Friday, 11 June 2010


Soccer City Johannesburg

The first ball was kicked in Johannesburg at 3pm this afternoon, and with it the predictions, speculation, press reports and build up were all given their cue to die down, and the vuvuzelas given their cue to sound at full volume as the agonising wait for the tournament to start was replaced by the instantly recognisable euphoria of the greatest sporting competition in the world.
South Africa, flying the flag for Africa as the continent’s first World Cup hosts, has opened its doors to the world and invited us all into their country for the next month, and their embracement of the world’s spotlight on their country can be seen and heard by their colourfully clad fans. The opening ceremony was a delight, and it was instantly obvious how proud Africa is to have this famous tournament on their home soil. Yes, the vuvuzelas are already driving me mad, but it is a sound that will become installed with our memories of this years event and we’re all hoping that there are some stunning goals and excellent football thrown into the mix as well. The stadia in Johannesburg and Cape Town are real triumphs, worthy of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ from Beijing and the euphoria from the fans in Soccer City joining in with Tshabalala’s excellent goal celebration was proof that Africa has truly embraced themselves as hosts of this world renowned celebration of football.

However, it is something of a myth that the football in the World Cup is a constant flurry of technical brilliance and craftsmanship, but the first match of the day certainly did something to wet our appetites for the other 63 games to come. South Africa and Mexico are two teams that most Europeans know very little about, and both were out to showcase their talents with the vibrant fans setting the tone for what we can expect in the tournament. The football played by both the sides was in this rhythm, and from an early stage both sides had shown strengths and weaknesses. South Africa played some good stuff around the middle of the park, nothing was in the air, and there was always a man to receive the ball. Teko Modise, who plays for South African top-division side Orlando Pirates, did well in negating Marquez in the centre of the park, and Pienaar and Tshabalala (the goalscorer) created some good moves, and their goalkeeper saved them numerous times. Their problems were two-fold, firstly their strikers couldn’t hit the proverbial barn door, and the defence were less organised than the tills in Primark. Mexico’s goal was a prime example of this. Mexico’s strikers were equally as woeful, yet their wingers constantly drove past the African full backs and for the first half hour the ball was constantly in Itumeleng Khune’s penalty box. It was clear the Mexican players were more confident under-pressure and that more of them play at a higher standard than the African team, who mostly play in their own country’s Premier League (a standard between the English Championship and the top of League One). Carlos Vela and Giovanni Dos Santos combined their youthful exuberance with veterans like Salcido and Blanco. South Africa took the lead with a wonder goal that has already set the bar for the tournament. A furious strike from Siphiwe Tshabalala, who plays for The Kaizer Chiefs, crashed into the top right, flying past veteran Perez in goal. A moment that the player, and South African will remember, and for a period after this South Africa enjoyed a period of dominance. Mexico’s determination and technical superiority eventually saw an excellent cross fall at the feet of Marquez with only a goalkeeper in front of him, and having made the most of some dyer South African defending, slotted the ball in to tie the game.

A great opening to the world cup which saw passion, determination and exuberance in abundance was followed by ninety minutes of absolute dross.

I’ve said already that not every game is a spectacle, and the Uruguay V France will probably be remembered for being the worst World Cup game of all time. France, a team in decline since the victories of 1998 and 2000 looked uninterested, uninspiring and even some of the best players in world football sent viewers to sleep quicker than a five hour journey across the channel. Only the constant sound of the vuvuzelas made you remember that you were watching the world cup, other than what could have been a boring end of season friendly for fun. Uruguay, to their credit, attacked the French as much as they could, but the partnership between the two strikers, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez failed to stick and neither of them really got the support from the midfield four who got bogged down with the French midfielders. Anelka was invisible, Sydney Govou might as well have stayed in France and then world-renowned cheat Thierry Henry came on and showed why his career is in a sharp decline. At one point he even had the nerve to claim handball against a Uruguayan player. The uninspiring, bored attitude shown by the French players seemed to be infectious, to such an extent that the Uruguay sub, Lodeiro, decided that to save his sanity, the best cause of action would be to hack Bakari Sagna down. After 20 minutes on the pitch he was so bored that the thought of a warm bath and an early night but have been spectacular. Uruguay will go away with a point and will probably be happy after hanging on for the last 10 minutes with 10 men.

Hopefully this game will be an aberration on the rest of the World Cup which looks to be on course to be a spectacle. It’s fair to say that we can keep on ignoring the French as us Brits love to do, and keep our eyes on Africa, a country that we still know very little about. They are relishing the spectacle, and look to be the most humble of hosts, and the World Cup, regardless of how their team do, has the potential to change their country, and the world’s perception of it for the future…