19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
DAY 1 MUSINGS
- Group A - South Africa 1, Mexico 1
- Group A - France 0, Uruguay 0
Wow... I mean, freakin' WOW! The World Cup is once agian here, gracing us with its quadrennial spectacle. It is vuvuzela time, folks, as Africa gets its first opportunity to illuminate its passion for and unique flavor of soccer in the world's biggest single-sport spectacle. Thos ubiquitous horns, which were so controversial leading up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and derided bty many in the European press and on European teams during last summer's Confederations Cup, were out in full force for the first day of the month-long festival.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, on the side of the host nation's fans versus the establishment, said before the tournament, "We should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup." Despite the uproar from players and press, the international governing body listened to Blatter's sage advice. Thanks, Sepp... the vuvuzelas were out in full force, and it was the perfect accent to what is already shaping up to be a stirring tournament.
About the only thing that could put a damper on the opening-day pageantry was the absence of former South African president Nelson Mandela. The talismanic icon of the nation, known throughout the world for his steadfast fight against apartheid and his role in unifying the disparate peoples at the southern tip of the continent into a cohesive democracy, was in mourning for the loss of his great-granddaughter in a single-car accident the previous day. Despite all the work he contributed as one of the keystones that helped bring the first World Cup to Africa and specifically South Africa, Mandela in his absence showed us what is truly important. Wins bring us joy, losses yield sorrow, but nothing will ever be as painful as the loss of a loved one. There is a time to celebrate, and that time sadly was not Mandela's today...
Group A got everything started, as the host nation took on Mexico and 2006 runner-up France challenged two-time world champion Uruguay. It was supposed to be a day which determined the direction in which the four teams would split off between pretenders and contenders. But after the fans in Johannesburg and Cape Town were treated to two draws, the picture is more muddled than ever.
I know I certainly didn't expect that listless a performance from the visitors as they took on the hosts in the World Cup kickoff match. It wasn't even that it was listless... they had the run of play most of the match, and especially Giovani dos Santos had a great opportunity early to put El Tri in the pole position in the group. But it seemed that the CONCACAF dynamos never felt comfortable with all the home fans raucously cheering on Bafana Bafana. (Ask South Africa keeper Itumeleng Khune, though, and he'll tell you it sounded like a Mexico home match... guess those vuvuzelas weren't loud ENOUGH for at least one person.) Mexico managed to hold a large advantage in possession, but far too often it amounted to nothing worthwhile.
After neither side was able to get anything done before halftime, the two sides came back out for the second half and gave the scorekeeper some work. At first it looked like Carlos Vela had opened scoring for the Mexicans, but his shot was plucked out of the net by relieved goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune after Vela was ruled offsides. Was it offsides, though? There has been a furor over the goal... but indeed, the call stood and play resumed with the hosts getting the ball. Instead of Mexico taking the lead, it was the South Africans who crisply found their way downfield. Teko Modise found Siphiwe Tshabalala for the opener in the 55th minute, the striker coolly putting the ball past Mexico goalie Oscar Perez into the far corner of the net.
The South Africans would almost have another, but Katlego Mphela couldn't reach Tshabalala's cross into the goal area -- and it would prove costly by the end. Mexico hadn't stopped pressing forward; they just hadn't received their break yet. In the 79th minute, the luck turned as Rafael Marquez controlled a cross form Andres Guardado and killed the hopes of a home-team shocker in the opener. The match would end 1-1, each team splitting a point to get their group stage started off at least in the positive column.
A lot of people were disillusioned by France's draw with Uruguay, but unlike Mexico's disjointed performance I was expecting a less-than-impressive Gallic effort in the opener. This is hardly the French side we have known over the past decade. Gone is Zinedine Zidane, who tied together that midfield. Thierry Henry, the bane of Ireland's existence, is no longer a starter. It now feels like a team of eleven parts of a disassembled motor, lying around on a shop bench -- unable to do what it is meant to do simply because it is apart.
Oh, there were chances for sure -- Sidney Govou missed a sure score in the seventh minute when he pushed a cross from Franck Ribery wide of Uruguay's goal. Nicolas Anelka put a well-placed ball into the box over the crossbar with an errant header. Yoan Gourcuff struck a couple of balls that looked like they would challenge Uruguayan goalie Fernando Muslera, but in the end never made their way over the goal line. His last effort, punched clear by the Lazio keeper just before the whistle, was the last action of a goalless first half.
Diego Forlan, the dashing striker who has been one of Spain's premier club scorers with Atletico Madrid the past few years and stars alongside Ajax man Luis Suarez in the Uruguay attack, got his chances in both the first and the second half. A wicked shot on goal was swatted aside by a diving Hugo Lloris. Seven minutes after halftime, he controlled a pass off his chest but punched the Jabulani over the bar. Ten minutes or so later, he was crisply putting Pereira through on the right side, but nothing came of that either as Toulalan recovered to strip the ball. Just after that, Nicolas Lodeiro came into the game right before Forlan struck a free kick to the left of the goal right into Lloris' arms. Lodeiro would get booked immediately after. He had another chance right after Henry replaced Anelka for France, pushing a wicked volley set up by Suarez off a long throw-in just left of the goal. It would have been the defining strike of the day had it gone past Lloris and into the French net...
... but, alas, it would have to be Tshabalala's goal that would serve that purpose. Not even Diego Forlan could brighten what was a drab affair. Recently I have heard of Irish pubs in San Francisco and elsewhere which will pour pints for every patron in their joint whenever a team scores against France. Unfortunately all those barflies had to pay to slake their thirsts as they watched a dour scoreless draw to conclude the first day of the tournament. It was that off-pace start I'd anticipated for France, but it should have ended better than this given the sheer depth of talent for both sides. Maybe it was the vuvuzelas, or the heightened sense of pressure, or some other unseen factor, but neither side really looked like keeping it together enough to make the most of their chances. Young Nicolas Lodeiro, the first sub of the game who would last just 15 minutes before earning his way right out of the next match with a red card expulsion sent his way, was the personification of the immaturity of play in this match. Ultimately the passion was on far fuller display by the teams that would logically be hungrier -- after all, while everyone wants to win, Uruguay and France already have World Cups on their trophy case. Mexico has long underachieved, failing even in two tries on home soil (which is how both those other teams earned their first) to go past the quarterfinals in the tournament. And their opponent this week, the hosts this time, can keep dreaming after this group became a best-of-two performance of their chance to be the next France or Uruguay...