A vibrant, colourful opening ceremony – featuring amongst other things a giant dung beetle pushing an oversized football – preceded the main event, and then against the fevered buzz of thousands of vuvuzuela horns, South Africa got the football underway as they contested the opening game against Mexico. It is difficult to remember a host nation so unfancied, but this message seemed not to have reached Bafana Bafana as they took the lead in the first half. It was not quite the romantic story that most were beginning to anticipate, as ten minutes before the end of the game, Rafael Marquez grabbed an equalizer, earning his side a point. However, the moment of the day was undoubtedly Siphiwe Tshabalala’s scintillating strike, a fitting goal to open the World Cup and one that was not only celebrated by over 80 000 fans inside Johannesburg’s Soccer City Stadium and by thousands more on giant screens outside, but maybe by an entire continent.
It was soon clear that this World Cup was going to generate an unprecedented amount of excitement and enthusiasm across the host nation. The vast and impressively designed new stadiums were mostly full as the South African public extended a warm welcome to the other 31 nations present at the tournament. The games were played in front of large crowds creating a noisy atmosphere, thanks in no small part to a certain controversial, small plastic and deceptively ear-splitting horn. With overriding sentiments of generosity and excitement abounding, it wasn’t until about day three until some began to mention quietly that the football itself wasn’t that good. The early games were mostly cagey affairs played by similarly minded teams, seemingly desperate not to lose their opening game of the tournament. Argentina, largely thanks to Lionel Messi, had a go at playing exciting football and a mention must go to Korea Republic who put on a coherent showing against a very poor Greece side. However, the first round of games were very much defensive, hardworking and technically efficient sides cancelling each other out. That was until the Germans turned up.
Die Mannschaft seemed to have added flair and invention to their usual armoury of hard work and resilience and were a joy to watch in their opening game, playing scintillating football, becoming the first side to score more than one goal in a half, putting four past a hapless Australia team. Their invention was largely down to Mesut Ozil, a player who had impressed domestically, but will have been a new name to many. Their subsequent 1-0 defeat to Serbia was a surprise result, largely down to some disastrous officiating, something that the World Cup has mostly managed to avoid. However, as Miroslav Klose and amongst others, Tim Cahill, know only too well, there are exceptions to this rule.
Despite the unusual sights, sounds and in the case of Slovenia, shirts, it was almost reassuring to find that certain World Cup continuities remain. Italy got off to their usual slow start, labouring against a dogged Paraguay side, going a goal down before playing like, well, world champions, for twenty minutes and saving a point. As mentioned above, Germany once again proved that they should not be written off, but were subsequently written off again. On the other side of that coin and despite a European Championship under their belts, Spain yet again failed to impress on the World Cup as Switzerland pulled off one of the biggest World Cup shocks of all time. A hyped up England turned up, backed by the usual fanfare of patriotism and optimism, yet struggled to complete even basic passes at times in their opener against the United States , much to the chagrin of Franz Beckenbauer and then failed to live up to expectation by even their own high standards against Algeria. A concerning phenomenon was the performances of the African teams in the competition. The impressive Ghana remain the only African team to win a game, with Cameroon, an undisciplined Nigeria and particularly the hosts South Africa underperforming.
The beginning of the second round of games brought a dramatic sea-change in the standard of football on offer. Teams forgot about avoiding defeat alone, and decided to go for it. Uruguay put on an outstanding display and with the help of Diego Forlan took apart the hosts. Virtuosity abounded as Argentina thrilled against Korea Republic, Diego Maradona animating the touchline like no other coach at this World Cup. The surprise results kept coming. Mexico convincingly beating a France team that did not seem to want to be there, Serbia were reinvigorated with their defeat of Germany – even Greece managed to get in on the act, coming from behind to beat Nigeria . The goalkeeping errors began to rack up as an almost universally despised new Jabulani ball continued to cause mayhem. Dramatic games came thick and fast, including the United States pulling back a two goal deficit against the greatly unfancied, but impressive Slovenia who now lead Group C. Curiously, not one team lost their first two matches, meaning nobody joined Robbie Earle in being assured of an early plane home from South Africa. After a slow start, the