If some thought the first week of the World Cup had taken a bit of time to get going, then the topsy-turvy nature of the second week certainly did its best to up for it.
The first side to be eliminated from the competition was Cameroon, who conspired to put on by far their best performance of the tournament against Denmark, yet still lost out 2-1. Two days later they were followed by the hosts South Africa, who despite an impressive 2-1 win over France, could not overturn the superior goal difference of Mexico. There was a worry that the dismal performance of Bafana Bafana in their second game against Uruguay might serve to dampen the spirit and enthusiasm the host nation had exhibited during the opening stages of the tournament. However, the nature of their final 2-1 victory over a sorry France side, seemed to reinvigorate their supporters and despite the disappointment of being the first host nation not to make the knock-out stage, their exit was a proud one, Steven Pienaar describing the victory as: “probably the biggest in the country’s history.” The opposite can be said about France, who seemed to be on a mission to disgrace themselves both on and off the field. Before the side had time to be eliminated, Nikolas Anelka was on his way home, after refusing to apologize to coach Raymond Domenech, soon the team were refusing to train and in a bizarre twist, stood on a side of a hill, the forlorn and farcical figure of the French coach read out a statement of the player’s grievances whilst his team squatted in the team bus. The whole sorry fair resonated darkly back home, where French sports minister Roselyne Bachelot referred to the actions of the players as: “a moral disaster.”
A slightly more half hearted attempt at revolt was made by John Terry, who suggested widespread player disaffection with the boot camp nature of Fabio Capello’s regime. However, none of his team-mates decided to support him in his attempted uprising and Capello managed to re-invigorate the England team for a narrow win over Slovenia introducing to the side, not Joe Cole, but James Milner and Jermaine Defoe. The USA’s last gasp winner against Algeria meant not only heartbreak for a brave Slovenia side, punching well above their weight, but usurped England in the so called “easy” side of the draw. This meant Terry and co. now face a tough tie with Germany on Sunday and that the winners of USA and Ghana will play the victors of Uruguay and South Korea, meaning a surprise semi-finalist is assured. Argentina maintained their 100% record in the tournament, struggling to overcome a spirited but nihilistic Greece side that gave a whole new meaning to the term backs to the wall.
It appeared that France’s early exit from South Africa would be the only heavyweight casualty, but then Italy – in probably the game of the tournament so far – were beaten 3-2 by Slovakia, a shock result by anyone’s standards. After being in a drawn in a group they really should have won with ease, the result dumped the World Champion’s out of the tournament and was the latest in a line of ignominious exits for the Azzurri: “shameful” was the ubiquitous word in the Italian sports papers the following morning. New Zealand had profited from the shambolic Italian team, by earning a hard fought 1-1 draw the previous Sunday, the greatest result in the nation’s football history, but the all whites failed to find the net against Paraguay in their final game, a goal that would have kept them in the tournament. One of the weeks more impressive displays was put on by Japan who in what was essentially a knock-out match against Denmark, put on a fine exhibition of attacking football, scoring two wonderful goals, scored and set up by Keisuke Honda, a player to watch out for. At the same time, Holland were plying on the misery to the unfortunate Cameroon side and ensuring that along with Argentina, they won their opening three games and for the most part with out their star man Arjen Robben. It will take a very good side to knock them out.
After Korea DPR had confounded expectation by only being beaten by one goal in their game with Brazil, and after an impressive opening against Portugal, they collapsed dramatically, conceding seven against a rampant Portuguese, who in scoring six goals in a half put down a clear marker that they are not to be underestimated in this tournament. Their tetchy 0-0 draw against Brazil ensured qualification but they now face the European Champions in phase two. Meanwhile, Chile won the hearts of many a neutral observer with their care free attacking approach, overcoming the conservative Swiss, but finding Spain a step too far. Thanks to a fairly predictable 0-0 scoreline in the game between Honduras and Switzerland, the Chileans progressed to the second round however and are rewarded with a second phase tie with Brazil, one of many mouth watering clashes coming up over the next week.