Uruguay of course did not help anything, but the French fans had to bear in mind that they were not an unbeatable force. The supposed spat involving Les Bleus Coach Raymond Domenech and winger Florent Malouda started the downward spiral, and Nicolas Anelka’s half-time tirade leading up to a player revolt capped off what had gone down as a terrible week for French football. But beating the sleeping giants was just the tip of the iceberg as the hosts were only just in the competition mathematically, and only just. They needed a winner out of Uruguay and Mexico’s game, and with both teams only needing a single point to progress, it did not take a rocket scientist to work out that there probably would not be a goal-fest on show. But no matter how slim the chances, the hosts continued to back themselves leading up to their big games.
Perreira spoke about his side’s chances before the game, and although he ruled out throwing in the towel, it seems the reality of the situation had settled in: “Mathematically we do have a chance, if there is a winner between Uruguay and Mexico and we have also won our game against France then it will be possible. If we don’t qualify it won’t be a tragedy or we won’t be failures, but it will be sad and it will be a disappointment.” Whoever’s job it was to spell out the situation to the hosts nation however clearly had not told the thousands in attendance at the Free State stadium. Charged by the crowd, they took the lead on 21 minutes with Bongani Khumalo’s header from Siphiwe Tshabalala corner. Good news followed, as word travelled around that Uruguay had hit the bar over in Rustenburg. With both sides looking to avoid Argentina in the next round, the win Bafana needed looked more likely by the minute. Yoann Gourcuff was then controversially sent-off for a raised elbow, before Katlego Mphela eventually lived up to his reputation as a goal scorer to add a second. But something was still missing, up until news filtered out that Luis Suarez had taken the lead for Uruguay, sending the whole country into pandemonium. There was a buzz everywhere – not one news outlet could resist the urge to mention the goings-on at the tournament, and everyone was talking about the two-goal swing that needed to happen for Bafana Bafana to qualify. Sure enough, everyone switching on halfway in was to be let-down, and the proceedings endured a huge anti-climax. Domenech seemingly plucked up the courage to conduct a team talk, and sent on Florent Malouda in an attempt to salvage something from the game. Bafana Bafana hit the bar after Mphela was put clean, but eventually things started to click for the French, and Domenech’s move to bring on Thierry Henry had clearly influenced their play. Following an onslaught of the host’s goal, Malouda tapped in from close range – cue an eerie silence around the ground. As much as they tried, there was no undoing the bombshell that had been dropped by the Chelsea winger, and things stayed exactly the same, subsequently making history by knocking out a host at the first hurdle.
After the game the bodies of the SAFA (South Africa Football Association) decided wisely to focus on their feat of beating France for the first time rather than the bigger picture of their early exit. Addressing Bafana Bafana after the victory, South African President Jacob Zuma congratulated the players for their display of courage shown on the pitch: “You have made our country proud and the Nation is proud of your achievement. We have built a solid foundation for future tournaments, and you can count on the country’s support all the way.” There was always going to be a host nation that would not quite over-perform enough to make it to the last 16, and there is no doubt that the country on the whole have staged a great event. Bafana Bafana refused to go out without a bang, and for that they have won the hearts of the footballing world. As the camp slowly starts to disperse there of course will be murmurs about what could have been, but they can go back to their various clubs knowing that they have put on quite a show.