Au revoir, France
South Africa ends tournament for 2006 finalist
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency
France's Thierry Henry fights for the ball with South Africa's Steven Pienaar, left, and Tsepo Masilela during World Cup action at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein. (REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)
JOHANNESBURG – South Africa exited the World Cup with its head held high.
France headed home with its tail firmly between its legs, leaving the tournament after setting a historic level for ugliness, embarrassment and conflict.
South Africa defeated France 2-1 in Rustenburg Tuesday but wasn't enough to get them through to the next round. That reward goes to Uruguay and Mexico.
Mexico will meet Argentina in the Round of 16 while Uruguay will play Nigeria, Greece or South Korea.
The result against an imploding French squad turned out to be nothing more than a moral victory – it wasn't enough to prevent South Africa from becoming the first host team to not advance beyond the group stages.
The South Africans needed a couple of things to happen to move on.
Either Mexico or Uruguay needed to win and South Africa had to score enough to swing the goal differential in its favour. Uruguay defeated Mexico 1-0 but the home side couldn’t run up the score on the French.
South Africa looked ready to perform the miracle. Bongani Khumalo headed home a corner kick 20 minutes into the game and Katlego Mphela made it 2-0 in the 37th minute. Seconds after South Africa had taken the 2-0 lead, the hosts had a goal called back on an offside.
If that goal had stood, it would have made the day even more interesting.
But South Africa saw all hope go out the window when Florent Malouda scored 20 minutes from the end.
While South Africa leaves the tournament with a win, a tie and pride restored, France leaves the tournament with nothing more than bitterness and recriminations.
"The over-riding emotion is one of sadness," said French manager Raymond Domenech. "We would have liked the dream to have continued. I shook hands with the players because we have been through some difficult times together. We need to be dignified in victory and defeat. Our goal showed we had taken a step forward."
The number of off-field issues that plagued the French is too numerous to list. The latest incident saw Nicolas Anelka sent home for his verbal assault Domenech during halftime of the game against Mexico. An inquisition was held in an attempt to identify the person who leaked the story.
Reports speculate it may have been Thierry Henry who spilled the beans about the dressing room encounter.
The players then went on strike, led by captain Patrice Evra, over the decision and refused to train.
"We didn't have the right attitude to get beyond the group stage. I would like to apologise on behalf of all the players," Malouda said. "There's a lot of tension in the squad, which isn't ideal for preparing for an important game. We lost our chance to qualify long before today. It's been difficult within the squad. We're not proud of what we've done. I don't know what we'll have to do to earn forgiveness."
Domenech's horrendous record over the last two years is matched only by his unpopularity.
He said before the game he wasn't sure some of the players he picked would even consent to play.
"I have had a splendid adventure for the last six years, good times and bad times," Domenech said. "It is impossible to summarize at the moment what has happened. I cannot analyze things yet. I am not concerned about myself, only the French team and its future."
Domenech benched several players, including Evra, for the game against South Africa.
Gael Clichy took Evra's place while Djibril Cisse came on for Anelka. Domenech started Yoann Gourcuff, who reportedly is as unpopular as Domenech among his teammates.
Gourcuff was sent off for an elbow in the first half, reducing the French to 10 players.
Les Bleus’ performance at this World Cup is being vilified in France. Everyone from athletes, sports commentators and even social commentators and philosophers have commented on the French showing.
Some say the selfish, confrontational attitudes exhibited by the French players is a reflection of French life as it is now under President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party.
Some have called the players 'hoodlums.'
It's probably one of the least offensive terms being thrown around.
So while South Africa leaves the tournament proud of never having quit, France leaves with its reputation in tatters.