Group A had it all – flamboyance, noise, tears, tantrums, history and, above all, drama. When the smoke had cleared it was jeers for the French, tears for the hosts, and joy for the representatives of the American sub-continent.
The opening ceremony introduced us to the world’s largest dung beetle, while the opening game that followed it was a feast for the senses as the passionate home fans got into party mode and the now-familiar blaring of the vuvuzelas got their inaugural World Cup airing. South
In the second round of games, however, the South Americans – so unambitious against the French – sprang into life against the host nation in Pretoria. Inspired by talisman Diego Forlan, Uruguay were rampant. They took the lead with a thumping 30-yard piledriver from the Atletico Madrid striker that was perhaps somewhat fortuitously deflected past Itumeleng Khune in the South African goal, and his expertly taken penalty 10 minutes from time – after Khune had been dismissed for bringing down Luis Suarez – killed the game off before Alvaro Pereira rubbed salt into South African wounds with a third in injury-time. The hosts looked bereft of the adrenaline that coursed through their opening game showing, particularly star player Steven Pienaar, on whose shoulders their hopes largely rested but who comprehensively failed to shine.
France, meanwhile, favourites to win the group, were in turmoil. Coach Raymond Domenench appears universally loathed by French players and fans alike, and it didn’t take long for dissension in the camp to become evident. Even prior to their arrival in South Africa, rumours had persisted of conflict and the unhappiness of certain senior players with the continued selection of Domenech’s perceived ‘pets’, Yoann Gourcuff and Sidney Govou. On the eve of the Uruguay game, Florent Malouda reportedly had to be separated from Domenech after a row escalated, and was dropped from the starting line-up. Things would only get worse for Les Bleus.
In their second match, France were put to the sword by a skilful Mexico team. The disorganised French offside trap was sprung by Manchester United prodigy Javier Hernandez, who coolly waltzed around Hugo Lloris to slot home. Eric Abidal’s clumsy challenge then led to the concession of a late second half penalty, and it was left to 37-year-old Cuauhtemoc Blanco, starring at his third World Cup finals, to make the game safe.
The following day, France striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home for verbally abusing Domenech, having been substituted at half-time against the North Americans, which led to the French team refusing to train on the following Sunday in protest. The Chelsea striker’s enforced departure even caused some players to suggest they would boycott the team’s final group game with South Africa. It was a low ebb for French football, with newspaper Le Parisien calling the players “the worst team at the World Cup… and the stupidest”, and French Sports Minister Roslyn Bachelot even claimed that the players had “tarnished the nation”. It was little surprise therefore, when Bafana Bafana raced into a two-goal lead while the demoralised French – who had seen Patrice Evra stripped of the captaincy and dropped prior to the game – were reduced to 10 men when Gourcuff was rather harshly sent off for an alleged elbow.
While the French were self-destructing in Bloemfontein, Uruguay and Mexico clashed in Rustenberg, each team knowing that a draw would suffice to put both sides through to the knockout phase. Mischievous theories – not exactly quashed by Uruguay Coach Oscar Tabarez – swirled that the latin nations would conspire to play out the necessary draw, as West Germany and Austria did so notoriously at Spain ’82. In the event, both teams set out to win the game, Mexico’s’s Andres Guardado thumped a 30-yard exocet against the underside of the crossbar before Luis Suarez, rated at £35m but enduring an underwhelming tournament until this point, rose to head home Edinson Cavani’s cross just before half time to give La Celeste the lead.
Ripples of excitement were felt in Bloemfontein as the news that Mexico were trailing filtered through to the home fans. Two more goals against the decrepit French would be enough to put Bafana Bafana through at the expense of the Central Americans. There was heartbreak however, when Malouda’s tap-in gave France a consolation and destroyed South African hopes of progressing on goal difference. The home team have to shoulder the ignominy of being the first host nation in World Cup history to fail to make it past the group stage. Also exiting the competition is a France team for whom a long rebuilding process surely awaits, as they lick their wounds from the disgrace and disarray they find themselves mired in.
Group winners Uruguay have so far justified their ‘dark horses’ mantle – they are yet to concede a goal and also possess three world-class strikers in Forlan, Suarez and Cavani. They will be confident of beating South Korea and heading to the Quarter-Finals. Also through are Mexico, unpredictable but never boring, but the challenge of Argentina in the Round of 16 will surely prove overwhelming. In what has been an eventful and controversial World Cup so far, no other group has proven as newsworthy as Group A thus far.
Group A Results
South Africa 1-1 Mexico
France 0-0 Uruguay
South Africa 0-3 Uruguay
France 0-2 Mexico
South Africa 2-1 France
Uruguay 1-0 Mexico