On June 11th the world came to a standstill. The quadrennial extravaganza sparring the world’s 32 best football teams and exuding passion and irrational behavior from fans and players alike opened with the host country South Africa battling Mexico to a draw (1-1). If anything the kick-off validates the notion that world cup openers are boring since momentum, a sine qua none condition in any sport, has not yet been built. Without a doubt, this World Cup edition (FIFA South Africa 2010) will be mostly remembered for the buzzing and annoying sound of the vuvuzelas, whose staying power should be blamed on those who had the nerve to complain about them, and poor refereeing rather than the disappointing performances of some of the game’s powerhouses during the group stage. There isn’t any doubt euphoria and despair will continue to dominate the competition, but on July 11th the world will return to its normal pace.
From a technical point of view, the first round was dull but not without drama. Unknown quantities such as New Zealand and Slovakia got the better of universally feared and 2006 world champion Italy which finished at the bottom of what was considered the easiest group in the tournament. Only diehard Azzuri fans will miss this 2010 Italian team that was clearly uninspired and over the hill. More to the point, despite “La Marseillaise” exhorting its players to rally against the enemies, (a rather inappropriate lyric for the World Cup) France (2006 runner-up) lived up to its dysfunctional state with a draw with Uruguay (0-0) and two defeats against Mexico and South Africa, (2-0) and (2-1) respectively. The Irish who were cheated out of participating in the World Cup by Les Bleus in the most undignified manner (Thierry Henri’s infamous handball play) can now rightly claim that they were after all the best team. In the spirit of fair play, the French federation of Football (FFF) should apologize to its Irish counterpart.
Topping the list drama was the spectacular finish by Landon Donovan in supplementary time that catapulted the U.S to the next stage and first place in group C with a 1-0 victory in its match against Algeria. The goal, a true game-changer, deserves a prominent place in the annals of world cup history. After the more than deserving win against Algeria, the U.S unfortunately had to swallow a bitter pill three days later in a repeat of the 2006 group stage match that saw Ghana squashing its hope of advancing further. Team USA was defeated by Ghana 2-1 in its quest to reach the quarter finals in a hard fought battle that lasted 120 minutes. A cynic told me that Ghana’s share of U.S foreign aid in the coming fiscal year will be smaller as a result of what transpired on the 26th of June at the Royal Bafokeng stadium.
There is any doubt that Ivory Coast and New Zealand, both disqualified at the group stage, would have been great contenders in the knock out round but the lack of experience of the New Zealanders and determination from the Ivoirians did them in. As for Cameroun’s Indomitable Lions and Nigeria’s Super Eagles, many members of these two teams ought to be canned upon returning home for their mediocre performances that left many aghast at the unreliability of African teams.
This Friday July 2nd, the first quarterfinals take place with the Netherlands facing Brazil and Ghana battling Uruguay. On the 3rd, Argentina meets Germany in a derby that is arguably the most anticipated game to date while Paraguay faces Spain. This time around, history could be made since Ghana is expected to play a game worthy of the expectations of suffering fans yearning for an African World Cup victory. This may not be the year but the dream lives on.
Although many qualifying countries did not measure up to the knock out round, the competition has gotten better with one constant from the group stage remaining: bad refereeing. Germany-England and Argentina-Mexico match ups showed that this problem needs to be resolved in the most expeditious manner or the integrity of the game will be irreversibly damaged. An equalizer by England was ruled out by the referee and the Argentines’ first goal against Mexico was clearly off side. Those who say that the final scores, Germany-England (4-1) and Argentine-Mexico (3-1), underscore the irrelevancy of the bad calls are missing the point.
A referee’s bad call can have a devastating psychological effect on a team, depriving it of the will to fight on, since the players may think rightly or wrongly that the decks are stacked against them. Consequently many are advocating the use of technology (instant replay) that could help referees review a contested action before making the final call, but the guardians of the orthodoxy would not have it on the ground it may engender too many unnecessary challenges from a wronged side and delay the game which relies on momentum. Of course, any changes in the way football is played will be contentious as the advocated changes could fundamentally alter the rhythms of the game. Nonetheless how long can FIFA continue to ignore the valid complaints against bad refereeing in the name of orthodoxy?