Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Brazil nuts and Dutch oranges. Plenty to nibble on before Friday's quarter-final

So Brazilian nuts or Dutch oranges. Plenty to nibble at before Port Elizabeth on Friday. In theory, South Africa 2010’s first quarter-final will be about Dutch “total football” versus Brazil’s “beautiful game”.

But hold on a minute. Both sides are under pressure from the critics at home to stick to their traditional flowing style. The touch of pragmatism that Bert van Marwijk and Dunga have brought to their sides has been a vital part of getting to the last eight.

Van Marwijk says: "We are here for one reason. To win the big prize. We have to believe it. Against Brazil, perhaps we might be the underdogs for the first time in South Africa.

“People laughed at us when we said we were capable of winning the World Cup. But you have to show a real mentality, a constant focus. I think we are showing that."

Lively Lambertus, 58, knows the Dutch have never won “the big prize”, though they reached the final in Germany 74 and Argentina 74. The Brazilians have won five global crowns on four continents – Asia, North America, Europe and at home – and appear destined to win Africa’s first World Cup.

Officially, Holland are the fourth best side in the world. Brazil, in case you’ve been camping in the Antarctic, are the best side in the world.

Head-to-head, it’s surprisingly close. Holland have won two, Brazil three and they’ve fought out four draws in nine games, with the Dutch scoring 13 and Brazil 14.

This is no flowery Brazil side. In rock-hard centre-back Lucio and goal-scoring full-back Maicon, they offer to of the best defenders in the world. Up front we all know about Kaka, Robinho and the rest.

But Holland boast Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and a fit-again Arjen Robben, three of Europe’s form players.

Robben made his first start in the last 16 clash win over Slovakia and scored after 18 minutes. He said: "It was a great feeling to start this game. I think it was also good to feel important for this team. I am not yet at my top level but I was pretty confident."

But despite their fourth consecutive triumph at this World Cup and a record-breaking run of 23 unbeaten games, Dutch experts decried their lack of style and panache. Robben growled: "It was a difficult match. We didn't play our best game but, at the end of the day, it's all about winning.

"I hope we will save our best match for our next game. We want to improve. We know what people have said in the past, that we play well but we don't get to the end. Against Slovakia we were efficient."

Months ago, when I booked my tickets for this tournament, I was lucky enough to get a posh seat for game 57, the quarter-final at the brand new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, before I head off to talk at the National Arts Festival in nearby Grahamstown. I can hardly wait.

With all four quarter-finals featuring clashes against Latin American opposition, the final word from Dunga, the man who has added grit to the Brazilian flair. He says: "We have already said we are trying to play the open football which everyone wants to see. The players did well and we got forward a lot in our 3-0 win over Chile.

“We know the Netherlands are a very difficult team to beat and they are very able technically, they play their football like South Americans.”

At this World Cup, with Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina also through to the last eight, that might be the only way to play.

Neal Collins is in South Africa to marvel at the South Americans, mourn England... and promote his first novel A GAME APART, the real story behind this World Cup. For more information see

To see him talk at the National Arts Festival on July 4, go to

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Free the Famous Five! England were pants, they deserved to have their underwear knicked!

Thulane Fortunate Mongake, 26, Ernest Zimisile Klaas, 28, Basimane Levy Njielane, 34, Catherine Motsilanyane, 26, and Thapelo Joseph Senne, 21, my new World Cup heroes.

Bafana Bafana may have been squeezed out of the tournament early but these are the five brave South Africans from Phokeng, the less-than-plush township near Rustenburg, who rifled through the underwear of the England squad at the neighbouring more-than-plush Royal Marang hotel.

Thulane, Ernest, Basimane, Catherine and Thapelo were on the cleaning staff of the brand new hotel. While England were getting their knickers in a twist and plunging out of the World Cup in disgrace, our Famous Five chose to find a few souvenirs of England’s all-too-brief stay in South Africa.

Apparently they also took R485 in cash. That’s about £42. It wasn’t really money they were after. It was the glorious array of boxer shorts and briefs, designer labels with a value of R80,000 (about £7,800). And who can blame them? In this country, you’re lucky if you can afford a pair of stained y-fronts in many areas.

Apparently the England squad didn’t find out about the theft for four days. With the weight of a man refererring to the purloining of masterpieces from the National Gallery, North West Police Colonel Junior Metsi intoned solemnly: “They started on June 21 and stole things until June 25.”

England’s £100,000-a-week stars – playing the worst football we saw from any of the 32 nations between those dates - didn’t even miss their underwear for four days. The cleaners were arrested, the items were returned, the players were able to come home in their pants. But they couldn’t cover their arses.

The Famous Five were tried and condemned to three years in jail or a fine of R6,000 (£600). I am tempted to set up a “Free the Five” fund. Instantly.

My God, they risked everything rifling through the underwear of such jocks as John Terry and Ashley Cole. Don’t they know what these people are like? Why didn’t they steal their football boots? Or Robert ‘Phokeng’ Green’s gloves? That might have been for the greater good of the game. Okay, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter has apologised for Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the 4-1 defeat against Germany but it was hardly a closely contested game.

England flew home to absolutely no adoring fans. Coach Fabio Capello is fighting for his job. Wayne Rooney as gone from the new Pele to the old Pele. Green international career is over. Who is Gareth Barry? They were a disgrace. They deserved to lose their underwear. It’s not as if they can’t afford it. They should lose more than that. Over 30,000 England fans spent around £5,000 each coming out to see their pathetic efforts.

Then there’s the case of Simon Wright, the Sunday Mirror journalist arrested for hiding Pavlos Joseph, the England fan who appeared in the Green Point dressing room to provide an impromptu verdict on Fabio Capello’s men.

Heroes all. For highlighting the performance of our over-paid footballing gods. Pants, as the English expression goes.

Neal Collins is in South Africa to marvel at the South Americans, mourn England... and promote his first novel A GAME APART, the real story behind this World Cup. For more information see

Monday, 28 June 2010

Holland 2 Slovakia 1... who will pick the Oranges now they're through to the last eight?

AH the Dutch. So clinical, so perfect, so bloody Orange.

Four games, four wins, seven goals for, two against—and through they go to a quarterfinal against Brazil in Port Elizabeth on July 2.

Dunga's dynamos have to favourites after their emphatic 3-0 win over Chile tonight but with Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder clicking, these Dutch could yet drive Brazil nuts.

Robben, proving he’s completely recovered from a dodgy hamstring, made his first start, and scored the opener after just 18 minutes. Sneijder played him in, and his low shot from 25 yards was pretty unstoppable.

With courageous Slovakia trying to find an equaliser, Sneijder clinched it seven minutes from time by slotting home Dirk Kuyt’s pull-back.

Robert Vittek was left to score a penalty with the very last kick of the match, but that was it from Slovakia, playing in their first World Cup finals since Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

It’s not like the Dutch aren’t in good form. They were unbeaten in qualifying, and are currently on a record-run of 23 games unbeaten.

Just twice Slovakia threatened to upset the orange apple cart in front of 62,000 at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium. Maarten Stekelenburg was needed to tip over a Miroslav Stoch effort, and then he was called in to action from close range to deny Vittek.

Strange then that the ever-increasing orange army here are complaining about their form. Though England, France, and Italy would give anything to be in the last eight, the Dutch feel their side lacks flair.

They have never won the World Cup before, but there is a hankering after the “total football” of the sides that reached the finals in Germany '74 and Argentina '78.

Still, with Sneijder, Robben, and Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie beginning to fire, this could yet be a uniquely orange World Cup.

For an inside look at Soccer City, the World Cup final venue, see action from last night’s Argentina win over Mexico:

Neal Collins is in South Africa to marvel at the South Americans, mourn England... and promote his first novel A GAME APART, the real story behind this World Cup. For more information see

Out of Africa: An Englishman's lament as the World Cup dream lies shattered

IT has taken me fully 24 hours to recover from the gut-wrenching pain of England’s awful surrender at this World Cup. My shoulders are slumped, my typing fingers heavy with a sense of loss. I’m just starting my first whisky and coke as Holland go 1-0 up against Slovakia.

Throughout the build-up to this tournament, I clung on to two firmly-held beliefs.

The first was that South Africa will defy the critics and host the best global showdown imaginable. The second was that England would be a real threat and could end 44 years of hope by lifting the trophy for the first time since 1966.

I have been proved gloriously right on the first count. And horrendously wrong on the second.

Their 4-1 defeat at the hand of Germany’s young, vibrant outfit is not eased by Frank Lampard’s goal being ruled out when it clearly crossed the line as it come down off the crossbar, just like Geoff Hurst’s might have in 1966.

By then it might have been 4-1 to the Germans. Obviously an equaliser at that point might have lifted England, but only for ten minutes.

In truth, this entire World Cup has seen England produce the most drab, passionless football of all the 32 nations who gathered for Africa’s first global shoot-out.

When England got rid of Sven Goran Eriksson four years ago, I said repeatedly on Sky News and elsewhere that we would look back on a golden era of three major quarter-finals when the Swede was banished. Home-grown Steve McClaren proved a serious mistake as we failed to even get to Spain 2008.

But we all had high hopes when Fabio Capello’s iron fist was eased into England’s silk glove. And qualification was near-perfect. But then, after a long, Chelsea -dominated season, England arrived in South Africa and the cracks began to appear.

John Terry’s unhappiness at that infamous press conference last Sunday was the only public outburst. But with so many players facing turmoil in their personal lives and an utter lack of form in those opening draws against the US and Algeria, we continued to believe.

Me and 30,000 other travelling England fans. To see those dreams so convincingly shattered by the dreaded Germans was a little too much to take. I met one small knot of supporters in Johannesburg after Argentina’s 3-1 triumph over Mexico at Soccer City. In one day, they had made the pilgrimage to Bloemfontein, a three hour drive south. Their exhausted faces said it all.

To witness Terry allowing the ball to bounce for Miroslav Klose’s opening goal – he muscled past Matthew Upson to score direct from a goal kick – was just the first blow of so many. Gareth Barry’s pathetic effort to cover the third goal showed he either never really recovered from injury or he just doesn’t care.

It’s tempting to suggest none of them really care. It often looked that way here, as they emerged from their luxurious Bafokeng Sports Campus training base to shock us with their lack of oomph. While it has cost so many Three Lions fans upwards of £5,000 to get here, these £100,000-a-week amateurs seem far more driven by their Premier League paymasters than by Capello’s leaden fist.

I have no solutions to the England malaise. Perhaps Terry, Lampard, the woeful Wayne Rooney and stand-in captain Steve Gerrard simply look good in the mud and guts of club football because they are surrounded by foreign quality.

Perhaps all of them have such serious problems in their private lives that they can’t raise themselves to play for their nation.

It’s easy to suggest too that England, fielding a side so much older than the Germans, stuck to their “Golden Generation” for too long, much like Italy and France, who surrendered even before we did.

It matters not which set of excuses you use. From my lofty perch, they didn’t look passionate or committed. They didn’t look talented or tough. They were simply pathetic, to the point where I began to wish I was Algerian. Or even North Korean.

And on that note we shall leave the Three Lions to lick their wounds. And get on and enjoy the rest of this fabulous tournament, having seen my dream route to glory prematurely terminated. It is too painful to pick at the corpse of English football any longer. Rest In Peace.

And if anybody really thinks Roy Hodgson, my old coach, can succeed where Capello failed, they’d best think again. I shall be supporting Portugal. And hope they make me proud.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The eternal neighbours: Spain v Portugal, Ronaldo v Torres, Cape Town, Tuesday. Their first ever World Cup showdown

Spain and Portugal. Eternal neighbours. They share 754 miles of Iberian border and still squabble over the area between the Caia and Cuncos rivers, an argument going back to 1801. And that was before anybody had heard of Eusebio.

Statistically, Spain – a nation of 45,555,716 people and 194,883 square miles - are the big brother. Portugal offer a population 10,622,413 with an area of 35,500 square miles. But on Tuesday at 8.30pm local time, it comes down to 11 men each fighting it out on an area of less than two acres bordered entirely by the brand new Green Point Stadium, boasting an expected population of 66,000.

We can reduce it still further. Cape Town, as always in a World Cup showdown of this calibre, will be focused on the goalden couple. Cristiano Ronaldo, the most expensive man in world football when he moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid last summer, and Fernando Torres, who used to have the nicest hair in world football before his current cadet crop.

Ronaldo, emerging unscathed from a shin-shuddering clash with Brazil captain Lucio in Durban last Friday, has been voted Man of the Match three times in three games at South Africa 2010 – but managed just one of Portugal’s seven Group G goals. He admits: “Three or four players have deserved those awards more than me. I do not enjoy playing as a lone striker up front, but the coach knows what he’s doing.

“The most important thing about the draw with Brazil is that we have qualified for the next stage. We would like to have topped the group but a draw was a fair result, that’s about it.

“We don’t fear anybody. The team has full confidence of performing well. Spain are a great side but if we perform well then we can knock them out of the World Cup.

“I am confident of providing more to this team and we will try to win against whoever comes. It has been our dream to win the World Cup and right now we are on the right path.”

Spain appear less confident. Torres, allegedly unsettled at Liverpool and still recovering from a knee operation, has been playing second fiddle to David Villa and Andres Iniesta so far. He says: “Personally speaking, I am very happy to have played but we need to practice a bit more with this (ultra-light) Jabulani because we are having a bit of bother with it.

"We have managed to turn things around after the opening defeat against Switzerland. If we go down we will do so remaining true to our ideas. We mustn't go crazy and start changing things, but retain our confidence in our qualities.

"We're not going to start playing a long ball game or being cagey and staying back. That is not the Spanish way."

Incredibly, the Iberians have never met in the World Cup finals before. And neither of these great footballing nations has ever won the beautiful game’s greatest prize.

Spain, the reigning European champions, have reached the quarter-finals five times – in 1934, at home in 1982, 1986, 1994 and 2002, when they went out controversially to hosts South Korea on penalties.

Portuguese people of around my age believe they should have won it in 1966 when they offered Eusébio – born in South Africa’s neighbour Mocambique - José Torres, Mário Coluna and António Simões. Again, they were stopped by the hosts, England, in the semi-final at Wembley when a balding lad called Bobby Charlton scored both goals.

Since then? Seven times they’ve failed to qualify, twice they failed to emerge from their group – but in Germany four years ago they finished fourth with winking Ronaldo inspiring that epic quarter-final win over England.

Something has to give. Spain are ranked second by FIFA coming into this World Cup, and they edged out Chile to top Group H with six points despite a nervous opening defeat against Sepp Blatter’s Switzerland. Portugal, ranked third, also suffered a nervous opening – 0-0 against the Ivory Coast – but bounced back with a 7-0 hammering of North Korea before that awful Friday night stale-mate against Brazil in Durban.

Ronaldo, the former darling of the Stretford End before his £80m move to the Bernebeu, is backed by household names like Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Bruno Alves and Pepe. Portugal also have an ex-pat South African population of over a million behind them here.

Liverpool’s former Atletico Madrid star Torres can rely on an even stronger playing cast, Xavi, David Villa, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Iker Casillas – plus a growing following of locals.

All we can hope for is that the Iberian neighbours don’t reproduce Friday night’s fare, ridiculously described as “a feast of football” by Portgual coach Carlos Queiroz, who used to manage Bafana Bafana. No wonder they parted company.

This is knock-out football, where 0-0 is not an option. Though history suggests otherwise – no side has ever won the World Cup after losing their opening game – Torres issues the final word: “We know how to can pick ourselves up and we can still win the tournament.”

Neal Collins is in South Africa to promote his World Cup novel A GAME APART, currently No24 on Amazon's African best-sellers list. For more information see

To see Neal speak at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown next week, go to:

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Ghana 2 USA 1: Africa have their heroes, but the American dream is shattered

While 23 million Ghanaians go off into the night to celebrate, 305 million Americans are left with their heads in their hands. About 20,000 of them were among the 33,000 at the Bafokeng Sports Palace last night, stunned. The World Cup tends to do that to even the most powerful of nations.

A night of high drama ended Phokeng's involvement in this fascinating World Cup - and the USA's. Though it will be absolutely no consolation to the brave US and their huge army of travelling fans, it produced a result South Africa 2010 desperately needs.

With five African nations crashing out with two wins between them, Ghana carry the hopes of a continent as Africa's first World Cup hits the squeaky bottom phase.

The Americans came back from beyond once more, but they couldn't do it twice. A rousing crusade is over. The American dream of global dominance with the round ball remains incomplete. But they'll be back.

And they'll be ready to go that extra step. Legend has it that Landon Donovan, the son of a semi-professional ice-hockey player, demanded to play soccer when he was seven.

His mother Donna took him along and he scored six goals. So far, after 21 years and two World Cup finals, he has scored five including his penalty in Phokeng. And that's the most any CONCACAF player has ever managed. Quick, dogged and determined, Donovan epitomises the grit that drives this vastly-improved US side.

But he's not alone. Michael Bradley, son of coach Bob who got it so wrong with his starting line-up against Ghana last night, never stops running. Fulham's Clint Dempsey was hacked down countless times, but never lost his rag, never lost his hunger.

But even that wasn't enough. So what do we make of Ghana, the Black Stars who carry the last African flag into the quarter-finals? The name itself means "Warrior King", this was the home of the much-feared Ashanti tribe and the first African nation to declare itself free of British imperialism in 1960.

They've always been a bit special... and they proved it again without Michael Essien, their Chelsea talisman, who pulled out injured before the tournament.

Richie Kingson, regarded as the third best goalkeeper at Wigan last season, showed just why he's looking for a new club. He was immense when the Americans, having reshuffled their side, began putting the pressure on.

Early on, it was all Ghana. Bradley started with Ricardo Clark rather than Maurice Edu but it was Clark who was dispossessed after just five minutes. Portsmouth's Kevin-Prince Boateng, the man who famously crocked Germany captain Michael Ballack at the FA Cup final, did the robbing.

And blow me, he took the ball, whisked past Watford's Jay DeMerit and struck it low with his left foot past Everton'sTim Howard. Great goal and the start of serious Ghanaian dominance. After half-an-hour the Africans had 64 percent of the possession. And we were starting to understand why captain DeMerit has told Watford he's looking for a new challenge.

But while Sulley Muntari, Ghana's best player after Essien, languished on the Ghana bench, Bradley made his changes. Outnumbered in midfield, he pulled Clark off after just half-an-hour and put Edu on up front.

It worked a charm. The US came right back into it, chance after chance falling to Jozi Altidor, the one-goal Hull striker last season, and Edu.

They had to wait too long for the equaliser though. Just over an hour was gone when Dempsey scurried into the area and Jonathan Mensah pulled him down. I thought he may have got a touch on the ball, but in the book he went and Donovan stepped up to take the penalty.

The US pushed and pushed for the winner but with Kingson dominant, we were into extra-time. It looked for all the world as if the Americans would go on to win it... but somebody forgot to tell Asamoah Gyan.

Scorer of two goals out of three for Ghana so far, the 24-year-old from French club Rennes bundled past Carlos Bocanegra and smashed a glorious left foot shot past Howard from just inside the box.

The final minute saw the two goalkeepers go head to head, literally, as Howard went up for a corner only to be denied by the courageous Kingson. Does Arsene Wenger have his number?

Donovan lamented afterwards: "Soccer is such a cruel game. One minute you're on top of the world, the next you're at the bottom of the mountain. We were a little bit naive at times and you can't do that at this level."

With Argetina or Mexico next up in the quarter-finals, Gyan said simply: "I am the happiest man in the world."

To see the Gyan goal and hear US coach Bob Bradley's summing up, see:

Soweto, the ultimate World Cup destination: Includes fantastic dancing lady and the ultimate World Cup companion!

Neal Collins is in South Africa to marvel at the South Americans, pray for England... and promote his first novel A GAME APART, the real story behind this World Cup. For more information see

Uruguay first into the last eight with a 2-1 win over South Korea... Suarez extends the South American dominance

Uruguay clinically disposed of plucky South Korea in Port Elizabeth, their 2-1 win secured by the consummate finishing of Ajax striker Luis Suarez.

Cracking game to start the knock-out phase, but no surprise. By my calculations, South American teams have played 16 games at South Africa 2010, coming away with 11 wins, four draws and a single, meaningless 2-1 defeat by ten-man Chile at the hands of Spain in the last game of the group phase.

To give them their full name, the República Oriental del Uruguay (the Eastern Republic of Uruguay) survived the rain, a late equaliser, a dismal crowd and an appalling surface to continue the CONMEBOL dominance of this World Cup – and reach the last eight for the first time since 1970.

With a population of just 3.5million Uruguay are hardly a huge nation. On land-size alone, they are the second-smallest country in Latin American (after tiny Surinam) but become the first side from SouthAmerica - apart from big guns Argentina and Brazil - to reach the World Cup quarter-finals since Peru in 1978.

It was hardly a classic, but it was pretty absorbing, unlike the surface at the brand new Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, which was cutting up badly.

Uruguay took an early lead after just eight minutes when former Manchester United striker Diego Forlansaw his cross slip past an embarrassed Jung Sung-Ryong, leaving Suarez to slot into an empty net. Predictably the Group A winners – who left France and South Africa in their wake – shut up shop for a while after that.

South Korea, representing Asian dreams, had it all to do and when a 68th minute free-kick floated into the Uruguay box it looked like we were headed for extra-time and even penalties. Maurico Victorino could only flick on and Bolton's Lee Chung-Yong headed past Fernando Muslera for the equaliser amid incredibly soggy scenes.

But ten minutes from time, Suarez produced the champagne moment to clinch it. A Uruguay corner from the right ended up with Nicolas Lodeiro. He offered the ball to Suarez, who had nowhere to go. So he eased past a defender and send a wonderful winner curling in off the far post. Cue hysteria.

Suarez will now be linked with all the big money clubs in Europe. He's 23 but is a bit too dramatic for my liking. But he scored 35 goals in 33 games for Ajax last season. And in three Ere Divisie seasons, he's got 74 in 94 games.

With Forlan pulling the strings in front of a defence that has conceded just one goal in the tournament so far, who will bet against “South America's Switzerland” beating the winners of the Ghana v USA game at Soccer City on July 2 – and reaching a semi-final against Brazil in Cape Town? They've won it twice before, the last triumph was in Brazil 60 years ago. Even Uruguayans can dream.

Soweto, the ultimate World Cup destination: Includes fantastic dancing lady and the ultimate World Cup companion!

Neal Collins is in South Africa to marvel at the South Americans, pray for England... and promote his first novel A GAME APART, the real story behind this World Cup. For more information see

England's dream route to the World Cup final: Germany on pens, Argentina by the Hand of God, Portugal's winkers... then Brazil on a flukey free-kick

Ah, England versus Germany on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Bloemfontein. Magical memories for any football fan. Right back to that day in 1966 when England beat the western half of the old enemy 4-2 in extra-time to win the World Cup at Wembley.
Since then of course, we've had 44 years of hurt at the World Cup, punctuated by numerous defeats against the old enemy. There was the 1970 turnaround when Gerd Muller turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 quarter-final win in Mexico.
There was the penalty shoot-out nightmare of the semi-final at Italia 90, followed by the same thing at Euro 96.
The last game at the old Wembley, a 1-0 defeat which saw Kevin Keegan resign, but that was followed by the incredible 5-1 triumph at Munich in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.
Today, we are told England's retailers are praying for victory. The sales of beers, vuvuzelas and replica shirts could rise to over £2billion if the Three Lions roar past Germany and go all the way to the finish line. Every goal from here on in is estimated to be worth £126m to the nation.
Don't discount the political impact either. If Wayne Rooney and Co find a route through the German defence, new Prime Minister David Cameroon will enjoy an undeserved boost in the polls and the feel-good factor will sweep a nation suffering severe recessionary gloom.
England's finest hour? Bloemfontein may well be just that.
But it's not just Germany is it? Argentina will probably loom in the quarter-finals, Portugal look favourites to get to the semi... and Brazil generally get to the final. All hold peculiar images of their own. Controversies surround all four of England's possible upcoming opponents.
Here then, the dream route past Germany and on to Soccer City and that grand finale.

You don't have to be that old to remember the semi-final in Rome, 1990. A pulsating game, a Gary Lineker goal, Paul Gascoigne's tears when he was booked and knew he would miss the final.
But it never came to that. Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed during the penalty shoot-out, which became the subject of a pizza advert and a flurry of films, plays and documentaries.
Twenty years later, having gone out the Germans in similar fashion on home soil at Euro 96 and Argentina on David Batty's miss at France 98, the nightmare of a penalty shoot-out still haunts English football.
But we've been working on it ever since. Allegedly. The teutonically efficient Germans are beginning to crack from the spot.
Serbia, another historical enemy, shocked Joachim Loew's men in their second game at this tournament. Their 1-0 win owed much to Lukas Podolski's missed penalty easily denied by Vladimir Stojkovic.
That was their first failure from 12 yards since Uli Hoeness in 1974 against Poland.
It's an omen. England, fielding their oldest line-up in a World Cup since 1954, will hold Germany, boasting their youngest squad since 1974, to a goalless draw. And in the shoot-out, David James will cry Gazza-tears when he saves the vital penalty from Miroslav Klose to send the Three Lions roaring into the quarter-finals.
Queen Elizabeth II will run naked down the mall, flanked by guardsmen throwing their busbies into the air. Winston Churchill will rise from the grave with an impassioned speech about "our finest hour" and the second week of Wimbledon will be called off in celebration. Woo hoo!

Take your mind back even further than the aforementioned penalty shoot-out against Germany. A rapidly improving England side, with Gary Lineker on fire, have reached the quarter-finals against Argentina and Diego Maradona.
With the Falklands War still casting a shadow over relations between the two nations, Maradona goes up with the vastly experienced (and much taller) Peter Shilton to contest a bouncing ball in the box. And Diego wins the duel.
How? We ask, with some justification. And the truth soon emerges. Diddy Diego has got the edge over Shilton with his left hand. He goes on to score a sensational solo second goal, England come roaring back but go out 2-1.
Afterwards Maradona says it was "The Hand of God" than than his grubby little paw. Now in charge of Argentina's 2010 bid, Maradona is certifiably crazy after years of abusing himself, journalists and his pet dog.
Passionate, charismatic... but bonkers. He has the best squad on the planet, including the tiny Lionel Messi, and has qualified from Group B with a perfect nine points.
Assuming Argentina beat Mexico and England see off Germany, the two nations will meet again here on July 3 in Cape Town.
What better way for this one to end than a long ball from John Terry, up goes Wayne Rooney and... GOOOOOOOOAL! It's England through to the semi-finals, but don't look too closely at the replays.
Yes, Rooney, with a little help from his arm. Afterwards the Terror from Toxteth admits: "It was the Hand of Gold". Buenos Aires is a sea of tears. London and land of laughs.
Somewhere in the Green Point tunnel, Diego is seen punching walls with that fateful left hand, preparing a suitably disgusting parting shot for his nation's media.

And now cast your minds back to four years ago. England are in the quarter-finals yet again. The Golden Generation, led by Wayne Rooney with David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen and Steve Gerrard in support, are up against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen.
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo is their icon, just as he is at South Africa, 2010.
The game is, predictably, fast and furious. Rooney, Ronaldo's best pal at Old Trafford, brings down Chelsea's Ricardo Carvalho. Referee Horacio Elizondo moves in. Ronaldo has a word. Rooney is sent off.
Then Ronaldo, quite clearly, winks at the Portuguese bench. Job done. Rooney gone.
And to rub salt on that particular wound, Ronaldo scores the vital penalty in the shoot-out to put England out. His joy is unrestrained. His United team-mate is inconsolable.
Though Rooney and Ronaldo managed to rescue their friendship, footballing justice suggests a reversal of this scenario if, as hoped, the two sides meet again in the semi-final at Durban's marvellous Moses Mabhida Stadium on July 7.
Here's how this one goes: Late in the game, 0-0, it's an England corner. Ronaldo, good in their air, is given the task of marking Rooney, who had a golden period with his forehead early this season.
Up they go. Rooney tumbles, Ronaldo pleads his innocence. But the referee points to the spot. Rooney has a word. Ronaldo is red carded. Rooney steps up and sticks the penalty away to make it 1-0 with seconds on the clock.
England are through to their first World Cup final, the arched stadium is in uproar as Rooney walks past the tearful Portuguese... with a wink for the cameras. Justice.

England in the last eight again, 2002 in Shizuoka, pronounced in quite a vulgar way ever since by unforgiving fans. The opponents? Brazil, who would go on to win the World Cup.
Michael Owen (remember him?) put England ahead after 23 minutes, but Rivaldo levelled right on half-time. Then the fateful moment, five minutes into the second half.
Ronaldinho, buck-toothed and pony-tailed, stepped up for a free-kick 35 yards out on the right flank. His long, curling effort catches David "safe hands" Seaman off his line.
The legendary Arsenal goalkeeper blunders backwards, clawing at thin air. The ball flies into the top corner. "Fluke!" yelled I, "Brilliant!" screamed the world. Ronaldinho, sent off eight minutes later, has always insisted he meant it. I'm not so sure. I reckon it was a mighty bit of luck. Seaman just dissolved into tears, his international career over.
That's why, if England get past Germany, Argentina and Portugal (that's a repeatedly huge IF), they deserve a bit of something similar in the final at Soccer City on July 11.
There will be 96,000 people (including, FIFA permitting, me) in the stadium and Brazil look most likely to get there, trying to issue team orders over the din of the vuvuzelas.
This time my crystal ball shows a deadlock, let's say 2-2 with five minutes to play. Frank Lampard, who scores 20 goals a season for Chelsea but too few for England, steps up to take a free-kick near the halfway line with the ultra-light Jabulani ball. He gives it the big hoof... and you know what happens next.
Julio Cesar, the normally impeccable Inter Milan goalkeeper, suddenly realises he's been beaten by the flight of the Jabulani at high altitude.
He stumbles, clawing the air. But the ball nestles neatly in the top corner.
England have won the World Cup. Lampard admits afterwards: "It was a bit of a fluke, it just flew," but nothing can detract from a sensational last-gasp victory.
It's over. Those 44 years of hurt are behind us. The 1990 penalty shoot-out against Germany matters no more. Diego's Hand of God is avenged. Ronaldo can wink all he wants.
England are CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD. Perhaps we should have started this one with "Once upon a time..." but, hey. We can dream.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

This isn't just a World Cup, it's a war: England must beat Germany, the US grab the glory and Japan are lurking... as France and Italy surrender

Never on the field of human conflict has so much football been played by so few for so many. Isn’t that what England’s veteran central defender Winston Churchill said 70 years ago? It’s been a curious global conflagration this.

Without wishing to irk the historians, France surrendered early and a new regime will take over the wreckage. Italy changed ends a few times and then threw up their hands too. Brave England, weary and dispirited, bravely trudged on. And then the high-spirited Americans appeared at the last minute to grab the glory.

I hope there’s no confusion. It’s the absorbing, unpredictable World Cup we’re talking about. Right here in South Africa where the disenfranchised majority desperately volunteer to back England, the Limeys are under siege and the Afrikaners may be quietly backing the Germans.

Now we await the big England showdown against the old foe, a long way from Tipperary. And the Japanese are lurking dangerously. The Swiss are in neutral for the time being, the Spanish are recovering from their earlier conflict and the South Americans appear largely unaffected by it all.

Poor old Africa appears to have been utterly let down by years of colonial dominance. European superpowers have drained their resources. Ghana are the first nation to claim freedom – and the last. But I’m going too far. Don’t mention the war, as the striking John Cleese once said.

Lest we forget, France really did surrender here. They laid down their arms and left with one solitary point from a boring display against the Uruguayans in Cape Town. A massive government inquiry is ongoing, Laurent Blanc now takes over the reins while Raymond Domenech falls on his sword, assisted by the hands-some major figure, Thierry Henry.

Four years ago Les Bleus reached the final. Twelve years ago they ruled the world. But in South Africa the French Resistance was about as laughable as the British comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The Italians fared little better. They conquered the globe four years ago and forgot to conscript youngsters to replace those war-weary veterans. Generally, Marcello Lippi may have to resign his commission. When the big guns of Slovakia were turned on them, the Azzuri submitted 3-2 despite a few late shots. Like France, they finished bottom of their group and retreat in disgrace.

England, after a terrible start – that 0-0 draw against Algeria might have been our Dunkirk, we were all at sea – showed the Blitz spirit to see off mighty Slovenia 1-0 with the shout of “who goes there friend or Defoe?”

And just when it looked like those brave troops had Group C at their mercy, along comes Landon Donovan with that late goal against Algeria in Pretoria to put the United States on top. Yankee dandies doodled but they triumphed in the end with an ex-President urging them on.

Which of course leaves Her Majesty’s finest to take on the Germans. Alone. In Bloemfontein. On Sunday. Now I remember the capital of the Free State being a bit of a no-man’s land on the Sabbath. No drinking, no sport, just church. Perhaps things have changed. I doubt it. If there’s a corner of a foreign field that isn’t forever England, it’s Bloem.

The USA have the easy option, what with all their resources and plentiful rations of good fortune. They play sole African survivors Ghana in Phokeng, just down the road from England’s Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus base. The FA’s World Cup Final Solution – formulated long before the World Cup draw on December 4 - has gone awry.

And all the while the South Americans are progressing on several fronts. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile sit proudly atop their groups and look capable of changing the course of global events. They haven’t endured a long, hard winter like the Europeans. They’re fresh, few casualties... and they’re taking no prisoners. All five of the CONMEBOL qualifiers.

Mexico have sneaked in too, but they’re not really in the same category. Portugal should join them, they’re the neutral choice. But only if they drive the Brazilians nuts in Durban.

And the sly Dutch appear to be lurking with intent. Three games, nine points after last night’s meaningless 2-1 victory over doomed Cameroon in Cape Town. Arsenal’s Robin van Persie dropped the bombshell just before half-time after an explosive interchange with Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt.

Then Rafael van der Vaart put his hands up – to block Geremi's free-kick. Samuel Eto'o stuck away the penalty to equalise.

Then we had the standing ovation for the arrival of Bayern Munich’s Aarjen Robben, back after a hamstring injury. Almost immediately he hit a post, and Milan’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar followed up to score the winner. Orange juice all round. But nobody’s really talking about the lowlanders. We are otherwise occupied.

With Japan for instance. They’re supposed to be a distant Asian power. Like South Korea. They play a different game; quick, neat but ineffective. Yet here they are, on the brink of threatening the traditional European powers. We may have under-estimated the Orientals (which is not to suggest an allegiance with Leyton Orient, no way). The Americans may be left to deal with this particular threat.

Their 3-1 triumph at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace last night would please any Emperor. Keisuke Honda produced the first genuine free-kick strike with the ballooning Jabulani ball to put Denmark on the back foot from 30 yards after 27 minutes. Yasuhito Endo did much the same 13 minutes later and by half-time it was 2-0.

Denmark hit the bar in the second half as they finally realised they were on their way out, but by then they were bacon. Well done. An 83rd minute penalty – scored on the rebound by former Newcastle veteran Jon Dahl Tomasson, his first goal in 13 games – gave the Danes hope but it was a phoney war; up popped Shinji Okazaki to produce coup de grace in the dying moments.

Australia? New Zealand? They fought so hard, sacrificed so much... but went home without recognition. Like a couple of the unpredictable Balkan states, Greece, Serbia and Slovenia. Cannon fodder. Slovakia alone have defied the odds, but they should be kept in Czech.

It’s all fitting in to an historical pattern this World Cup. And the good news? History suggests England will rise up after those torrid opening skirmishes to conquer those efficient Germans.

Could we call that VE day? Oh, what a lovely war!

Neal Collins is not a war historian. He is a sports journalist touring South Africa to promote his first novel, A GAME APART, currently No 67 on Amazon’s African best-sellers list, just ahead of “Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa”. For more information, see Or ask your local book shop to order one.

To see Neal talk at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 4, go to

When the World Cup means everything: Chile fly the flag for 521 killed by earthquake

When your country has been hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami, you’d think football – even the World Cup – tends to become a minor detail. You’d be wrong.

At 3.34am on February 27 this year, Chile fell apart. The Richter scale registered 8.8 and 93 percent of the country's population were left in the dark as power failed. First the ground shook for 90 seconds, then the waves came. The huge off-shore quake moved the earth’s axis 8cm and shortened the day by over 1.28 microseconds.

The city of Concepción moved 10 feet west. The capital Santiago was shifted 10 inches, and Argentine capital Buenos Aires, a thousand miles away, moved one and a half inches. Chile gained an extra square mile of territory after their strongest quake since 1960.

It left 521 dead, 200,000 homeless and 500,000 houses damaged. But it also left a flag. The flag in this picture. Ripped and muddied, this is the standard around which Chile will gather today as they prepare to face Spain to decide Group H at Loftus Versfeld tomorrow.

A chap called Bruno Sandoval rescued the flag (white for the Andean snow, blue for the sky, red for the blood of the independence fighters) from the ruins of Pelluhue, about 200 miles south west of the capital Santiago. At the time, Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera said his actions would “lift the spirit of a nation.”

And that La Roja flag is still doing its job, fluttering over the team’s plush base at the Ingwenyama resort near Nelspruit. Chile’s captain Claudio Bravo, their unbeaten goalkeeper in 1-0 wins over Honduras and Switzerland so far, says: “We brought the flag with us to remind the team of what happened. The whole nation is watching. We remember our disaster.”

The delightfully named defender Waldo Ponce said: “It’s extra motivation. I always go to the flag after we finish training. It shows the suffering of our people – but it also reminds us we can bring a little joy after what happened."

Back home, between gathering around televisions to watch their side in distant Africa, the rebuilding goes on. Pedro Poblete lives in Talca, right at the epicentre of the earthquake. He lost his off-licence/bottle store but argues: “The World Cup helps me forget I’m homeless. This flag shows we have suffered and bled. And continue to blee. The flag and the football soothes our pain.”

Fortunately for Chile, that soothing process is likely to go on for a while yet. As long as Switzerland don’t beat Honduras in Bloemfontein, they can even afford to lose against the world’s second-best side and they will still march on to the last 16.

In a tournament dominated by the Latin American teams, Spain’s opening loss to Switzerland means they are the side that has to do all the running at Loftus. Mind you, Chile have never beaten Spain. The last time they met, in 2008, the recently-crowned European champions crushed their former colony 3-0.

Spearheaded by Durban-born Mark Gonzalez, whose father Raul signed for Umlazi Bush Bucks in 1984 (I should know, I broke the story in the Durban Daily News!) Chile have got what it takes to be the surprise package at South Africa 2010, though they are ranked a mere 18 in the world.

Gonzalez scored the only goal against Switzerland and President Pinera, watching with earthquake victims in Concepción, issued his verdict: “Humberto Suazo is a great player, but today was not his day. I think that the best was Jorge Valdivia. He opened the field, he made beautiful passes and he gave the pass for Esteban Paredes to make the cross for Mark Gonzalez to score the goal."

That kind of political and emotional judgement, with the muddy flag flying in the background, might just spurs Suazo and Co on to greater things against Spain. The European champions had better be wary. They could be the last side knocked out in the group stages. This one could make England v Germany look pedestrian.

Neal Collins is in South Africa to complain about England's performance and promote his first novel A GAME APART. See .

To see Neal at the National Arts Festival on July 4, go to .

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A great day in Pretoria... and Port Elizabeth. England and the USA emerge from Group C

WHEN I was kid I had this nightmare. I'm walking through Pretoria with an England shirt on and the cross of St George waving over my head. I last about ten minutes before large Blou Bulle rugby fans leave the Limey trampled underfoot with my flag stuck somewhere painful.
I used to wake up sweating.
That nightmare came to pass today at the heart of Afrikanerdom, where they used to be more bothered about the Boer War than the World Cup. Video evidence will soon be available. I had no choice. England playing for their lives against mighty Slovenia in Port Elizabeth but I'm assigned to the USA's battle for survival against Algeria at Loftus Versfeld.
What a day. There were 35,000 at the home of what I once knew as Northern Transvaal, where Englishmen, Americans and certainly Algerians might have been in for a frostry reception in the 1980s.
And here we were, thirty years later, flags resplendent, celebrating perhaps the most colourful World Cup in history. For a taster, see
Africa's first effort at hosting the global extravaganza could have done with an African victory - and certainly the Algerians, who claim to represent the whole of the Arabic northern power block - were out in numbers.
And the Yanks? Incredible. Thousands of them draped in their stars and stripes. Yes, thousands of Yanks and their dollars loving South Africa. And there's me and the missus, the only ones with the red cross waving and England emblazoned across our chests.
To provide context: I lived in what was known as Verwoerdburg from 1970 to 1985. Tough place to grow up with my accent. Even tougher place to play rugby against schools like Menlo Park and Affies.
But today the centre of what is now known as Centurion was home to a thriving fan zone. The centre of Pretoria was alight with World Cup fans, the beer was flowing, FIFA's licensed hot-dogs were selling like hot cakes and I thought to myself... what a beautiful World Cup. How far this nation has come in the 16 short years since democracy.
Not that the game between the US and Algeria glittered too much at the start. A chap called William Clinton took a seat near me. Well, within 400 yards. It's on the video! Former American president Bill (we're familiar now we've been to the same game) said: "South Africa is bursting with pride. They think they've done a good job, better than everyone said they would. It's been good for this country and this continent and I believe in them."
Okay, he didn't tell me that. He told the SABC cameramen. Me? I was talking to Algerians, Pretorians and Americans. Neither side could produce the early goal which might have swung Group C. And then the mobile phone twanged. My brother at home in Centurion. Jermain Defoe had scored for England after just ten minutes against group leaders Slovenia, that mighty nation of 2,030,000 who prefer skiing to football.
England (pop 52,000,000 with football the national sport under the patron saint St David of Becks) were finally playing. Glimpses of the action on the screens in the boxes. How to take in two games at once?
Conversation flowed, flags waved and all I got in response to the dreaded England shirt was a sea of smiles and chants of "Eng-er-land".
When Algeria hit the bar, England responded in distant Port Elizabeth with a Wayne Rooney effort which hit the post. As the US began to wrest control of the game at Loftus, Slovenia were starting to play after half-time at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Two huge crowds gripped by Group C action - and a global audience of billions tuning in to see South Africa host day after day of perfectly run international football.
Okay, Bafana Bafana were squeezed out on Tuesday, but the nation should not mourn. The French have gone home to rotten fruit to be told they have put their nation back 50 years. President Sarkozy will meet with Thierry Henry today to tell him so.
But for the rest of us, this World Cup keeps on giving. England hung on for victory, improved but still way short of what we expect from our millionaires in boots.
But just when it looked like they would win the group despite John Terry's press conference tantrum on Sunday, the US came up with the goal we'd all been waiting for.
America's greatest footballer threw himself into the melee with the 91st minute winner which broke Algerian hearts and put the US through on top of the Group. Landon Donovan, some geezer.
A goal like that might have led to trouble at some of the games I've seen over the years. But not here, not at the Rainbow Nation's grand party. The thousands of Algerians laughed and sang with the cockahoop Yanks. They didn't react to the over-the-top celebrations by the American players. They simply took it on the chin. Incredible. Try that at West Ham or Millwall.
And it went on. Through the Pretoria night, flags waving, vuvuzelas blasting. The much-derided park-and-ride system moved smoothly into action and an hour later, everyone's been there, done that. England and the US through from Group C. Slovenia and Algeria go home with heads held high.
Another great day from the World Cup that keeps on giving.

Neal Collins is in South Africa to complain about England's performance and promote his first novel A GAME APART. See

To see Neal at the National Arts Festival on July 4, go to

Ronaldo fury over Kaka ban as FIFA let South Africa down again

Cristiano Ronaldo is furious he won’t be lining up opposite Real Madrid team-mate Kaka when Portugal face Brazil tomorrow in the biggest game of the World Cup so far.

The presence of the world’s two most expensive players was expected at the magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium as Group G comes down to the wire. But a ridiculous red card during Brazil’s 3-1 win over the Ivory Coast means Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite (his younger brother could only manage “Kaka”) is suspended.

With over a million Portuguese-speaking people in the Rainbow Nation, this was the second game sold out at South African 2010 – after the final at Soccer City on July 11.

Though both sides should qualify comfortably for the last 16, the clash between the nations ranked first and third in the world is expected to draw the highest global audience of an absorbing tournament.

Ronaldo, who moved to the Bernebeu from Manchester United for £80m, and Kaka, who joined from AC Milan for £56m, would have lit up the arched stadium. Like so many others, Ronaldo fumes: "It's not fair because Kaka did nothing in my opinion, and now he won't play against us.

"He didn't deserve that red card. I saw the game and I spoke with him about it afterwards. He was angry at the time but after the game he's cool, he understands it's part of the game."

Kaka dismissal rates as the worst of several appalling sendings off in the tournament so far. He was given a second yellow card when Kader Keita ran into him and fell down, clutching his face. Though Didier Drogba and Kaka were chatting amiably while the referee sorted out the mess, he was summoned and given his marching orders.

Having made the first and third goals on Sunday night at Soccer City – and had a good effort well saved – Kaka looked like he was just returning to form after a winter marred by a serious groin injury.

Brazil boss Dunga called in an “unjustified dismissal” and FIFA were expected to over-turn the decision. But, as normal, the global football body let South Africa down and Kaka is ruled out.

Dunga said: “The player who commits the foul escapes the yellow card, I have to congratulate him for that. It was a totally wrong, Kaka was fouled and yet he was punished.”

Ronaldo, man of the match in Portugal’s first two games here, will hope to add to his goal in the 7-0 win over North Korea on Monday – a strike which ended an international drought going back to his effort against the Czech Republic in the 2008 European Championship.

His goal, the sixth against the so-called Democratic People’s Republic scored three minutes from time, owed a little to a flukey touch with the back of his perfectly gelled hair. Ronaldo grins: "I knew the goal would come eventually. I smiled when I scored because it was a funny goal, the way it hit me on the neck. I am under no pressure."

Neal Collins is in South Africa to complain about England's performance and promote his first novel A GAME APART. See

To see Neal at the National Arts Festival on July 4, go to

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Argentina and South Korea through from World Cup Group B as Nigeria rue their greatest miss and Greece park their bus

SO Greece, as the joke goes, slipped up. They parked their bus, double-deckered by all accounts, in front of their goal and let Argentina throw the lot at them in Polokwane.

On a night that will be remembered for Ayegbeni Yakubu’s unbelievable miss ( in Nigeria’s 2-2 draw against South Korea, football has triumphed. Just.

The Koreans go through with Argentina, Nigeria restored their reputation, the gruesome Greeks failed. Their defensive dullness led to their demise. That’s the beauty of World Cup football when you get down to the sharp end.

That Argentina would top Group B was never in doubt. Their opening 1-0 win over Nigeria was okay given Diego Maradona’s team selection and tactics. Their 4-1 over South Korea saw real flashes of brilliance, to be expected given the talent they have at their disposal.

Demechelis’s 78th minute goal followed by Martin Palermo’s 36-year-old strike in the dying seconds, ensured a 2-0 win, the crazy coach toppling the bus. Dodgy Diego produced another dazzling dance of celebration. They could just go all the way.

While were two late goals in Durban, Polokwane offered far more excitement. Kala Uche nipped in to make it 1-0 after 41 minutes, but South Korea went ahead through Jungsoo and Chouyong (the first direct free-kick of the tournament with the Jabulani ball) before Everton striker Yakubu stepped up after his horrendous two-yard miss to bravely slot home from the penalty spot.

At 2-2 they needed a goal to go through, despite ending pointless after their opening two games. But a point was not enough for the Super Eagles. South Korea go through with Argentina.

Greece have spent the last three weeks camped in Durban’s luxurious Beverley Hills hotel – standard rooms start at £300-a-night even when they’re not hosting a World Cup – while their economically stricken nation tightens belts.

That they prepared in KwaZulu Natal – where winter is a concept rather than a reality – was always ridiculous. Given that they were playing all three Group B games at higher altitude or in colder climes, somebody somewhere cocked-up.

And tonight they did it again. Their unadventurous finale might have worked if they’d managed a goalless draw and Nigeria had beaten the courageous Koreans.

But no. Despite Yakubu’s blunder, the woodwork and a late miss from former Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins, Nigeria could not conjure that win.

Pity that. Africa could have done with a surprise qualifier after hosts South Africa went so close earlier in the day. They beat France 2-1 but went out on goal difference to Mexico, beaten 1-0 by Group A winners Uruguay.

Neal Collins is in South Africa to complain about England's performance and promote his first novel A GAME APART. See

To see Neal at the National Arts Festival on July 4, go to

South Africa beat France 2-1, Uruguay win 1-0 to top Group A... and Mexico slip through on goal difference

THIS is your minute-by-minute report from the second half as Group A came to a climax. At half-time it was all to play for as South Africa led 2-0 against France and Uruguay were 1-0 up against Mexico. All we needed was a two-goal swing...

It didn't happen but Carlos Alberto Parreira said: "It happens, it happens. I'm so proud for the boys. Look at France, the quality of the players they have.

"We were better. We won the game. If Mphela had scored his chance it would have been 3-0... but I am so proud of my boys."

Blow by blow: Suddenly it was all up in the air as Group A reaches an hysterical climax. Uruguay have scored against Mexico, South Africa 2-0 up against France. Halftime in Bloemfontein and Phokeng.

The phones are buzzing, I've just been on on to 702, the big Johannesburg radio station and they're going bonkers.

Situation is this: South Africa need to score two more goals and Uruguay have to maintain that lead for the hosts to get through.

Bongani Khumalo, who has been brilliant next to captain Aaron Mokoena at the heart of the Bafana Bafana defence, scored with a superb header after 21 minutes to start the pulses racing. Siphiwe Tshabalala's corner deserves a mention. Spot on, and there haven't been many of those in this tournament with the Jabulani ball.

Five minutes later, France were down to ten men. Yoan Gourcuff was sent off for a challenge on Macbeth Sibaya. Colombian ref Oscar Ruiz adds to the French problems at this World Cup and Raymond Domenech looks hard done by. Rightly so.

After 37 minutes Katlego Mphela made it 2-0 to South Africa and a couple of minutes later in came the news from the Royal Bafokeng Stadium... Luiz Suarez had headed Uruguay in front.

The situation at half-time, at the risk of repeating myself: South Africa need to score two more and hope Uruguay maintain their lead over Mexico. That way, South Africa and Mexico will both end with four points and a plus-one goal difference... but the hosts will get through by dint of more goals scored (five to four).

It's the narrowest of margins, the slightest of chances... but South Africans are starting to believe... now for the longest 45 minutes of football they have ever witnessed.

50 minutes: Mphela hits the angle after a wonderful ball from Tshabalala who is playing well after a letting it all go to his head in the 3-0 defeat against Uruguay.

52 minutes: In Phokeng, Uruguay force to great saves and Mexico are struggling to find the form they showed in their 2-0 win over France last time out. It all comes from a free-kick from Diego Forlan, the former Manchester United striker who has blossomed at Atletico Madrid.

If those two goals - one for South Africa, one for Uruguay - had gone in, the hosts would be through.

54 minutes: Thierry Henry comes on for his 123rd French cap, equalling Fabien Barthez World Cup finals record of 17 appearances. Djibril Cisse, after nearing pulling one back for France, goes off.

57 minutes: Mamelodi Sundowns striker Mphela nearly does it at sundown... well saved. South Africa pushing hard. Steven Pienaar's follow up effort blocked. Domenech looks very, very old.

59 minutes: South Africa corner. Too strong. In Phokeng, Mexico pushing for the single point they need which would put both sides through regardless of South Africa's margin.

61 minutes: France hoofing it anywhere. Don't they realise their World Cup is done? Bernard Parker cuts in but his near-post effort is saved as he sails past Gael Clichy. South Africa playing with two up front in this one, and it shows.

64 minutes: Mexico go close to that conclusive equaliser. Francisco Rodriguez puts his diving header just wide. Henry has grabbed the captain's armband for France. It was taken away from his old Arsenal team-mate William Gallas before the game. France all over the place.

65 minutes: Was that a Henry handball? Our Irish friends may have noticed another Hand of Frog moment. South Africa turn to Siyabonga Nomvete, their veteran striker. What a chance to grab glory.

67 minutes: Parker off, Nomvete on. Wonder if they regret dropping the slightly unfit Benni McCarthy from their squad now? He's South Africa's record goalscorer. Eight years ago Nomvete scored in Bafana's only World Cup finals victory, a 1-0 win over Slovenia.

68 minutes: DISASTER for South Africa. Florent Malouda scores for France, lovely ball from Franck Ribery across the face under pressure.

70 minutes: Ribery suddenly looks interested. France starting to play but 2-1 down. Mexico making changes but still 1-0 down to Uruguay. They'll go through if it stays like this.

Jan Molby, Liverpool's now-elderly Great Dane, reckons Henry's arrival has galvanised the French, who will still be going home to rotten fruit. Three goal swing needed for South Africa, it's getting late.

79 minutes: Teko Modise on for South Africa... Tshabalala puts an ambitious shot high. Bloody Jabulani balloon! Nine on target for South Africa, four for France. Uruguay still lead 1-0. Looks like Mexico are going to creep through with four points and a superior goal difference.

82 minutes: Sidney Govou on for France. Need goals now. Three of them for Uruguay or South Africa. In eight minutes. Ain't going to happen.

South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira clutches his chest. He won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994. Not going to happen here.

86 minutes: Uruguay have an effort saved. Mexico are going to go through on goal difference ahead of South Africa... they'll play Argentina in the round of 16.

90 minutes: Uruguay balloon a shot over the bar. But in Bloemfontein it's France pushing forward. Group A is just about over. Uruguay go through as winners to play the Group B runners-up (could be South Korea, Greece or Nigeria)

Injury time: Uruguay have a late corner. Tshabalala has a late effort denied. Whistle's gone in Phokeng, 1-0 to Uruguay.

It's over. France, the 1998 champions and finalists four years ago, end bottom of Group A with one point. South Africa, 2-1 winners, lose out on goal difference to Mexico. Gutted. Uruguay win the group. This World Cup needed the hosts to go through. There was real hope after half-time, but the miracle was not to be.