Africa on the brink as final games of group stage commence




RICHMOND, VA—Believe it or not, after 11 days of non-stop soccer, one-half of the World Cup is complete. Starting Tuesday, the tournament kicks up a notch with the final day of group play, as nations will begin to exit stage right en masse.

Leading that parade almost certainly will be host nation South Africa. South Africa needs two unlikely events to transpire. First, they need Uruguay to beat Mexico, preferably by two goals. Next, they need to beat France, by at least two and possibly three goals. Ordinarily one would say this was completely impossible. But with the complete disarray in the French camp, maybe it’s not.

In any case, if Uruguay and Mexico play to a tie, both South Africa and France are eliminated. There’s a good chance that is exactly what will happen. Often winning a qualifying group does not really make much difference compared to finishing second, but in this case it does, which is why a tie is not a foregone conclusion. The winner of this group will dodge Argentina in the round of 16 and play a much weaker opponent (likely South Korea).

Uruguay now have the advantage on goal difference, so it’s up to Mexico to make a game of it and try to win the match and the group. My guess is they will try to win the game for about an hour, but if it’s not on pull back and play out the clock the last part of the game.

South Africa’s likely exit would be the first time a host nation has been eliminated in the first round. Perhaps even more remarkably, the host continent as a whole may miss out on the knock-out round. Portugal’s thoroughly ridiculous victory over North Korea Monday effectively eliminated the Ivory Coast; it’s hard to see Ivory Coast knocking 8 or 9 past the North Koreans, even if Brazil were to beat Portugal, which is hardly a certainty.

Cameroon has already been eliminated, and Nigeria and Ghana are also in very difficult positions. Nigeria needs to beat South Korea by two and hope Greece get nothing against Argentina, while Ghana probably needs to win a point off a Germany to go through. Ironically the best chance of qualification may belong to Algeria—a win over the United States coupled with a two-goal victory by England would see the north African side through.

Speaking of England, the universal disgust at their performance against Algeria has spawned a mini-implosion within the England camp, with John Terry managing to alienate both the manager and his own teammates with his poorly executed attempt to challenge Capello and his tactics in public in a Sunday news conference. Terry, stripped of the captaincy this year for cuckolding teammate Wayne Bridge, deserves on the merits to be dropped from the side, but that is not likely to happen due the injury and suspension situation England have in defense. I bet Capello is wishing he had gone ahead and cut Terry outright when he had a chance. The complaints of ageless Sol Campbell about being left out of this squad sound more compelling with each passing day.

The English are fortunate that more is not being made out of their mini-implosion, because the French have been on hand to show the world what a full fledged implosion looks like. Memo to future football federation officials, it’s not a good idea to send a coach to the World Cup who doesn’t have the respect of the players and whom everyone knows will be gone at the end of the tournament. For some reason, France allowed Raymond Domenech to stay in his position this long, and now they are paying the price in the form of a player mutiny.

The whole France set up is making Zinedine Zidane’s famous head-butt in 2006 look like a model of professionalism. I can’t imagine how painful the past two weeks have been for sincere fans of the French national team. The only ones possibly happy about the situation are the lucky journalists and publishers who manage to publish the fastest and dishiest inside account of France’s World Cup misadventures in book form over the next six months.

Meanwhile, a truly remarkable record continues: the five South American nations still have not lost a game. Argentina and Brazil are already through, Chile and Uruguay are in pole position in their groups, and Paraguay needs just a point off mighty New Zealand to get through. The combined record of those five nations so far is eight wins, two draws. Chile is still under pressure to not just qualify but win their group and avoid a round of 16 date with (likely) Brazil—they need a point against Spain to secure both goals. If they achieve that and if Uruguay doesn’t lose to Mexico, it is possible that all five South American nations could reach the quarterfinals.

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