The 2010 World Cup got off to a pretty dreadful start as the opening 16 games of the first series of matches in Round One produced a measly 25 goals. 13 of the 32 teams failed to score and only two matches produced more than two goals. A few teams that would have been expected to make it to the later stages such as France, England, Italy and Spain all failed to win their first match. Even Brazil and Argentina only won by a goal against teams they were expected to push aside easily. The Netherlands and the unfancied South Koreans were two of only three teams to win by more than one goal, with Germany setting the early pace by thrashing the Socceroos 4-0. Things started to pick up slightly when New Zealand grabbed a last-gasp draw against Slovakia and then the Ivory Coast and Portugal played out a hard-fought scoreless draw. North Korea managed to keep Brazil at bay for nearly an hour before the South Americans scored two great goals and the Koreans grabbed a late consolation. But, the first big shock of the first round came when pre-tournament favourites Spain couldn’t find a way past Switzerland who had the audacity to score with a goal that will surely be a contender for the competition’s funniest score
Then the World Cup kicked into gear at the start of the second series of games in Round One. Uruguay and Argentina both won by three goals against South Africa and South Korea respectively, as Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuaín helped himself to the competition’s first hat-trick since 2002. Nigeria looked like they were cruising to a win against the Greeks when Sani Kaita got himself sent off after losing his head and has surely lost face back in Nigeria as well. Serbia also upset the odds by beating the Germans following Miroslav Klose’s sending off for two innocuous yellow cards from a trigger-happy Spanish referee. The increase in goals and incidents seemed to coincide with a deterioration in refereeing standards as the match officials at the next game ruled out a perfectly good US goal. That would have given the States a 3-2 lead in a game in which they looked dead and buried at half time when they were two-nil down. The USA had to settle for a share of the points with the Slovenians to go with their opening draw against England. England’s poor performance in that game was actually surpassed in mediocrity in their scoreless draw with Algeria. Algeria didn’t seem to have any desire to trouble David James in the England goal, but they defended well and found it a lot easier to hold onto possession and pass the ball to each other than the woeful English team. England still have a chance of getting through if they raise their game against Slovenia in their last game in the group
The best result of the tournament so far, to these Irish eyes anyway, was Mexico’s tour de force against the French. En route to the World Cup, France’s contretemps with Ireland in Paris and the main de Dieu by France’s enfant terrible Thierry Henry were still the main talking points du jour amongst Irish football fans and the media. Elsewhere, there was talk of France doing well in South Africa, but the Irish nation knew (and hoped) that the ancien régime was on its way out. The team that had been the créme de la créme of world football at the fin du siecle were now little more than charlatans. Little did we realise that France’s opening draw with Uruguay would be a mere apértif for what was to come in their dangerous liaison with Mexico. In their tête-à-tête with the host nation, Mexico also played out a draw in a game they should have won. It looked like it was going to be déjà vu in their game against the French as the first half failed to produce a goal. However, the adroit Mexican players seemed to have more of a rapport with each other than the French team did and they played with a lot more more panache and élan than the Europeans as well as a bit of joie de vivre and a certain je ne sais quoi
The Mexican manager proved to be more of an entrepeneur than his French couterpart and showed he was more au fait with tactics when he made two telling substitutions during the final half hour of the match. First, he brought on Javier Hernández Balcázar who landed the coup de foudre as he beat the offside trap and the lunge of the French goalie to add to France’s malaise with a fine finish. Then, the portly second sub, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, added the coup de grâce from the penalty spot after Pablo Barrera had been knocked on his derrière. Throughout the match, the gauche French had exhibited a laissez-faire attitude full of nonchalance and ennui that was best exemplified by the insouciant Raymond Domenech. The blasé manager didn’t even put up a façade as he leaned against the dugout following Mexico’s two goals. Domenech and the rest of his cortège would have been better off stretched across a chaise longue than sitting on the bench. Bereft of ideas, the team could find no way past the Mexican impasse and each of their attacks ended in a cul-de-sac. Mexico fully deserved their facile 2-0 victory and France’s dénouement in their final group game against the hosts seems to be a fait accompli as Mexico and Uruguay only need a point each to progress. I’m sure that Irish fans will take great pleasure in bidding the French team adieu and wishing them bon voyage back to France. We would also like to remind them that it is only a sport, after all, and leave them these bon mots: c’est la vie!