World Cup 2010: A Round the World Trip
A Rainbow World Cup
October 10th 2009 was a date that was to be of great importance and significance within the calendar of the World Cup qualifying campaign. An arduous and long qualifying series had now come full circle; the penultimate gripping climax to a marathon process was nearing its end; some 2 years and four months later – eventually scheduled to be concluded on November 18, 2009. Now was the period in which the world’s elite could finally realise its ultimate goal of reaching Africa’s first World Cup of all time. Again there was to be 32 participating nations, South Africa being joined by five other African nations, plus 13 from Europe, five from South America, four from Asia, three from Concacaf and one from Oceania.
Some had already attained this goal, most had already fallen by the wayside, many were still in either a promising or precarious state with its position within the balance; wondering will it go there way or not?
Until now eleven nations had reached the holy grail of the finals the following year.
This was from the giants of world football Brazil, those wonderful and loved magicians, to the most secretive nation on earth North Korea, reappearing on the world stage after an absence of 44 years.
It could not have gotten any better for Brazil, qualification secured with 3 games to spare, within the backyard of its fiercest rivals Argentina; now managed by the GREATEST of them all Diego Maradona, whose own qualification was on a knife-threaded edge. This followed a campaign thwart with squad in-balances and indecision that bordered on the shambolic – however, they were still in the last of the automatic qualifying positions. Argentina were a group of players blessed with superstar individuals that in no way resembled any kind of competent nor coherent team, 78 players used in 15 qualifiers culminating in the indignation of a capitulation in the cloud city of La Paz 3,600 metres above sea level. The team had been criminally unprepared to combat the breathless heights at the top of the Bolivian capital. All had gone well until that fateful and calamitous day. It did not get any better, at altitude again in Quito; Tevez missed a penalty, the team lost its legs and succumbed 2-0. It had been a roller-coaster year under Diego Maradona, who had replaced Alfio Basile who quit after their defeat against Chile in the tenth game. With his appointment as national coach many felt his mere presence on the bench would be enough to drive the players to new heights.
Already seeing a decline in form the Argentine team in Rosario Central’s compact ground saw itself two goals down within just 25 minutes. It followed an all-out attack which left them exposed at the back – playing into Brazil’s hands – with two set-pieces converted by Luisao and Luis Fabiano. A thunderous left-footed strike from distance by Jesus Datolo looked momentarily like a salvation as Argentina saw temporary reprieve, this before Luis Fabiano expertly ended the contest with exceptional finishing by chipping over Andujar – mission accomplished as they beat Argentina 3-1 away for the first time in 14 years.
The only team ever present at the finals had reached its 19th World Cup series. Its coach and former winner Dunga was hoping to emulate a band of players that were double player-manager World Cup winners – Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto Parriera.
The current Brazil team was moulded within his own image, much to the great displeasure of many of his country’s inhabitants; being constantly within the spotlight with much debate on his future – press and public wanting his head, body and soul. There were the highlights as well as the debacles, described as possibly some of the lowest points in the nation’s proud history. None more so than three consecutive home non-goalscoring draws with Colombia, Argentina (fortunate not to lose) and humiliatingly Bolivia – who themselves had their moments defeating both Brazil (2-1) and Argentina (6-1). The defeat in La Paz had ended its 11-match winning streak in a 19 match unbeaten run in which defeat had been tasted merely once (up until the Bolivia loss) in the cauldron of Asuncion against the then rampant Paraguay, whose own qualification had since been confirmed – sealed with a win over Argentina – with 2 games to spare. Paraguayan government officials declared a national holiday. Coached by Gerardo Martino, Paraguay in an impressive first-half to the qualifying campaign had begun like a steam-train on fire building a commanding lead. Indeed, they ended the year 2008 6 points ahead of Brazil and threatened to not only be the runaway leaders of the section but the first qualifiers of these finals, bar the host – winning seven, drawing two of first 10 games. As well as the convincing defeat of Brazil, Uruguay and many others saw themselves conquered in one way or another. A slight blip occurred in early 2009 in which one point taken out of the possible 12 that saw their advantage eroded by Brazil, and a 2-0 home defeat to Biella’s Chile handed Dung’s team, who won 4-0 in Uruguay, the leadership. Normality was eventually restored despite an unimpressive 1-0 (Salvador Cabanas goal) home win over Bolivia ending their interest mathematically – setting up for a deciding clash with Argentina. Rediscovering their form would be bad news for lacklustre Argentina in Asuncion (four days after their mauling by Brazil) with a goal through Nelson Haedo Valdez to seal a damaging defeat for Diego’s boys; could have been more with Para hitting the woodwork twice, Messi a forlorn figure.
Having not qualified since France 98 Chile had the opportunity of becoming South America’s third qualifier. A surprising 2-2 home draw with Venezuela had postponed their virtually assured place as did a 4-2 defeat in Brazil. This was a section in which six out of the remaining eight nations had a realistic (some more than others) chance of reaching the promised land of South Africa. The table read, Chile 27, Ecuador 23, Argentina in the play-off position 22, Uruguay outside 21, level on points with Venezuela, aiming to reach a first ever finals. Right up to Colombia on 20 points, Chile’s opponents today in Medellin. The big game today was in Rosario Argentina-Peru. The visitors had lost six qualifiers in a row and had been at Argentina’s crossroads more than once; they were the team that caused heartache for the Argentine nation when they denied them the right to participate at the 70 finals, the last time Argentina failed to appear at a World Cup tournament. Its most famous clash had seen Peru capitulate, some say intentionally, at the 78 world finals. A Peruvian equaliser in 93 – against Paraguay – kept Argentina in contention for a place at the America finals of 94. Peru, non-participants at seven consecutive World Cups, the whipping boys at the very bottom on 10 points with just 2 wins and 10 defeats, aimed to be the party poopers and contribute to Diego Maradona’s end as manager of the national team. But still, a nervous and somewhat disjointed Argentina still looked on course for a straightforward routine win when Gonzalo Higuain fired the team ahead. Instead of galvanising the team it sent them into a shell leaving Peru to not only dominate, control and pile on the pressure but threaten to send Argentina closer to World Cup elimination – again. An equaliser on 90 minutes – amidst the downpour of driving rain – from Hernan Rengifo left Maradona, his followers and berators stunned into silence. With all hope seemingly lost, the contest approaching four minutes of injury time, 48th minute substitute Martin Palermo at close-range and unmarked saw his outstretched leg – within a goalmouth scramble – divert the ball into the net and send Maradona sliding across the rain-soaked surface. The goal elevated Palermo – recently back into the international fold after a 10 year absence – to the status of a saint. It reminded one of Argentina’s flirtation with elimination in 1985 when they snatched a late draw against Peru at River Plate’s Monumental stadium. Less than a year later they became world champions. Argentina got out of jail, their dream intact for now anyhow. Only 30 seconds had remained from possible elimination.
And then it was to third-placed Chile looking for the win over eighth placed Colombia, 7 points behind. A resounding win in Medellin, despite falling behind twice secured their finals berth. Super substitute Jorge Valdivia’s incredible effort led Chile to a 4-2 victory over Colombia and its first appearance in the World Cup since 1998 – ending its long wait for a reappearance. They had won more games than any other team in the section – 10 games. The result ended Colombia’s faint hopes, a play-off possibility now even beyond them. Venezuela, aiming for its own first World Cup appearance, saw its own slim opportunity of automatic qualification vanish following a 2-1 home defeat to Paraguay.
Two points separated fourth placed Ecuador and the sixth Uruguay, this as they paired off in Quito. A win for the home side would virtually seal qualification, at the very least a play-off face off with Concacaf opponents, likely to be Honduras or Costa Rica. It looked to be going accordingly when Manchester Utd’s new acquisition Antonio Valencia headed in from close-range on 69 minutes. The team were still celebrating when Uruguay equalised within a minute and with the contest looking to end in a stalemate, a swift break upfield led to a Uruguayan being upended for a penalty. This was one of two penalty claims, with a super cool Diego Forlan to crash the ball high and send Uruguay into at least a guaranteed play-off berth above Ecuador.
The final business of this group was set with three sides, Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador left in contention for automatic qualification. Venezuela, left with an outside chance of a play-off required defeats for both Ecuador and Uruguay as well as being left with the tumultuous task of defeating current South American champions Brazil on away territory; a goal swing in their favour somewhere in the region of 14-0. It looked a very improbable sequence of results.
Argentina themselves needed to avoid defeat in a daunting Montevideo finale while Ecuador required victory at all-ready qualified Chile, coupled with a stalemate in Uruguay. Argentina had handed Brazil and then Paraguay their tickets to South Africa, would Uruguay be a third? Maradona and his band of nervous troops looked to hold their nerve. It had been 2 years and a day since their last and only group win in Venezuela on October 17th 2007; they had suffered four straight away losses (Bolivia 6-1, Paraguay 1-0, Ecuador 2-0, Chile 1-0) conceding 10 scoring one.
Any Uruguay-Argentina contest would be an occasion in itself, but added with the spice of World Cup qualification this was something else. Nervy Argentina entered the Cencretarino stadium on tender hooks; a short journey across the River de Plata to Montevideo for the ‘battle of the river plate.’ History weighed heavily against them at a venue they had only scored a single goal since winning last in 1976, failing to even register, a point. Football held its breath as one of the greatest exponents battled for managerial survival – fighting to be spared of the ignominy.
In an amazing change of fortunes on its travels Argentina stood firm and counted as a performance of grit, full of spirit and resilience frustrated its hosts, surviving scares before striking a blow from Mario Bolatti in the 85th minute in what was a nerve shredded night. Argentina, against the tide of most predictions, had done it, surviving a turbulent campaign. Maradona wept and hugged his coaching staff and then insulted the media in a post-match news conference. The remaining fourth automatic place had now gone with a cluster of nations vying for the play-off final chance. A win for Ecuador in Chile would knock Uruguay out of the reckoning. Fortunately for them it was being played in Santiago and not Quito. Ecuador, finalists of the last two World Cups fell 1-0 to Humberto Suazo’s goal. He was the continents top scorer in this campaign with ten goals. Venezuela, despite possibly producing its best ever away performance by holding Brazil 0-0 for an historic result, withered out of contention. It had been the first time that Brazil had failed to beat their northern neighbours in 19 competitive internationals. In 2008 Brazil had suffered a black June with an historic defeat by Venezuela in a friendly. A 2-0 home defeat for Paraguay at the hands of Colombia was detrimental in an attempt to overtake Brazil in the final group standings. So Uruguay in the final equation went on to meet with the fourth-placed nation of the Concacaf region in what was a third consecutive play-off.
The tournament’s first qualifiers, excluding the host had come from the Asian zone. All entrants had been confirmed from way back.
Having qualified from the first stage 10-teams formed two groups of 5 teams. Asia’s most successful nation at the finals South Korea reappeared for their seventh consecutive finals. Under Dutchman Guus Hiddink, the energy, speed, enthusiasm, fitness of its players carried the team to a semi-final appearance in its own World Cup of 2002. Joining them would be its neighbours and fiercest rivals from the North. Both had finished in first and second positions respectively in a hotly contested final section. The two matches between the nations were equally tightly contested with only a single goal separating the teams over the home-away encounters. North Korea was forced to play their ‘home’ games against their southern neighbours in neutral Shanghai after plans to ban South Korea’s flags and national anthem caused uproar. The south remained undefeated throughout with its closest call in Iran; Park Ji Sung equalised seven minutes from time.
For hermit nation North Korea, it would go right to the wire (on goal difference) in a battle for second position with Saudi Arabia and Iran. A fantastic sturdy defensive display, a feature throughout the campaign shipping only five goals, kept the home side and the more fancied Saudi Arabia at bay in Riyadh; the draw sending Korea to Africa while Arabia were confined to a play-off with Bahrain, this for the right to meet Oceania winners New Zealand, in yet another play-off, this for the right to appear at the finals.
Bahrain, third-placed finishers of Group B, eventually overcame 4-times finalist Saudi Arabia in a dramatic finale in Riyadh. Having been held at home by their more illustrious neighbours Bahrain then found themselves behind in the second leg after the hosts retook the lead in the final minute through Hamad Al Montashari. Seemingly out Bahrain somehow equalised through Ishmael Latifin in the most dramatic fashion to scramble their way for an away goals victory. Their amazing run was to continue under Milan Macala – ending the Saudi’s record of four consecutive appearances at the finals leaving them to rue missed opportunities.
Group B would be dominated by the dominant forces of the region; new member from the Oceania region Australia – released at its own request from competing at the less competitive Oceania section – and the recent traditional powerhouse Japan the first qualifiers – both continuing its own personal duel from the highly charged finals match of 2006. After being neck-neck throughout the undefeated Aussies pulled away to claim top position, this was with the help of Japan’s own version of the bogeyman – Everton’s Tim Cahill. A further two goals added on from his two during duel in Germany 2006, would leave the Japanese stunned, in second place and Bahrain further in their wake.
Australia achieved a level of consistency and solidity by adopting a more defensive approach, a solid spine in the side that gave them a good platform for success. The disastrous Asian Cup in 2007 was the warning shot required to approach their first qualification campaign in their new confederation with the right mind-set.
And so to Bahrain-New Zealand…
The Oceanic nation’s one and only World Cup finals appearance in Spain 1982 is now folklore for followers of football in the country. No team travelled further or played more games than the ‘All Whites’ as they qualified following a gruelling campaign through Oceania and Asia, beating China 2-1 in neutral Singapore. A 5-2 defeat to Scotland in the first group game was a sign of things to come with 3-0 and 4-0 resounding defeats to USSR and Brazil to follow.
Its path up until now had been largely blocked by Australia, who had now vacated the region. New Zealand had an unblemished record in the weakest international football section. New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu would never be in contention in second stage confrontations, the Kiwis 8 points clears with 5 wins. New Zealand’s fine form continued all the way to Manama, a resolute performance shutting out a vibrant host that could still prove dangerous in the return, the Saudi’s would testify. Trailing 1-0 to a goal at half-time through Rory Fallon Bahrain had its chance to draw level with the award of a penalty in Auckland attended by 35,194 spectators in Wellington, the largest ever for a football match. A challenge the New Zealand keeper Mark Paston would be up to by making the save from Sayed Mohamed’s 50th minute kick, crucial in every sense of the word as New Zealand’s ‘all-whites’ after a 28 year absence from the finals were to re-appear again, Bahrain to suffer a second successive play-off defeat.
They were Africa’s last team standing at the 2006 finals and it would continue through to this campaign as The Black Stars of Ghana became the first African team to qualify, this for a second consecutive finals appearance. A routine victory weeks earlier over bottom-placed Sudan – tired from the effects of fasting during Ramadan – had given them an unassailable lead ahead of nearest challengers the Eagles of Mali whom they had defeated in June 2009 for a fourth consecutive win; defeat was not tasted until the Benin fixture of the decisive penultimate weekend.
Under Vahid Halihodzic Ivory Coast – the runaway 6-point leaders of Group E – required just the point at bottom placed Malawi. They could only be overtaken on goals difference so would therefore need to suffer two heavy defeats in Malawi and then at home to Guinea. It was never going happen, the Stallions of Burkina Faso’s 2-1 win over Guinea made little difference with Ivory Coast’s talisman Didier Drogba (6-goals in 5 games) two minutes after appearing as a substitute, to crash in an equalising goal that took the Ivorian’s to South Africa. This point followed four consecutive wins and 15 goals, crucial back-to-back wins over the nearest but not dearest Burkinas. Drogba pronounced that Ivory Coast would be gunning to be Africa’s first ever winners. Three-groups of the four-team sections were tightly contested with everything still to play for.
Group A had seen Cameroon rise from the ashes of elimination and experience a revival in fortunes – after gaining one point from their first two opening games – to virtual qualification, though second placed Gabon would surely push them all the way. Cameroon looked as though they would ease their way to South Africa after cruising through their opening African qualification group. Samuel Eto’o scored 6-goals in 6 games as boss Otto Pfister recorded 5 wins and just one draw – away to Tanzania – on their way to the third qualifying round. But they failed to maintain their form and it appeared their World Cup dream was over after a 1-0 away defeat to Togo and a home draw with Morocco in their opening 2 games. It had been the back-to-back successes over the original pace-setters Gabon that clawed Cameroon a point ahead with qualification now within their own hands; helped greatly by the scoring exploits of Samuel Eto’o. A 2-0 away success in Libreville and a following 2-1 home win within a four day period deposing the previous leaders. This was achieved with Frenchman Paul Le Guen at the helm, who had replaced German Otto Pfister. Victory at home to Togo’s Sparrow Hawks looked set to clinch its place. However, Gabon matched Cameroon’s victory with the 3-1 dismantation of Morocco – a team that had high hopes who could only muster a single win in five attempts that resulted in four losses. So it was left to the final group fixtures four days later, Cameroon travelled to Morocco, Gabon to Togo, themselves shock qualifiers of the 2006 finals. A new acquisition to English Premiership club Manchester City, Emmanuel Adebayor had promised to pay bonuses to teammates were they to prevent the hopes of Gabon, desperately requiring the victory in Lomé.. And so Adebayor would, the visitors seeing its faint hope of qualification extinguished with the single goal defeat. Cameroon could lose and still qualify, this they did not, running out comfortable 2-0 winners in Casablanca. Pierre Webo and Samuel Eto’o the new captain grabbed the goals as the final nail was dug in the most disappointing of campaigns for a Morocco team that had started with such high aspirations. Cameroon would appear at its sixth consecutive World Cup finals, a record unmatched for an African team. When they competed at their first World Cup finals in 1982, they became the fourth African country to do so after Morocco, Zaire and Tunisia. In 1990, they stole headlines around the globe with perhaps the most memorable display by an African team at the World Cup. After disappointingly missing out on the 2006 finals, Samuel Eto’o and co now had a chance to move out of the shadow of the 1990 side and write a new chapter in Cameroon’s World Cup history.
A dramatic final gasp equaliser in Abuja Nigeria by Oussama Darragi had put qualification firmly within the hands of Tunisia’s Eagles of Carthage; finalists of the last three World Cups in what was a second successive game drawn by the contestants. It had been a dagger in the stomach and looked set to deny Nigeria, just as Angola had crucially with a 1-1 draw way back in 2005. Indeed, Nigeria looked on its way out of contention as they moved into stoppage time still scoreless in the home tie with Mozambique again in Abuja. Simultaneously, Tunisia led bottom placed Kenya through a 6th minute goal through Issam Jomaa in Rades. As it stood, Tunisia would be uncatchable with Nigeria unable to overhaul a four point disadvantage with only a game remaining. Drama unfolded in the dying moments, three minutes into injury time as Victor Nsofor Obinna temporarily preserved Nigeria’s flimsy participation with a dramatic injury time winner. Despite this, Tunisia travelled to Mozambique in the following match looking to be in the most commanding of positions, Nigeria to visit Kenya. Without a playmaker in the mould of a J.J Okocha Nigeria looked a shadow of the teams of 96 and 98. Tunisia with 3 wins and two draws took the defensive approach in Mozambique while Nigeria saw themselves down within 15 minutes, Dennis Olieh the marksman as it looked to be going all wrong for Nigeria. However, two goals in a five minute second half spell turned things around, though Tunisia still on level terms were still in pole position. That position strengthened when Kenya drew level with its visitors. But then…
Two goals virtually simultaneously altered the course of the group on 83 minutes. While Obafemi Martins had scored his second goal to put Nigeria 3-2 ahead, defensive-minded Tunisia had fallen behind in Mozambique. Incredibly against all odds Nigeria was to be at the helm and there they would stay for an incredible turnaround. The Super Eagles had soared into the finals. A World Cup in Africa without Nigeria would never have been the same. The nation had been spared the debacle of 2005 when Angola had beaten them to the grail of an appearance in Germany.
Perhaps the biggest rivalry of all five groups came from Group C where 82, and 86 finalists and North Africans Algeria heatedly contested a place with arch-rivals and consecutive African champions Egypt, finalist of the World Cup last in 1990. Algeria had announced themselves with the 3-1 deposing of the current African champions who had started worryingly slow. In four matches Algeria had been only held once with Egypt crucially losing points in Rwanda. Algeria’s team was now under the guidance of Rabah Saadane returning to the side he led to the 86 finals in Mexico. The Algerian machine saw no respite with the convincing win over Rwanda – coming down from 1-0 down to win 3-1 – leaving stuttering Egypt requiring the difficult looking victory in Zambia. They accomplished this to preserve interest with their only shot on goal through Hosny Abd Rabo’s 68th minute winner and set up a final day explosive encounter that would not be for the faint-hearted. It was sure to be a memorable finale in the Egyptian capital in a repeat of their acrimonious 1989 qualifier for a place at Italia 90 nicknamed ‘death match’ Back then the first, in Constantine ended goalless, meaning like present, Egypt had to win in Cairo while Algeria – the dominant force then and aiming for a third consecutive finals – just needed the point. Hossam Hassan’s first-half header settled it in a match that is the very definition of do or die, a battle not a football match. Algerian players attacked Egyptian counterparts while an Egyptian doctor was injured by a broken bottle and Belloumi was accused. Only in 2009 was he cleared of the affair. The latest chapter would rekindle two decades of resentment, evoking memories of one of the most shameful episodes in recent footballing history; this time was to be no different.
Before even a ball had been kicked the fireworks had begun when violent clashes again shamed the Cairo contest as windows were smashed. The Algerian team bus was pelted by stones, bricks and then ambushed by Egyptian fans with 3 players, bloodied and scarred suffering injuries they would take to the football field. Algeria were furious with events before and after the match – rival fans fighting outside the stadium and at least 32 people (20 Algerians according to the Egyptian government) were injured following the game. In retaliation the next day Egyptian businesses were ransacked in Algeria as the situation threatened to boil over. Things got so bad that Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi had been called to broker a peace deal between the countries. With an atmosphere to shake the stadium to the ground Algeria trailed 1-0 to Amir Zaki’s early strike, however with the tie moving five minutes into injury time, the visitors looked on course for its first World Cup appearance since 1990 as the host looked to have failed in its bid to overhaul Algeria’s advantage. But the saviour would come in Emad Moteab with his goal, a looped header to spark national celebration – 30 seconds from the finishing line. Egypt had been spared and the bench stormed the pitch as the crowd exploded in disbelief, joy and in happiness, violence again followed. Having identical records the group was to be decided by an unprecedented African play-off in the neutral Sudan city of Khartoum. Egypt buoyant and confident faced Algeria, angry, in a state-of-shock, traumatised, victims of injustice but totally motivated and raring for revenge – and war. The feeling was mutual in a fixture that on occasions had brought grown men to tears at press conferences. Seven-crazy days had seen riots breaking out from Cairo to Marseilles. In one of the most bitter play-off’s in history, a strong presence of 15,000 police in a high security operation were on high alert for this grudge game – forming an unprecedented cordon across – in which there were fears of widespread bloodshed. Tens of thousands of fans from both countries (9,000 tickets each – 17,000 for Sudanese, largely sold on to visiting fans) were expected and poured into the Sudanese capital. Egypt sent planes and some intrepid fans even travelled overland through the desert, Algeria chartered 48 planes for fans. Federation heads refused to shake hands as rival fans were kept apart in the biggest international diplomatic incident sparked by a football match since the 1969 ‘soccer war’ between El Salvador-Honduras. It generated headlines around the globe. Even if Egypt won there was the threat of being banned as FIFA launched a probe into the affair. Egypt’s team complained their bus was attacked shortly after arrival, though no one was hurt. The Sudanese fans favoured Algeria, thanks to a dose off anti-Egypt feeling, and Egyptian support for Chad in a Chad-Sudan game held in Cairo in September 2008. It was a riotous play-off in a packed-stadium of 35,000 fans, the atmosphere electric the noise deafening. Algeria had the better of feisty first-half with the contest won by a thunderbolt volleyed strike in off the bar from the boot of a certain Antar Yahia – sending the Desert Foxes to South Africa and the current African Champs home empty-handed. Compared to the pre-match fears, the game passed with relatively little incident on the pitch.
On 4th December 2009, the wait was finally over. After the thrills and spills of qualifying around the globe, the group stage for the 2010 World Cup was made, in Cape Town, and as always had some interesting pairings. The event that had a worldwide TV audience of 200 million saw an address made by Nelson Mandela 91, while outside the international convention centre 31,000 soccer mad South Africans went wild when the draw was made and celebrated the start of the finals with a party on Long Street.
The World Cup draw went without a hitch, surviving even the awkward chemistry of its hosts, Oscar winner Charlize Theron, and FIFA’s president smoothie, general secretary Jerome Valcke. Wherever there were soccer glitterati, there’s sure to be David Beckham, and the iconic England veteran was on hand to help with the festivities. Beckham was hoping he’d be in South Africa the following summer, which wasn’t assured at this moment in time.
FIFA as expected used a tried and tested formula for its finals draw for South Africa 2010 – eight four-nation groups. However, the World Cup organising committee took the unprecedented step of basing the top eight seeds only on rankings for October 2009. The previous system coupled FIFA rankings with performances during November (or at the end of a qualifying campaign) to create a group of eight seeds that also includes the hosts. Had they done so, France, winners of 98 and finalist of 2006 would have ensured there position in pot one. Platini one of those that ruled on seedlings could not object to the new format; this given his public stance on fair play and knowing the controversial manner which Les Bleus had qualified. England were seeded because of an outstanding qualifying campaign while France had leapfrogged England in the November world rankings by virtue of a play-off win, yet FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke – a Frenchman – said why France should benefit by not qualifying automatically. Outrage in France, especially that of former French coach Michel Hidalgo who claimed it was retaliation, a sanction for the Thierry Henry handball – a move many agreed with following a blatant disregard of the rule book in the play-offs against Ireland. The rest of the draw was divided by confederation, with UEFA teams in their own pot; Africa (CAF) and the remaining South American teams (CONMEBOL) grouped together; and the final and fourth set of teams made up of qualifiers from Oceania, Asia (AFC) and North and Central America (CONCACAF).
All managers were present bar 49-year-old Diego Maradona, banned from all footballing activities by the FIFA disciplinary committee for two months for launching an expletive-filled rant/foul mouthed tirade of abuse when interviewed on the touchline (broad cast live on several television networks) at the end of the decisive qualifier in Uruguay. He later apologised showing remorse that saved him from a hefty ban that could have crossed over into matches at the finals. Diego Maradona was represented instead by the man who took charge of him at Mexico 86, Carlos Bilardo.
Everything was set for this to be one of the most memorable World Cups there has ever been, a celebration of the game and of humanity, not just a massive moneymaking exercise – FIFA increased prize money from 140 million in 2006 to a staggering 250 million.
A remarkable U-turn from FIFA delegates, that is still wrapped in bribery allegations, saw Nelson Mandela and co forced to wait another 4 years; South Africa had been fully expected to be the destination for the 2006 finals.
The draw was now set but plenty remained unknown, which is just as well as football fans needed something to fill the void until kick-off. A slew of questions awaited answers as well as what scenarios could unfold; which players will each team leave on, and off, the flight to South Africa? Which nations were so desperate for an upgrade that they will ditch the coach who helped them qualify? Which players will limp onto the injury list at domestic clubs around the world? This matter is of particular concern for the English, who prayed the curse of the broken metatarsal that weakened David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006 did not strike again.
The simple truth is, most football fans derived almost as much pleasure from talking about the game as they did watching it. Most will spend the days boisterously debating many of these issues, just as they will spend the nights dreaming of lashing in an unstoppable winner at the final in Soccer City stadium. Every player wanted to experience the special feeling of playing in the World Cup. It’s an amazing feeling to represent your country, and the tournament had so much history.
Now the countdown to June 11, 2010, had begun in earnest, when hosts South Africa will kick off against Mexico. In the words of Nelson Mandela from his video address at the draw: “Ke Nako! It’s time.”
The history of the South African football team, like the country itself, had been greatly affected by the system of apartheid. The enforced racial segregation of the country was hugely contentious and numerous attempts were made to suspend the national side from FIFA because the country’s constitution prohibited the fielding of racially mixed teams. But South Africa, along with Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, were one of the founding members of the Confederation of African Football and continued to escape expulsion because of a widespread reluctance for FIFA to become embroiled in political matters.
They were suspended from FIFA competition in 1966 but, after the violence of the Soweto uprising in 1976, a horrified FIFA finally expelled South Africa and the national team would not play again for 16 years. In 1991, as apartheid drew to a close, a new multi-racial South African Football Association was born and the new team played its first game against Cameroon in 1992, winning 1-0. Four years later, hosting and competing in their first African Nations Cup as a multi-racial side, Bafana Bafana lifted the trophy and were joined in celebration by an overjoyed Nelson Mandela.
As hosts South Africa qualified for the tournament automatically so they played a number of friendlies during the qualification series. They were also involved at the first stage of the African qualifying section; with a place at the 2010 African Nations Cup at stake, but finished 11 points adrift of Nigeria in the group, missing out on a place at the tournament. Bafana Bafana faced embarrassment for failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, finishing third in their qualification group behind Ghana and Congo DR, after having been named hosts of the 2010 tournament. It had been a tumultuous time for Bafana Bafana and, although they performed credibly and solidly at the Confederations Cup in a spirited campaign when they fought for one another, losing in the semi-finals to Brazil and the third place play-off to European Championship winners Spain by just a single goal – they continued to crash to defeat after defeat in friendlies, which eventually saw the sacking of boss Joel Santana and the re-appointment of former boss and experienced coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. The team looked solid defensively playing a very combative style but importantly lacked real punch upfield – missing the inclusion of Benni Mccarthy, at odd with the previous coach and was the country’s record goal-scorer and second most capped player, with 31 goals in 76 appearances. He scored at the 1998 and 2002 tournaments against Denmark and Spain respectively. After exiting the group stages at 1998 and 2002 finals, amassing one win over Slovenia in six, three draws, would it be third time lucky? Could they surprise a lot of people and make it out of the group stage?
Football in Africa had a particular place in the hearts of the people. African football was a giant that had been dormant too long – the globalisation of the club game has more or less levelled the playing field. By awarding the finals to a place so often casually used and abused the continent was getting something back. The championships would be an inspiration in itself for the teams from that continent to grasp the opportunity to perform to the best of its ability. A win by any African team wouldn’t change the realities of life on the continent such as aids, poverty and corruption, but provide a diversion. Familiar problems in the African game – financial disputes, shambolic organisation, and petty politics could be overcome. A fervent hope here was that this World Cup represented a key stage in the history of this country and the African continent. These finals had the potential to unite a billion souls in barren lands as it was more than about a series of football matches. It was about Africa taking centre stage and playing host to the biggest sporting event for the first time and the about the benefits the tournament should bring to the South African people. The local people would feel privileged and humbled that it had been given the singular honour of being the African host country. Its people learned the lessons of patience and endurance during their long struggle for freedom. For a proud nation it represented a magical moment for its people, the young democracy. Most of the fears about South Africa staging the tournament now began to diminish at last and all the stadiums were close to completion, some of which were spectacularly beautiful. Crime and security was an issue, but all the indications that the problems could have been exaggerated in European minds anyway and will be policed out of existence. The six African nations in the draw might have represented the continent’s largest contingent ever, but Africa’s teams received few favours. The two African nations most feared before the draw received the toughest love.
Group A would pit host country South Africa against two former champions France and Uruguay, with perennial qualifiers at the finals Mexico to round off a very competitive section. France and Mexico were no strangers, having squared off in 1930, 1954 and 1966. Uruguay had lost just once to France in five matches, who in its own finals had downed South Africa in its opening match of 1998 en route to the title. Interestingly, England in 1966 had come up against all of South Africa’s opponents. Bafana Bafana’s Group A match-ups was met with a mixed reception from South Africa fans; its team was regarded as the weakest of the continents six competitors, many outsiders feeling they looked strong candidates for becoming the first host nation to fail in progressing from the group stage. But then again they said the same about USA (94) and South Korea (2002), and look what happened there. The lowest-ranked side at the show-piece (most would say worst) needed every bit of its tremendous crowd support (with their vuvuzelas) and home advantage to rally them through. As the dominant footballing force in their region, it was rare for a World Cup to be without the Mexicans. However, they had a record of underachievement at the finals, and only in 1970 and 1986, on both occasions as hosts, have they gone beyond the second round, a quarter-finals appearance its best finish.
Argentina were the seeded nation of Group B and despite a campaign fraught with indecision, loss of form and unpredictability, as always were a team high on everybody’s lips as eventual winners. One parallel from the group draw was in a reunion from the section of 94 following a match up with old foes Nigeria and Greece; incidentally both defeated in games the current manager had participated and made an impression in – it had been the final fling for the nation and the world’s greatest ever player. South Korea, opponents of Argentina in its World Cup victory of 1986 made up the section. Diego Maradona played at his absolute peak scoring 5-goals and was the indisputable star of the Mexico 86 tournament.
For England – the seeded team of Group C – Christmas had come early. So you would think by what had been written in the English media following the draw that paired them alongside opposition that had brought its most painful and infamous day in World Cup memory; in what was its first tournament appearance in 1950 in Brazil against The then 500/1 ragtag part-time outsiders of the United States of American. It was one of the greatest upsets of all time in football history, USA against-all-odds to win 1-0 thanks to a 37th-minute goal from America’s Haitian born striker, Joe Gaetjens, (a part-time dishwasher by profession) against England, considered a world powerhouse. USA went into the match on a seven-game losing streak (by a combined score of 45-2) and it was said that readers in England assumed the score was 10-1 and there had been a misprint. Both sides failed to escape the group stage. Soccer had barely registered in 1950 on the American radar: only one US journalist witnessed the victory live and the team arrived home without fanfare, as anonymously as it had left. Though a clash with the US stoked up the hype, nostalgia, it’s most anticipated duel would be against North African opposition Algeria, down at sea-level in the picturesque setting of Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa. Slovenia made up the section that England believed they had already won without kicking a ball. Play-off wins for Slovenia and Algeria secured against Russia and Egypt respectively showed that neither should be underestimated.
Runners-up in 2002 and semi-finalists at home in 2006 Germany emerged from the draw as good favourites to proceed from Group D – grouped with three nations quite evenly matched with one another – from Africa, Europe and Asia. It could be a challenger for the “Group of death.” The draw to put together Chelsea teammates Michael Ballack and Michael Essien, and it was ugly when Ghana and Germany met for the only time in 1993, mind you, the Germans prevailed 6-1. Serbia, playing under the Yugoslav banner in 1998 proved far stronger and capable opposition for the Germans. And at the 2005 Confederations Cup, Australia played Germany, losing 4-3.
Netherlands World Cup history was surprisingly sparse considering their modern reputation. They had always promised much yet there is still the feeling that the Dutch have generally under-achieved in world football. European football’s first qualifier headed an intriguing Group E that included fellow Europeans Denmark, dynamic but often unpredictable Cameroon, and lastly but not least the Blue Samurai of Japan. For Holland a sigh of huge relief probably swept over the country when Denmark came out of the bowl and not Portugal. No less than three times this century the Portuguese hurdle has been too big to take for the Dutch team. Few expected Denmark, under long-standing coach Morten Olsen, to qualify for South Africa. But the Danes topped Portugal and Sweden for an automatic ticket and have avoided defeat against the Netherlands in five of their last six head-to-heads. Holland beat Japan 3-0 in a friendly recently, but they would not take that as too much of a barometer as the scoreline was flattering. Cameroon was very much the dark horse in this group with their performances in the World Cup ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes within days.
Reigning world champions Italy – seeded in Group F – looked to have got a helping hand in its attempt to retain a title they had unexpectedly won in 2006. A pairing with consistent but no frills Paraguay, first-timers Slovakia – finally emerged from the shadow of neighbours Czech Republic – and pure rank-outsiders New Zealand seemed to have answered the prayers of all those Italian. But amidst a shocking display at the Confederations Cup a year earlier and some less-than-convincing performances in qualifying would its opponents find comfort and solace. Its returning World Cup winning manager of 4 years earlier, a cigar-smoking Marcello Lippi, having achieved deity status was now a man under tremendous pressure. Still Italy were clear favourites, having gone 3-0 against New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia in their most recent meetings and outscoring them a combined 10-4. They always seemed to raise their game at the World Cup and played more tournament football than any other team winning the tournament on four occasions; with only Brazil, on five, winning more. Paraguay would be counting on strikers Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Valdez; Salvador Cabanas would have been among them had he not suffered an unimaginable misfortune. For New Zealand, the expected whipping boys, it’s a case of “happy to be here.” they were expected to finish this campaign the way they finished their last one in 1982, three defeats and perhaps a goal or two scored for the 77th-ranked Kiwis, who can at least take heart from a 4-3 friendly loss to an understrength Italy at the Confederations Cup.
Group G would be firmly cast as this summer’s “Group of Death” In 2002 it was England, Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria before Argentina, Serbia & Montenegro, Holland and Ivory Coast some 4 years later. Engulfed in this current battle would be Brazil, a terrific but not invincible team, Portugal, Ivory Coast and those unknown hardened fellows from the north of Korea. It was quiet a prospect that had fans of the beautiful game licking their lips. One hoped it’s more competitive than when Brazil-Portugal last battled, the South Americans to thump Portugal 6-2 in a friendly in November 2008 thanks to Luis Fabiano’s hat trick. The contest against the former metropole brings back unfond memories for Brazilians at the 1966 World Cup. On that occasion Eusebio defeated Pelé (3-1, the Black Panther scored twice); 44 years later Kaká had the chance to exact revenge over Cristiano Ronaldo. Three Brazilians would play for Portugal against their own country of birth: Chelsea’s Deco, Sporting de Lisbon’s Liedson and Real Madrid’s Pepe.
World football’s most impressive performer of recent times Spain – seeded in Group H – on paper looked the best bet to land the continents first title outside of the European hemisphere. By easing to its first championship victory in 44 years in 2008 they had finally rid themselves of being football’s greatest underachievers, and decades of acute disappointment. Spain had real aspirations of following in the footsteps of West Germany and France by holding both the World Cup and European Championship titles simultaneously. One of the more curious statistics in World Cup history was that, since their fourth-place finish in 1950, Spain had never come closer than the quarter-finals of football’s greatest competition. They qualified with a perfect qualifying record winning all 10 of its qualifiers, scoring 28 goals and conceding five so with football’s best current record not much was expected to stand in its way of progression from this first round stage, though clashes with Spanish speaking countries Chile and Honduras could prove competitive. Interestingly, on home soil some 28 years earlier Spain failed to defeat the plucky Central Americans who earned a well-deserved 1-1 draw. Amongst these three nations that had a language in common was Western Europe’s Switzerland, solid but unspectacular but had a 40 goals (in 71 appearances) striker Alexander Frei.
OUT IN AFRICA
June 11th 2010 could not have come soon enough and before we knew it Africa’s first World Cup had finally descended upon us. The wait had become unbearable, the anticipation overwhelming, the vibrancy in total evidence, whilst the tension had now reached fever pitch.
The vision was no more, the reality had hit the entire continent and South Africa; the dream had come true.
As with recent tradition as hosts The Rainbow Nation were to start festivities, for which one hoped was to become the start of the most memorable of extravaganzas.
The weight of expectation on the team was immense with the odds firmly stacked against them as they tried to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first host nation to fail at the first hurdle.
They certainly had the support of the watching world as most hoped that Concacaf kings Mexico would be swallowed up in a wave of national ferver and emotion within the gigantic arena of Johannesburg’s Soccer City. The visitors survived a near-nightmare qualifying campaign, as they struggled for stretches and needed three coaches in the process of making it to South Africa. The minimum requirement would be the habitual second round appearance; less desired, though, will be the usual exit at that stage.
The country had come to a standstill and 91,000 fans jam-packed into an already sold out arena while a worldwide audience of billions were swept off their feet by 3 hours of entertainment beforehand in an opening ceremony with dignitaries that included state president Jacob Zuma, FIFA’s own Sepp Blatter, though Nelson Mandela was absent due to personal reasons. Vibrancy flooded and swept all those around.
As for the football, Mexico, very much aiming to be party-poopers, did not heed to the world’s demands or wishes with the hosts, understandably under the weight of heavy expectation, being nervous, shaken and unable to find a foothold, and may well have been out of the contest by half-time. In what was a brighter and more entertaining game than most observers expected, South Africa dug deep and somehow managed to stay in the contest, largely thanks to the saves of Itu Khune from Dos Santos and Guillermo Franco and a correctly given offside against Vela – such was fluent Mexico’s superiority. And to compound things, after barely surviving, the hosts gradually a more confident outfit had the temerity to take an unlikely lead. A thunderous and rapturous drive from Siphiwe Tshabalala, racing onto a superb through ball, brought the roof off the Johannesburg’s super stadium and sent the world dancing into raptures.
South African tails were up, but Mexico proved to be a dangerous foe and unsurprisingly and rather deservedly drew themselves level through Rafael Marquez on 79 minutes. Even then the hosts could and should have snatched the game right at the death with only a deflection onto the frame of the post denying Ktlego Mphela who should have given the host and the most of the rest of the world for what they craved. But on reflection it was a fair scoreline in a game described by Mexico boss Javier Aguirre as the most important he had ever coached.
Next on the agenda was a Cape Town duel between two former Champs and group favourites Uruguay – solid if unspectacular – and a France team shunted by FIFA out of the seedings having got to the finals in controversial lucky circumstances which are now infamous. Its coach Domenech was under immense pressure and failure to get out of the groups would certainly cost him his job. He was undoubtedly the luckiest man in world football today and had long been a character that has strangely retained his job despite alienating French players, media and fans alike.
As had been the way during recent years, Uruguay had to suffer to reach their 11th World Cup finals, the nation to again need the play-offs to advance after finishing fifth in South America’s marathon qualifying campaign for a third time in succession.
Today’s contest was a repeat of their Group A clash of the 2002 finals, but it proved to be anything but in terms of being a spectacle, if not but a replica scoreline. Where the contest in Korea was a thunderous end-to-end bonanza, this Cape Town repeat was an anti-climactic drab bore of very limited chances created. France failed to make the breakthrough against a team reduced to 10-men after Nicolas Lodeiro became the first man dismissed in the tournament following a nasty challenge on Bacany Sagna.
South Korea the semi-finalists of its own World Cup in 2002 and aiming to proceed from the first round for only its second time in eight attempts, matched up in Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela stadium only two-thirds full, against Greece the dethroned unlikely European champions of 2004.
What was expected to be a heatedly, hard-to-predict contest turned out to be nothing more than a stroll in the park for the high-energy Koreans – bright, incisive and tenacious. The one-paced, dull and impotent Greeks were never in the game and were bowled over by goals from Lee Jung Soo and their workaholic captain Park Ji Sung.
Just a few hours later at Ellis Park the stage was set for the now undisputed baddest player on the planet Lionel Messi. Where the crown for this title had been in widespread dispute for most, overnight it became unanimously within his favour following a virtuoso one-man show against Arsenal in the Champions League.
Most predicted that he was set to follow in the footsteps of his manager, the greatest of them all as Argentina quickly showed their attacking intent. It was all Messi; linking well, roaming freely into space behind the strikers, rotating in a moving triangle, in what was all one-way traffic against Nigeria – proven to be just as unpredictable and erratic as their rivals. Having miraculously found saviour in Mozambique and qualified through the back door (on the final day) they produced substandard and disjointed performances at the African Nations Cup earlier in the year. The third-placed finish (that included defeats to Egypt and Ghana) could not stop the constant speculation and mounting pressure on its local erratic, home-grown manager Shaibu Amodu whose head was to roll. The same had happened after he had guided them to a third place finish in Mali 2002. The search for a new manager concluded with the appointment of Swede Lars Lagerback, ahead of compatriot Sven Goran Eriksson, Glenn Hoddle, and Bruno Metsu.
It could have been all over just after Gabriel Heinze, making a late run, laundered himself to power a header into the top corner on just 5 minutes. They could have had three goals in the opening 20 minutes as it was Argentina against Vincent Enyeama – a one-man show consistently denying the rampant South Americans with save after save, at least three world class ones. Nigeria, lacking belief and boldness, despite wasting a clear opportunity through Chinedu Obasi (twice) never deserved to get anything with Argentina worthy winners in a repeat scoreline of their Ibaragi encounter of 2002. In truth, the team has lacked the depth and quality of years past as they would have to show more cohesion in the following games than they have demonstrated of recent if they were to make any impact.
Steven Gerrard’s 4th minute opener, after darting through the heart of the USA defence before stabbing the ball past Tim Howard, looked to be putting England, backed by 20,000 fans in Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng, on its way to victory.
But they failed to capitalise as the US controlled the majority of the possession and came unstuck when goalkeeper Robert Green inexplicably miscued a virtual back-pass from Clint Dempsey’s left-footed shot that crept into the net. It was a boob to rank alongside the greatest and infamous of them all. The team never recovered and looked unlikely to regain its lead, puncturing all the pre-tournament hype and expectation as the English looked to repeat the same destructive cycle of rampant overconfidence, under performance and self-loathing they had displayed at the past three tournaments. The Three Lions looked almost invincible in qualifying under disciplined tactician and Italian boss Fabio Capello, scoring the most goals and appearing pretty tight at the back. A figurehead in the team for the last 14-years, David Beckham, due to a Achilles tendon rapture while playing for AC Milan was not to fulfil his dream of representing his country at a fourth World Cup finals. A draw was no more than the USA deserved after fighting back with spirit following the early setback.
Howlers were the name of the game with another soon to follow hot on the heels the very next day with Algeria’s Faouzi Chaouchi somehow allowing Slovenia’s Robert Koren’s speculative tame looking effort to bounce onto his chest before squirming into the net for the only goal of the match on 79 minutes. This in a game the 35 million populated Desert Foxes – who used the biennial African Nations event as a springboard to campaign – were well in despite being reduced to 10-men when substitute Abdelkader Ghezzal (already booked) was dismissed for handling the ball in the 73rd minute. It was a contest dominated by cautious defensive play as both midfields were packed in a game of few opportunities with Slovenia – ranked 33 on a global scale – gift wrapped their first ever World Cup victory.
One-zero scorelines were the order of the day with another to follow in Pretoria in what was the opening to group D. At third attempt was an African nation to finally gain its much coveted win, Serbia the victims. Serbia was a potential dark horse whose domination of a group containing France and Romania showed its mettle. A strong showing in 2006 had shown that Ghana had a powerful side that were always capable of providing an upset. But they would be without Michael Essien arguably one of the top two-way midfielders around, important for Chelsea, so it was a near disaster when it was made clear that an injury would force him out. A driving force in the middle of the park he led then debutantes Ghana to the second round in 2006.
A pretty average perhaps dour contest came to life in the final 20 minutes as Ghana became increasingly dangerous. The outstretched arm of substitute Zdravko Kuzmanovic punched away a left-wing-cross and presented the Ghanaians with a chance to steal it from the penalty spot with only five minutes remaining. Alexsandar Lukovic’s 74th minute dismissal for a second yellow card offence had already left the Serbs down to 10-men. Asamoah Gyan accepted, placing the ball well to send virtually the entire Loftus Versveld stadium – the heartland of South Africa’s Springbok Rugby team – into raptures and delight. He almost added a second, but screwed a stoppage time effort against the post.
Never write off the Germans’ was the old adage – and with good reason following a free-wheeling performance in Durban later in the day. A model of consistency and outstanding pedigree they sounded out an ominous warning to its rivals, not only from its group but for all participants. The ageing legs of Australia were certainly no match for a relatively young German players (their youngest World Cup team since 1934 with an average age of 25.4 years) led by the mercurial talent Mesut Ozil. They showed all the fluency, verve and freshness and clinically swept away their opponents by four goals for a sixth consecutive opening day win. Trailing to Lukas Poldolski’s 6th minute opener Australia did well to keep themselves in the contest until Tim Cahill’s unfortunate-unjustly 56th minute dismissal, a clumsy challenge that opened up the floodgates for decisive and slick Germany through Klose, Muller and sub Cacau. Having reached the quarter-finals in every tournament since 1982, it would take a brave man to predict that they would miss out in proceeding from the group stages. Back at the finals, the experienced Socceroos relied on almost the same players that took them to the second round in Germany 2006. Hiddink’s replacement Pim Verbeek was another Dutchman.
Group E’s opening encounter was a sea of orange and red at Johannesburg’s biggest arena, Holland pairing off with those Danes. A cagey, tense and nervy affair was brought to life when Simon Poulsen inadvertently conceded a luckless own goal at the start of the second period. The Dutch, largely dominating possession, comfortably went on to record a 2-0 win following a clinical second goal from Dirk Kuyt in the 85th minute. The 2-time World Cup finalists escaped the Group of Death in 2006, only to exit in the second round to Portugal in what was a tempestuous encounter. The Dutch then dazzled at the group stages of Euro 2008, crushing both Italy and France only to be ripped apart by an Andrei Arshavin inspired Russia team at the quarter-final stage.
Bloemfontein was the venue where Japan recorded an historic first ever victory outside of Asia/on foreign soil. On their own continent, Cameroon should have been one of the hardest sides to beat in this competition. Totally lacking any cohesion and quality or a sufficient attacking threat opponents Cameroon were a pale shadow of their former prowess, and did not pick up the tempo and rally until it was too late. They were a side evidently in the midst of internal conflict between coach Paul Le Guen and some players. The Japanese, quick and technical, alternating effectively between attacking and defending spells, who made several surprise choices to their line-up played without no recognised striker. Rarely did they even have to break sweat and held on relatively comfortably after taking a surprising lead just before half-time through Keisuke Honda – poking the ball in from close-range – after poor defending from the Africans. It was a pivotal win – for a side probably viewed by the others as the weakest – in that it guaranteed Japan stayed alive in the competition no matter the result against the Dutch. The side were to be without Hidetoshi Nakata who played in every match for Japan at their first three World Cups and the iconic midfielder helped bring Japanese football onto the world stage – later he lost his appetite and quit the sport. Everything now was in total contrast to what they had experienced pre-tournament when morale was at an all-time low, having come into the finals in total disarray. Coach Takeshi Okada had lofty ambitions and hoped his squad could venture into the semi-finals. After coach Ivica Osim suffered a stroke in late 2007, the Japanese FA handed the reins to Takeshi Okada, the man who guided the team through France 1998. A more mature Okada led Japan to a fairly straightforward qualification, although he came in for criticism at times from an increasingly demanding Japanese media for the team’s lack of goals. He had offered to step down in the aftermath of a friendly defeat by South Korea just days before departure.