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Mexican pig’s breakfast

June 28, 2010

A couple of minutes after Mexico had, finally, restarted at 0-1, I turned to Dave and shouted above the tumult of a smouldering Soccer City night. “These guys have gone,” I said. “They’re shot – they need half-time to come this second because they’re about to do something stupid.” If I wasn’t sure of exactly what I envisaged, I was answered after another few minutes of uncharacteristically chaotic play. From our position behind the other goal, we saw Ricardo Osorio make a mistake he’ll never, ever make again – and one absurd turn of events had led directly to Mexico being two down.

Surely we’ll never see anything like it again. Despite favouring Mexico, I’d risen to applaud the goal (even from our end it was clearly a wonderful show of composure by Messi to tee it up) and turned to watch the replay. The offside was obvious, but the implications hadn’t sunk in as we earnestly pointed it out to one another. Turning around again, a Mexican (Salcido? I forget amid the blur), many yards from his team-mates, is remonstrating animatedly with the linesman in front of me – who’d not been involved in the incident – and a penny suddenly drops. Further across, a group is surrounding the referee (the excellent Italian, Rosetti) before making its way over to the far touchline for an interview with the guilty assistant. The scene is extraordinary. Everybody in the stadium – players, officials, fans – knows what the replay has just demonstrated. The error by the matchday producers is one to match that of the game officials.

As the throng on the far touchline grows bigger, Argentine players skulk guiltily in their own half. Rosetti, urged on by the entire Mexican team, confers with the assistant – and for a split second you wonder what he’ll do, whether he’ll defy all precedent and strike the goal off, because the conversation is surely not worth having unless there’s a discussion to be had. Everyone pauses, waits, a few seconds seem cinematically drawn out. Rosetti points to the centre circle once more, arms are flung in disgust on the pitch and off, it is the wrongest right decision any of us can remember.

Bizarre as the circumstances were, an unhappy collision of this kind had been coming to football. I don’t intend to argue about the use of technology here because two incidents, within a few hours of one another, came together yesterday with near-karmic intent and as far as I’m concerned the ramifications are clear.

What a shame for Mexico, though, and for the game. In fact, ignoring the shadow cast over an otherwise excellent match would reveal an outcome and pattern that I pretty much predicted yesterday. The Mexicans are young, fluent, creative from full-back (centre-back too, sometimes) upwards and a big loss to the tournament’s remainder. They lack a spearhead, although Hernandez’s movement and finishing are clearly outstanding and we await an interesting debut season from him in Manchester. Mexico have always been a typical ‘second round team’, but these days you feel they are very, very close to something much greater. Aguirre needs to stay in charge for another four years, somehow.

Argentina, as we suspected pre-tournament, are little more than a strong, steady, technically sound outfit until the ball reaches their explosive front three, who combine lethally to change the tempo and tenor of a performance. They don’t commit many men forwards, but then they don’t especially need to. It doesn’t make for sparkling football, but it makes for sharp, bang-bang football at critical moments. They’ll make the final, I am pretty sure.

As I’ve touched on, it was an extraordinary football atmosphere in a special venue. Two Latin American forces meeting in this way led to an air that was intense, vapourous. Soccer City is as well-appointed inside as it looks from the outside, its only drawback being that it isn’t easy to get to. The journey, at least, allowed for some reflection on what had passed earlier in the afternoon – we’d watched England v Germany in the rather ad-hoc surrounds of a latte bar in Sandton, and I can only hope that the smell of coffee has reached everybody back home.

Do I really have the energy for a rant about England? No, I’ve decided, but here’s a fairly general mini-one. I’m not going to read any reports or punditry about what passed in Bloemfontein – I hope a grasp of reality has kicked in, that we’re not still deluding ourselves that only a couple of the German side could get into the English team, that the old school, the laughing locker-rooms of the late 1980s and entire 1990s, of the game in our country can muster up the self-awareness to accept that we’ve no right to anything. Germany’s team is modern in every sense of the word – in its setup, in its style, in its composition. It is a country that has learned lessons both in football and in a far wider sense over the past decade. Travelling around the 2006 World Cup, watching their team and talking at length with locals, you could see it coming. We’re stuck far behind, deluding ourselves that fielding a couple of national team players in each of our Champions League sides makes us untouchable, in potential at least, when in fact most of these guys’ successes owe plenty to the legion of foreign guys that play around them and complement the ability that they have.

The ‘golden generation’ have failed – perhaps arriving to their senses, maturing as men, too late after being lauded to a point beyond warpedness a decade ago. It’s time to change even if we have to sacrifice a tournament or two. Will the BBC’s sofa boys accept that, I wonder?

Enough. I’m pretty excited today, because Brazil v Chile at Ellis Park is probably the most interesting match-up of the tournament so far and we’ll be there tonight. You suspect that the narrative might run similarly to last night’s – but if the returns of Fernandez for Chile can outweigh their defensive suspensions then perhaps we’ll see something very heartening. I genuinely cannot wait for this one.

Away from the football, we’re staying in Kyalami – on the outskirts of Johannesburg – on a lavish farm estate. It’s a story in itself – we’ve struck very lucky with this, but as we had to head out within minutes of meeting our hosts Julia and Vuli yesterday and without properly acquainting ourselves with the area, I’ll save a piece about this until later in the week. We’re fortunate enough to have contacts who’ll take us well beyond the guided tour strip of Soweto, among other places, so there’s a lot to be learned in the coming of days and weeks. In a sense, the truly ‘African’ part of this trip is now underway.

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