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THE World Cup in Brazil is about to get a lot easier. For the hard-pressed non-football-loving spouses, abandoned kids, dogs… and sleep-deprived fans. But not for the players, of course.
With all 32 sides now two games in to their Group phase, we begin that four-eyed segment of the greatest footballing event on earth, with the third and final games played SIMULTANEOUSLY over four days.
And we even get a day off on Friday, a 24-hour breathing space before the remaining 16 nations begin the knock-out phase on Saturday, June 28.
For South Africans, deprived of Bafana Bafana thanks to a memorable own goal in Adis Ababa (and a whole lot of other stuff, but reports in Nigeria today suggest Steve Keshi is on his way, walking across the ocean), this tournament is about AFRICA.
After a first round which saw just one win (for Ivory Coast over Japan) and a draw (for Nigeria against lowly Iran) with three gut-wrenching defeats, things are looking up for the BIG FIVE who qualified through CAF’s tough-as-teak system.
As the only federation where group winners are forced to play-off, our five survivors have in some ways the toughest path to each World Cup, with 55 nations cut down to a mere handful.
And that toughness showed in the second round, with Ghana leading the way. Their 2-2 draw with FIFA’s No2 ranked team Germany is now regarded as the best game of Brazil 2014 so far. Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan did the scoring, but former Free State Stars defender Jonathan Mensah played a vital role too, as did Ghana’s goalkeeper Fatau Dauda, thrown in to the fray despite playing just twice for Orlando Pirates last season.
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With South Africans finally finding somebody to cheer for (even our referee Daniel Bennett dropped out after getting injured in Brazil) the African nations bounced back strongly. Nigeria saw off Bosnia 1-0 before Algeria crushed South Korea 4-2, sparking huge celebrations across the continent (and, no doubt, in North Korea).
The second round saw African nations win 2, draw 1 and lose 2. We shall not talk about the Cameroon too much. Shipping four goals, having Alex Song sent off and two players fighting on the pitch can be in NO WAY considered a critique of long-serving CAF president Issa Hayatou. Of course not.
Anyway, the upshot of it all is this: Nigeria have FOUR points; the Ivory Coast and Algeria have THREE points, Ghana have ONE point. They are all still alive. The first three go in to their final games in SECOND position in their groups, Ghana look unlikely to qualify after the epic USA 2-2 Portugal. Cameroon are out of it, but then so too are great nations like defending champions Spain, England, debutants Bosnia and erm… Australia.
But from a situation where it looked possible Africa would suffer their worst-ever World Cup, we now have a chance of seeing FOUR through to the last 16, where France are emerging as the form side, Netherlands and Germany look strong and ALL the South Americans are looking safe.
Oh, and there’s Costa Rica, with wins over former winners Italy and England. They could yet prove to be THE surprise package in a World Cup already full of shocks, comebacks (eight at the last count) goals and supersubs (15 replacements had scored at the last count).
We should, of course, consider the death of Ibrahim Toure in Manchester after losing his battle against cancer. The loss of the 28-year-old younger brother of Yaya, 31, and Kolo, 33, has put the Ivory Coast under a unique set of pressures. We can only wish the family well.
Africa now has a record of Played 10, won three, drawn two and lost five. Asia can offer only Played 8, won 0, drawn 3 and lost 5, their worst display since 1998. One more win and the CAF nations will have enjoyed their most successful World Cup in history. That in itself should give us SOMETHING to smile about.
SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on www.ballz.co.za with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.