to Olympia for a meeting. Apparently, the prevalence of great world cup games is not considered as a factor when determining the scheduling of these events. However, I refrained from raising this as an issue realizing that my perspective was not likely to be shared by the others in attendance.

I avoided the score and returned home to watch the remainder, thankful for the DVR, and hoping for boring draw that would assure Uruguay's progression into the next round.

The first hint that the teams were not colluding to end the game in a draw came in the 35th minute. An arrant elbow had blood flowing from the eye of the Uruguayan Perez the way jokes about Blanco's weight cascaded from the lips of the commentators. For a second I thought Nate Jaqua's bandaged head was on the pitch.

One moment of brilliance separated these teams. Suarez finished his header, while his opponent did not. The ramifications could not be greater: Uruguay avoids Argentina, and instead play a beatable South Korean squad for a spot in the final eight.

It was a frustrating game…a real nail-bitter.   I felt confident during the first 20 minutes of the match but that confidence was soon shattered after El Tri conceded a goal to Uruguay.  To make thing worst our survival depended on the outcome of the France-South Africa game.  I knew that would be the case.  I had also expected South Africa to beat France because Bafana Bafana still had a chance to qualify. They just needed Uruguay or Mexico to lose.  It seemed everything was favoring a South African berth to the round of 16.  During our various and failed attempts to even our match, I found myself cheering for a French come back.   I was quite relieved when France scored a goal.  In the end, even after the defeat, we survived Group A.  I do not look forward to a rematch of the 2006 World Cup Round of 16.  I have sad memories of that match between Mexico and Argentina.   Mexico scored 2 goals while Argentina only scored one, except one of those goals, scored by Mexico, was an own goal.  I remember holding back tears.  We were so close.

Mexico has a chance to advance, if and only if, coach Aguirre can start our star goal keeper, Memo Ochoa, El Chicharito, Carlos Vela, and keep Blanco as a sub. 

Si se puede.

Argentina 2, Greece 0

Two days before his 23rd birthday, Lionel Messi took the field for the first time as Argentina's captain, leading a team that included seven different starters than those of their first two games. The Greeks' strategy was simple- suffocate the Argentines with defense and hope to score on a counter attack. With attackers so few and far between, it would be tough for La Albiceleste to score, yet it would only take a draw to win group B, and see the Argentines move on to the knockout round of the 2010 F.I.F.A. World Cup. 

While the white and sky blue stripes were absent, as Argentina donned their blue on blue kits, the passion and enthusiasm from players and fans alike remained. At the half the game remained scoreless, but a late offensive flurry saw Argentina take momentum into the second half, where they would eventually break through. Juan Sebastián Verón and Lionel Messi peppered the keeper with shots, both around and through the unflinching defense, but the Greek stopper was up to the task- until the 77th minute, when Martín DeMichelis' header was averted by Ángel di María back to his feet, which he finished into the roof of the net. Twelve minutes later Martín Palermo assured Argentina would sweep group B with nine points when he drove the ball into the lower right corner off of a rebound initially sent in by Lionel Messi. La Albiceleste could finally relax, and a nation of fans celebrated with unabated cheers, and a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Argentina now face Mexico in the knockout round, and must make sure their 3-0-0 record doesn't inflate their sense of belonging atop the overall World Cup standings. In the knockout stage of the tournament anything can happen, and one mistake or lapse in concentration can lead to an early exit. But as of now, Messi, Tevez, Higuaín and crew have a few days off, before they and the fifteen remaining teams scrap, claw, and tear at each other, all trying to earn their place atop the soccer world.

Any fan of soccer has to be able to appreciate the effort put in by the Greek side today. They were able to hold off the Argentine assault for the majority of the game, but the skill and creativity of the men in dark blue was simply too much.

On a side note, perhaps the most exciting part of the game was Maradona running around the sidelines like a madman. ESPN gave him as much airplay as they did the 22 men on the field, and in truth, for the majority of the game he was more entertaining to watch anyways.

As much as I wanted Greece to end up the victors today, it simply wasn't meant to be. As a friend of mine said so eloquently after the game, "The Gods have failed us, Mt. Olympus has tumbled, we are going home!"

 

Korea Republic 2, Nigeria 2

It wasn't a win for either team, both created a fantastic drama in World Cup today. With many African teams not doing well in South Africa, Nigeria needed this win and advance to the last 16 representing Africa.

This desperation motivated the Supereagles to score the first goal. Cha Du-Ri couldn't get to the ball first to clear it, then Kalu Uche easily tabbed the ball into the net. People in the restaurant suddenly became silent, then I could hear sighs and morns. What a disappointment it was. Now, it was the Koreans' turn to be in desperation, and the drama of Tiger chasing Eagle had begun.

During the rising action of the drama, both team started playing more aggressively and offensive resulting three yellow cards for Nigeria and a goal for Korea. Then, the drama reached to the climax or the turning point when Park Chu-Young scored a goal from a free kick. As the ball went around the wall and beat Enyearma, finally, the goddess of victory seemed to be in favor of Korea.

Although a careless foul from Kim Nam-Il results a penalty goal, Korea drew the match and advance to the 16. It wasn't a luck that made them to the 16, but it was the hard work and the effort from the whole team. It was a proud day to be a Korean.

Trailing by one goal in the second half of a must win game, Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni finds himself standing three feet in front of a completely open Korean net with the ball at his feet. The keeper is out of position. Nothing stands between the ball and the back of the net. This is the moment to grab the tiger by the throat and take command of Nigeria’s fate in Group B.

The resulting shot missed the entire goal. The ball doesn’t even clip the post. That encapsulates this World Cup for Nigeria. It almost seemed more difficult to fail than to succeed. All of the opportunities were right there in front of us if only we could capitalize on them. But instead, we found a way to muck it up.

Two very winnable games against Greece and South Korea both followed the same script. Take an early lead thanks to Kalu Uche (a great free kick against Greece and a wonderful finish against South Korea), and then give the game away with overly physical play that leads to questionable fouls and too many opportunities for the opponent. Both South Korean goals came on free kicks from dangerous areas. At some point, the Nigerian defenders need to adjust to a more tightly called game and tone down their play to limit those chances.

Nigeria never quite looked comfortable in this World Cup. They are naturally a tough, physical team that focuses on high-octane offense. During the group stage, they’ve become defensively minded (no doubt thanks to new coach, Lars Lagerback) and their physicality has been their undoing. Several times, a solid challenge from the 6’3”, 212 pound Danny Shittu, results in the smaller opponent being bounced to the ground and a free kick awarded. Not a dirty play from Nigeria. Not a dive from the other team. Just a size difference that kept creating extra chances for the opponent.

Even though our run came to this unfortunate end, there have been so many bright spots during this tournament. Kalu Uche has provided a consistent offensive spark, while Shittu has been stalwart in the back line. The best player has been the keeper, Vincent Enyeama, and that is very telling. His phenomenal play aside, something seems very wrong when your keeper is Man of the Match twice. He had been tested so many times over the last three games, and made so many eye popping saves, that I have to wonder if we were asking him to do too much.

Nigeria looked like a team that was trying to be something they’re not. A deep run was never in the cards while we weren’t playing our natural brand of football. Hopefully, Nigeria can get over this poor showing and rediscover their team identity. When that happens, this will be a team to watch, and the Super Eagles will fly high again.

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