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Spot difference

July 3, 2010

It was a beautiful penalty, slotted high to Muslera’s left. There was no Stuart Pearce-style fist-pumping from Gyan – he’d merely clawed a situation of his own making to one of ambiguity – but for a moment you allowed yourself to wonder whether the weight of a yet-to-be-written history could still tip the scales against Uruguayan artfulness. Just for a minute, you suspended the memory of Ghanaian players slumped on the floor, heads encased in hands, with 120 minutes played and the tie still, in scoreline at least, firmly level.

Gyan’s bravery in stepping up for that first penalty, his second, seemed almost beyond words at the time – but paths to redemption are rarely that linear. In reality it was only an ephemeral watering-down of his earlier torment, because even the dreamiest romantic in Soccer City knew, deep down, what would happen within the next ten minutes – what, it seemed, now had to happen. For nearly three hours, all but a few Uruguay-favouring hundred of the 84,000 present had been in full, tumultuous voice – either through the medium of vuvuzela or through by far the most widespread chanting I’ve heard at this World Cup. The atmosphere had been magical, a one-off, a truly collaborative Black Star-motivated effort from people based all over the world. The silence when Abreu drifted his ‘Panenka’ past Richard Kingson was abrupt and operatic – barely lifting above the occasional mournful toot as Gyan then doubled up in tears, unable to leave the pitch, a thousand removes from consolation. He lay, hiding his face, right in front of our seats; gazes to left, right and centre focussed entirely upon his awful misery, faces intent in sympathy and disbelief. His second spot-kick had been a masterpiece – but after what had gone before, there could never be an easy way out.

Twelve hours on and with the benefit of as decent a night’s sleep as a 1.30am return from the football permits, it’s still nigh-on impossible to commit thoughts to writing in cohesive fashion. The last time I returned from a match and wanted to say so much was Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona in March – but that was pretty easy, it defied little logic, the game’s pattern and drama being explicable in plain terms regardless of its theatre. How can you rationalise a match such as last night’s, its distillation of emotion and the elements of pure chance (I don’t want to get into moral debates about Suarez’s handball, by the way) that swung its outcome?

What’s for sure is that, after Uruguay’s front players had pressed with characteristic excellence against a timid Ghana side for 25 minutes, we ultimately were given the match we had hoped for and half-expected. The Black Stars’ forward drive and unintricate-yet-attractive style was equalled by the Uruguayans’ ability, in territorial and chance-creating terms at least, to capitalise upon their many errors. By the end of extra time, all had descended into logic-defying chaos. The final five minutes, of intense Ghanaian pressure, had no chance of ending quietly.

I don’t dislike this Uruguayan side – they’ve grown on me since that dreadful opener against France. Ghana flag, hat and temporary allegiance to one side, I found myself willing Diego Forlan on every time he received the ball – if the triumph was to be his and his alone, then so be it. I wrote a mini-eulogy to Forlan a few weeks back so won’t trouble you with another, but I wonder if there’s been a better all-round attacking player at this tournament. Can anybody else both lead the line and mould the play from deep with such mastery, technique and intensity? He gets better and better with age – the only shame being that he is not three or four years younger. He was by far the outstanding, inspirational figure in last night’s skirmish – and I can’t wait to see how he responds to Suarez’s absence against a sketchy Dutch defence. Tabarez has a selection difficulty there – Abreu might have had the final say last night and is an obvious replacement, but Uruguay’s attacks became far less coherent when he replaced Cavani.

I could keep going and going, but we’re heading out soon. There was another match yesterday, wasn’t there? Not the one previewed with merciful brevity on these pages, mind. Little rhyme or reason to that one, either – two astonishing (in recent context) defensive lapses from Brazil gave a fairly unprepossessing Dutch performance a reward few could have anticipated and proved many of us very wrong. It did, though, give us an insight into how Brazil would react to going behind in a game (terribly, and petulantly), and confirmed that – red card or not – there wasn’t really a plan B. Dunga’s pragmatism, which had succeeded with a kind of beauty earlier on, ate itself. Where were the options from the bench? Who could have come on to add variation – even with eleven men? To my mind, Dunga came closer than meets the eye to achieving something very impressive – but perhaps the soul of Brazilian football had to intervene in a quiet way. Weight of history again, anyone?

Germany v Argentina? See yesterday. This evening we have Spain v Paraguay on our hands, at the brooding anachronism that is Ellis Park. It seems a little bit of a sick joke that Paraguay are the only team we’ll have seen twice thus far, but let’s make the best of it – we may as well hope that Spain score early on. I’ve a feeling it won’t be especially pretty if they don’t.

Okay – the African blessing for Julia and Vuli’s place comes next, then we head to the Fan Park for the 4pm game. The winner of that one has a real, real chance now.

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Big game day

July 2, 2010

Later on, I’ll wonder at what exact point the sheep became attuned to its fate. I’ll decide that it’s probably around now, when the blade is being rubbed back and forth along the soft wool of its neck, in the routine manner of a cricketer making practice strokes. When it comes, the end isn’t quite as quick as I’d imagined and it’s probably a good 20 or 30 seconds before the writhing stops. This is the second sacrifice of the day to take place in the screened-off area of Vuli and Julia’s garden, a forbidden place for women but populated by the men and boys of the family – some of whom have only just arrived from the Eastern Cape to participate in this weekend’s ceremonies and celebrations.

The sheep is skinned and disembowelled expertly – “I’ve done this three or four thousand times in my life”, remarks the man entrusted with the entire action while others secure the ex-animal’s limbs – before its various parts are, in the blink of an eye, either hung up or washed ready for consumption. It goes from running around in its pen to the dinner plate in, we calculate, just under three hours. There is no outward emotion in the process, no prayer and no special solemnity. Another eight sheep, and a cow, will meet identical fates between now and Sunday; the ritual comes across as a simple fact, as something that happens, that is done and that needs to be done in order to complete the blessing of the house. The night before, the Anglican Bishop Joe Seoka of Pretoria conducted a Christian ceremony, leading a group of around 25 (ourselves included) through the sprawling property and its outbuildings, scattering water to safeguard each room. Tomorrow, a traditional African blessing will take place as the trickle of arriving relatives from distant tribal surrounds becomes a throng – with Sunday’s 400-strong party the culmination of everything we have witnessed and participated in. The grounds of this gentle, humble millionaire, who has made his fortune in telecoms from a background of nothing, play host to one of the most curious marriages of worlds, cultures and modes of performativity that I have ever seen. It is managed with humbling, fascinating success and tact.

The bonds between these people are real, sensitive, strong yet subtle. Watching the interactions of adults and children alike reveals this perfectly; there is a care, a gentleness and a watchfulness about everybody that runs as a current beneath every action, solemn or frivolous. The kids themselves are about a dozen in number and aged between six and sixteen; they tease each other, they run amok, they participate in breathless games of football with Dave, Andy and I, but not a cross or unwarranted word is heard between them.

And so, two nourishing and surprising days sans World Cup football passed rapidly, leaving a strong impression yet to be entirely digested. We got out and about a little, too – on Wednesday, we travelled to the Sterkfontein Caves, central to the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ World Heritage Site and location of some of the world’s oldest hominid remains, and related fossils. The group taken on an hour-long tour includes two foreign journalists who had either struck lucky the night before or couldn’t bear a day’s break – their FIFA accreditation lanyards were still slung prominently around their necks. This excursion completed, we moved on to a nearby game reserve as the sun began to drop low – a somewhat whistle-stop circuit of its dusty tracks yielding sightings of rhino, wildebeest and hippo among others. Not quite as ‘in situ’ as what we’ll see in Botswana next week – all had been coralled into certain corners of the reserve – but good viewing nonetheless.

Back into the fray today, then. After the torment of Paraguay v Japan – and then a chaotic night spent in Sandton’s perplexing, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory-style Montecasino entertainment complex – a break has served us well and we’re good to go. Via a visit to the Apartheid Museum, we’ll watch Germany v Argentina in a fan park before heading back to Soccer City for Ghana v Uruguay. That’s very hard to call, and will be tight – but Ghana’s method of play is assertive and vigorous, which should ensure that we’re in for no repeat of Tuesday. Uruguay should receive an invitation or two to create chances, and you’d expect Forlan and Suarez – who, thankfully, have both looked the part since that unpromising beginning against France – to capitalise. The African fervour towards Ghana is formidable though. Alex Song told me at the end of the domestic season that if Cameroon couldn’t win the World Cup then success for another African side would be nearly as good. It’s a sentiment that I know Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, to name two, have also long shared. This continent’s path to assertion means that everybody is pulling for one another. I wonder how many in England, bar those who appreciate good football, will be plumping for Germany this afternoon?

My quick take on that game – Argentina to win, their midfield doing a decisive job in tracking Germany’s runners from deep. Their back four is also hard to pull out of position even if there are reservations about a couple of individuals. It should, though, be enthralling.

Black Stars paraphernalia at the ready, we’re heading off now. Wouldn’t Ghana v Brazil be an outstanding semi-final? The fact that this was the World Under-20 final last year wouldn’t be too much of a coincidence, either. It could be a long night – we’ve not made it back from either of our 8.30 games in Johannesburg before 1am – but it could be a very significant one, too.

Squeezed into a corner

June 29, 2010

 

The concourses of Ellis Park are perhaps the darkest and dingiest I’ve experienced in a sports stadium, but what took place in the inner circle simply reinforced the impression that this World Cup is going to be Brazil’s. I’ve been a critic of their style and setup but last night they played Chile perfectly – looking slick, lean and mean in every area of the pitch. Every inch a unit that knows exactly how to win World Cup ties, just as the Italians used to be.

Can anybody really see beyond a Brazil v Argentina final? While they have important differences (the former use two sitting midfielders and their full-backs have permission to attack, the latter have more of a central emphasis in their forward incursions and a much flatter defence) several things are the same. I risk repeating myself from yesterday a little but it’s an important commonality between this tournament’s best sides. They press, they wait, they play simply over two-thirds of the pitch. Then, like a coiled spring and only when the time is right, they pounce with three attackers, usually backed up by a fourth, altering the tempo dramatically. It’s pretty pragmatic but it’s very intelligent. I doubt there are two sides in this competition with better chances-to-goals ratios and it’s usually this that counts.

Along, of course, with a solid defence – and this is where Brazil really are a cut above anybody. Incredible, isn’t it? I can’t be the only person who remembers their 5-2 win over Costa Rica in 2002, in which each side could have netted something close to double figures. It was one of the most madcap games I’ve watched, certainly in a World Cup, but those days are far gone. Last night, Brazil could frequently be found sitting with Gilberto (who was masterful) and Ramires tightly, to an almost unusual extent, in front of their centre-backs – as solid a block of four as you’ll ever see, with Chile unable to pick the lock centrally and finding it impossible to create any space for their wide players to pick out. Brazil allowed them to pass, pass, pass so far and then shut the door expertly. There were virtually no chances for Chile in central positions, save for a couple of occasions when Alexis Sanchez (usually doubled up on) sought relief inside and beat a man or two. Humberto Suazo was off the pace and isolated in the middle, supply lines cut off and support tightly attended to. You could tell after 20 minutes that there wouldn’t be a lot of joy for Bielsa’s team. The manager himself sat impassively in the dugout for some time after the final whistle, as far as I could tell from my vantage. He probably saw this as a big opportunity missed – but the real missed opportunity was in failing to take enough chances to top their group in the previous two weeks. Juan’s sloppy goal was a frustrating deadlock-breaker but not much would have differed if that corner had been booted away.

The World Cup will be poorer for not having one or both of Chile and Mexico in its quarter-finals, but the manner of their demises was entirely predictable – particularly given their opponents.

More South Americans on the cards today – in an hour or so we’re heading just up the road to Pretoria for a little lunch and a walk around before Paraguay and Japan kick off. Tough one to call, extra-time a decent bet. Japan against Spain would be a fascinating quarter-final.

It is an important week here for our hosts in Kyalami. On Sunday, a huge party – 400 guests expected – will be held in honour of a ‘house blessing’ ceremony, for our wonderful surroundings are only a year or two old. A priest will be coming to scatter water in every room. Dozens of family and friends will be shacking up over the coming days. Sheep will be slaughtered, a ritual to which we are invited. A tribal chief from the Eastern Cape, Vuli’s cousin, will be arriving here tomorrow. Two worlds, perhaps more, will meet in this privileged suburb north of Johannesburg – where wealth is handled respectfully, tactfully in conjunction with the intricate and important mores of Vuli’s heritage. Some of the stories I have heard already are remarkable, and I’ll repeat some once the football’s out of the way.

After today’s match we’ve a couple of days off – one of which will be spent in Soweto with Lwando Ngwena, a budding music producer and DJ who joined us at last night’s game. Between now and the party’s end on Sunday (we make our side-trip to Zambia the following morning) there’ll be plenty for the senses to consume.

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.

Running commentary

June 27, 2010

Compact tin-shack settlements, small industrial towns and expanses of wasteland have replaced seemingly endless stretches of desert and veld as the train, on a slight incline, chugs through the fringes of Gauteng towards Johannesburg. At 26 hours, with one more remaining, it’s probably been the longest train ride of my life – a very comfortable one, it must be said, using the twice-weekly Premier Classe service out of Cape Town. The service, the courtesy, the bonhomie, the little touches have been well worth the £200; the time has passed entertainingly in the company of a Vancouver-based Manchester United fan, a  family of Evertonians living in Perth and their 75 year-old friend whose football knowledge might well exceed that of anyone I’ve recently met. Very shortly, after the succulent appetiser that was Cape Town, my World Cup really begins.

A German family darted off, in the dead of night, at Kimberley. I didn’t join them, despite the quandary detailed a couple of days ago. Meeting friends Dave and Andy at the airport, I’ll then travel with them to our accommodation in Kyalami, catching the match on television before heading to Soccer City for Argentina v Mexico. It could be the most fascinating match yet – you’d have to say that if Uruguay can shut out the Mexicans then Argentina are almost equally mean, but they’re a little more exposed to the counter at times and you’d expect the Central Americans to create. Overall, I think Argentina should simply be more clinical and perhaps win 2-0 or 3-1 as they near a probable final with Brazil.

My schedule for next few days: Argentina v Mexico (today), Brazil v Chile (tomorrow), Paraguay v Japan (Tuesday); Uruguay v Ghana (Friday), Spain/Portugal v Paraguay/Japan (Saturday). Phew, and wow.

I’ll have a lot to say about all that. I’m also looking forward to Wednesday and Thursday – a couple of days off that won’t be spent on the road to a great extent and, I intend, will allow us to get beneath the skin of our surroundings a little and make for an interesting story or two that veers from simple description. It’ll be a long way from Llandudno Beach, near Camps Bay – and a certain personage we bumped into on the promenade further along the coast (see above).

That’ll do – it’s morning coffee time before the ground stops moving and I step back into something resembling real existence. The surroundings are becoming thicker with life and also with dereliction. Chat more soon.

No more cruise control

June 25, 2010

“The problem,” mused a middle-aged Afrikaaner, clad in orange from head to toe, as we waited to pay for parking after the Cameroon v Netherlands game, “is that they’re all just so bloody tired”.

As he then launched into a – not unusual, as I’ve mentioned before – diatribe on why Bafana Bafana are “a century, more perhaps, behind everyone else”, it’s wise to heed with caution. We can’t say for sure that European football is in need of some extensive navel-gazing, because all conclusions (such as ‘worst World Cup ever’, eh?) are best drawn at the end of this month’s jamboree. But the early exits of Italy and France, along with the relative toils of England and Spain so far, sound a warning bell or two that may grow yet louder over the next couple of weeks.

Similarly to 2002, this has become a World Cup for the little guy. It’s a good situation on the whole and probably one that European club football has created for itself. The margins between professional football players are, to my mind, very fine and often based in the head. When young players from emerging football nations are being taken by European clubs at earlier ages than ever – and even if this does not happen, when methods of coaching and nurturing are shared, professionalised and homogenised pretty much across the world – those margins are going to slim further. Get the right stuff into a guy’s head early on and you’ve won half the battle. It becomes more and more difficult to speak of ‘inferior players’ when good footballers are all learning similar things. It’s probably had the effect of exposing complacency in some perceivedly major nations’ setups – even if their way is ‘best’, they’re not the only ones that can practise it.

This said, it’s a little early to speak of a ‘rise of the east’ and all that. I’m yet to see Japan’s apparently fine performance of last night, although I’ll endeavour to catch one of the endless re-runs shown in TV here. They’d shown against England that they’d been quietly developing while heads were turned elsewhere, but I’d caution against setting too much stock in victories against a demoralised Cameroon and a workaday Danish side. Likewise, the Koreans beat an awful Greece before being picked off by Argentina and participating in a basketball match against an equally brittle Nigeria. These two countries may have overcome a couple of big psychological hurdles in entering the knock-out stages, but their real challenges come now.

They may not be the most glamourous sounding last-16 ties, but Uruguay v South Korea and Paraguay v Japan (I’ll be at the latter) both fascinate in their similarity, their apparent clashes of styles and their evident encapsulation of this World Cup’s narrative to date. It’s been South America’s tournament so far, without question. All five sides will probably progress, all five have (before Chile v Spain and Brazil v Portugal) conceded just four goals between them and all look reasonably clinical in attack, however rare their sorties. It’s a balance no other group of countries, perhaps no other country bar the Netherlands, has managed. You’d fancy both Uruguay and Paraguay to close out their opponents pretty effectively and show that there remains a hierarchy among the mid-ranking nations – and if they do that, then we’re probably in for a last eight that is 50 per cent South American. That, alone, is a fascinating situation given the problems faced by at least two of these sides during qualifying – and might hint that the wildly fluctuating results in that region are a product of genuinely intense competition ahead of a lack of quality.

For today, we eagerly await Spain v Chile – albeit wishing that the excellent Fernandez was available for the latter. Alexis Sanchez has been one of the most enthralling players of the tournament so far, as expected. It will be good for the competition if both of these superbly fluent, if flawed, sides progress, because you’d expect some very tight tactical battles in the knock-out matches that we know and can confidently chart. As ‘smaller’ nations move through the competition, they’re likely to keep things very close to their chests.

Me, I’m off to enjoy my final day in what is a foggy Cape Town – although I’ll definitely be back for a couple of days after the final, because it’s not been possible to do justice to this place yet. Nor was it for the Garden Route. An hour-long stop at Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma National Park was enough to make us all wish that England v Slovenia wasn’t happening five hours later. A friend of James, our Ipswich-born resident of Cape Town, told me last night that the hope of many South Africans was that this tournament would provide a showreel to visiting fans of just what a beautiful country this is, and that they’d then return for a ‘proper’ holiday. Mission accomplished, it’s easy to say.

Ticket to what you need?

June 25, 2010

It’s not exactly heart against head, because as an England follower I can be pretty lukewarm. Besides, the gymnastics going on in my brain during the long drive from Port Elizabeth were, I’ll readily admit, the kind of thing I love when travelling – there’s always a perverse fun in making things a little more difficult for yourself in pursuit of a previously unreckoned-for delight. Having access to tickets for both Argentina v Mexico (the original plan) and England v Germany leads to a pleasurable torment, and the usual battle of adventure vs common sense.

It is, I’m instantly told by friends at home, a no-brainer. It’s the first time England have faced Germany in a knock-out since 1990. It’s also pretty impossible to call (although a neutral would want Schweinsteiger to be fit for the Germans). With the Germany a genuinely attractive attacking force nowadays and England having departed slightly from the dour on Wednesday, it could also be a pretty good game – if not exactly epochal.

If I buckled, I’d be going for the occasion more than the match – when compared with the other option anyway. England supporters were, in Port Elizabeth, almost nice to be around (except for the pulsating vein of inexplicable anger stood to my left early on, but we gloss over that), perhaps helped by the wonderful setting, the beer on the lawns outside the stadium, the freedom of movement inside that meant yours truly spent the second half of the Slovenia game wandering around pretty much the entire circumference and standing where he pleased. More of the same in Bloemfontein would be pretty fun. It would also be the chance to take in another stadium and city at reasonable leisure. My friends Tom and Joe Pickover are planning a road trip via a stopover at a farm near Beaufort West. What’s not to like?

The dull, practical bit is that I’m already booked on a Premier Classe train to Johannesburg – a wonderful experience in itself, one that’ll occupy my time from 9am Saturday until 11am Sunday and has certainly occupied plenty of my wallet. That’s not cancellable at this late stage, but it does stop at Kimberley, just 150km from Bloemfontein, at 3am Sunday. I’m no stranger to hanging around sketchy train stations at inconvenient times (there is probably a witty retort here), but the appetite to do so is diminished by the fact that Sunday trains are non-existent and the same seems to go for bus services between the cities. Could rock up and pay a taxi driver, but….

…..but I’ve realised the whole thing isn’t quite enough to make me attempt contortions, however exhilarating. The football fan in me wants to see as many different teams, and styles, in the flesh as possible. England have had their go, and I’ll see them again in the final if they’ve been good enough (they’ll have to have been very good indeed). Argentina and Mexico has the potential to provide one of the most attacking, technically and tactically excellent spectacles of the tournament this time around; perhaps in contrast to one or two of the games I suspect are going to arise a little later on in my World Cup fixture list. One of these two fascinating teams I won’t see again after Sunday, and I’m not sure I like the idea of not seeing that team at all.

So there, I’ve said it – 10am on Friday, and I’m going to stick with Argentina v Mexico ahead of England v Germany*. The making-life-easier decision, and the footballistically sound one too. Whichever option I don’t take will prove to have been the best one in my critical little mind, I am sure. But above all, what a nice problem to have.

(*I reserve the right to a spectacular last-minute U-turn, naturally, provided I can get to Ellis Park on Monday in time for Brazil vs AN Other)