Okay, here’s the Group A scenario. France and South Africa, for obvious reasons, will be desperate to beat each other when they conclude their currently winless campaigns in Bloemfontein on June 22. They have only a point apiece to show for their efforts so far.
About 500 miles away in Rustenburg, Uruguay will play Mexico. Both have four points. And the bitter truth for 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up France and hosts South Africa is this: if the Americans play out a quiet goalless draw, it doesn’t matter who beats who at the Free State Stadium.
I tell you one group of neutrals who may have had smiling eyes last night as Mexico produced this nightmare scenario with a 2-0 win over France. The Irish. They were put out, as I might have mentioned before, by Thierry Henry’s outrageous handball which clinched the play-off in Paris last November.
And there he was in at a packed Peter Mokabe Stadium in freezing Polokwane yesterday, in his beanie hate, reduced to the role of spectator. A mere bench warmer, on a night when warmth was at a premium. Left to sit on his hands, as it were.
The Hand of Frog unable to alter this cruel state of affairs. The inquest into Raymond Domenech’s final weeks in charge will begin in the morning, with gusto. Laurent Blanc takes over Les Bleus after this World Cup and, from what we’ve been hearing, he can’t arrive too soon.
What was last night all about? The French, like many others, appeared to scared to hit their free-kicks with any va-va-voom because they keep ballooning over the bar. That’s understandable, a trend in a tournament when the infamous Jabulani leaves us without a single undeflected long-range goal.
But not to trouble the Mexican goalkeeper all night? Frightening, with a side full of millionaires. Mexico, a team of terriers, simply made them look like has-beens. Or never-weres. The Republic of Ireland could hardly have been worse. And we know what a craick their fans would have had over here.
Mexico deserved victory, if only for the sheer tempo at which they played this one. A sharper linesman might have called Javier Hernandez off-side when he broke clear in the 63rd minute to beat the goalkeeper and score.
But then Eric Abidal upended Pablo Berrera and the fussy Saudi Arabian referee Al Ghamdi gave the spot kick. Veteran sub Cuauhtemoc Blanco, with the longest run-up you’ve ever seen for a penalty, rammed it home.
Tottenham’s Giovanni Dos Santos, currently on loan at Turkey, was simply magnificent. Harry Redknapp must give the Mexican Billy Whizz another go. Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery flattered to deceive, unable to make anything work down the left for France. Chelsea’s Florent Malouda was invisible, Arsenal’s Abou Diabi absent.
Another fascinating night. An absorbing day seven. We’ve had 14 goals in four second round games after the dour opening clashes. This is how it’s going to be from now on. Life and death. Until, perhaps, the fateful game between Mexico and Uruguay. That may be drawn and quartered.
And now the French, like the hosts, must sweat until June 22. When even a win may not be enough.