By Paul Gardner
Group A has finished all wrong, of course. It's been an unswerving rule of every World Cup that the host team always qualifies for the second round. South Africa should be celebrating right now. But it's out of the tournament after only three games, and I'm wondering who ever really believed that the South Africans were good enough?
In most of its warmup games the team looked frankly feeble almost amateurish. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira managed some cosmetic work immediately before the tournament and somehow conjured a string of 12 unbeaten games out of the team.
Maybe, then, the national fervor, the suffocating atmosphere of patriotic support could sweep the Bafana Bafana into the second round. But even that didn’t seem right. The statements from the players had an air of edginess to them, big words to fill a big gap where confidence should have been.
Even more disconcerting were the brief little TV interviews with fans -- I must have watched a score or so of those, and never did I have the feeling that these people were soccer fans. They seemed to know nothing of the sport at all -- merely to be answering a patriotic call to arms, to be rallying around the flag at a crucial moment.
That feeling of far-from-knowledgeable fans was in no way dispelled by the crowd shots during games. The South African fans certainly looked the part, were certainly wearing all the required paraphernalia -- but why were they always watching the huge screens in the stadium, waiting to see their own images, rather than watching the game?
As for the vuvuzelas, I will take a lot of convincing that a fan of soccer would consider the one-note monotonous noise made by blowing into a plastic tube is any way to show appreciation for the beauty, the emotion, the subtlety, and the sheer fascination of the sport.
In short, the feeling of a huge knowledgeable soccer community was not there. Now, this is the impression that I had -- it may well be wrong. It came, of course, from television. And television is much more interested in making things spectacular than in getting them right.
Groups of fans wearing outrageous get-ups and blowing the hell out of their vuvuzelas are going to get on TV. Is that all there was to it? I’d like to think there was a lot more.
But the FIFA-inspired overkill of publicity for South Africa and its team raised enormous, and enormously inflated, expectations. In 90 brutal minutes, Uruguay shot them all down. Reading the South African press the day after that debacle was a painful ordeal, because it was clear that most of the writers -- indeed, just about everyone -- had really believed that South Africa had a team good enough to take on anyone.
The reality, the sad reality, is that in soccer terms, in what happens on the field from now on, South Africa will not be missed. But the World Cup atmosphere will surely continue. The fans -- I’m not sure how to define them: Soccer fans? Bafana Bafana fans? World Cup fans? Party fans? -- were being prepared for the worst a week or so back. Evidently someone knew what was really going on. They were asked to find another team to support. A majority of those asked, or polled, fancied Brazil.
Which certainly is a sign of soccer maturity.
Exiting the tournament along with South Africa is France. A rather different scenario. Whereas South Africa can count on a huge sympathy vote, the French seem to have antagonized everyone, even their own government. What on earth was the French minister for health and sport, Roselyne Bachelot, doing in the French camp, delivering an address that sounded for all the world like Shakespeare’s Henry V King rallying his troops, “Once more unto the breech dear friends ...” Except that there were no dear friends here. Bachelot told the team it had “tarnished the image of France.”
After that helpful tirade, the French team went out and lost to South Africa, and suffered further humiliation when Yoann Gourcuff was red-carded. And of course, none of that was supposed to happen either. France, losing World Cup finalist just four years ago, was supposed to breeze through Group A.
Instead of South Africa and France, we get Uruguay and Mexico, the winners on the soccer field, and good winners at that. Uruguay has yet to concede a goal, but has also shown -- mostly through Diego Forlan -- formidable attacking skill, While Mexico has been one of the liveliest teams in the tournament so far.
Talking of lively teams, in Group B the winner was the Diego Maradona Show known as Argentina. This is a show I’d like to see run as long as possible ... right to the end, right to the moment when we see Diego and his Merry Men lifting the trophy.
Do I believe they can do it? Not really -- but I’m more convinced of its possibility than I was say, a couple of weeks ago. There is so much sheer soccer skill on this team, and most of it is attacking creative skill. Of course, the team is unbalanced -- but that is the attraction.
What a change this makes, what a massive relief from the defense-laden “well-organized” teams that daily manage to bore us to death! In all three of its games, Argentina has attacked relentlessly, with skill, imagination, flair, impudence and downright recklessness. Of course it’s madness, that’s not the way the modern game is played -- this is heresy!
Long may the heresy continue, it is wonderful to watch, joyous to behold. And above all there’s that small boyish 22-year-old, Lionel Messi, yesterday captaining Argentina for the first time.
He really does look unstoppable. He showed us, yet again, in yesterday’s game, that breathtaking maneuver of his, cutting in from the right, racing along the edge of the penalty, and then getting off a shot with his left foot -- not just any shot, but a violent on-target drive, the sort of shot that has brought him goal after goal.
Yesterday, he was at it again, moving suddenly, then quicker, then even quicker, always ahead of the flying feet of the threatening tackles, always gently prodding the ball just where he wants it until the moment arrives, the split second for the shot that the goalkeeper has been dreading ... this time Greek goalkeeper Alexandros Tzorvas batted the ball away, almost in self defense, but there was Martin Palermo to slam the rebound into the net.
Palermo? At 36 years the guy is nearly twice as old as captain Messi! And he was only on the field because of Maradona’s perversity, because his two assistant coaches told Maradona it was time to send on Gonzalo Higuain, so Maradona replied “Is that right? Then tell Martin he’s going on!”
Back to Messi. Yes, he can be stopped on those runs -- but only by fouling, I think. Messi will be fouled, of course and we must trust that the severity of the fouls does not increase with the importance of the games. For the moment, Messi represents a mortal threat to any opponent. If there is a reason to overlook Argentina’s defensive inadequacies and to start believing in the team, then it is Lionel Messi, a player who sows nervousness and panic into opponents simply by being anywhere near the ball. And while he’s unnerving opponents, he’s thrilling millions of soccer fans. We haven’t had a player like that for quite a while -- maybe not since Diego himself.