SANDTON, S.A. – Here in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, you don’t have to look far to be reminded of the shocking fate suffered by defending-champion Italy at the 2010 World Cup.
On each lightpost lining one of the city’s major thoroughfares, someone has plastered white paper sheets boasting a blaring headline of one of the local fishwraps.
“Caio Italia!” it says.
You can’t miss them. They’re everywhere.
So it wasn’t just a nightmare.
It really did happen.
Italy is out after losing 3-2 to Slovakia Thursday.
And so are the French, victims of their own selfishness and infighting.
Italy. France. The two teams who locked horns in the World Cup final in Berlin four years ago have packed up and gone.
Through the group stage of South Africa 2010, the story indeed is as much about who isn’t left in the Round of 16 as who is.
Maybe someone could have predicted one of Italy or France would have been eliminated by this time. But both?
It’s been that type of tournament. What it’s lacked in excitement and goals, at times, it’s made up for with some stunning results.
Here’s a look at some of the thrills, spills and chills of the World Cup as action heads into the Round of 16 Saturday.
1. France: Can you say “national disgrace?”
2. Italy: We’re still in shock. No team has shown more resolve over the years than Italy. No matter how horrid they looked, we had faith. We were wrong.
3. African countries: To have just one representative from the continent – Ghana – reach the knockout stage is a huge disappointment, especially with the amazing fan support all the African teams had,
MOST IMPRESSIVE TEAMS
1. Argentina: Outscored opposition 7-1 and looked impressive doing it.
2. Brazil: Here’s the scary part: after two wins and a draw in three matches, you still get the impression the Brazilians haven’t played particularly well. How scary will they be when they do?
3. Netherlands: Known for being one of the flashier teams in the world, the Dutch have reverted to a successful workmanlike style that saw them grind their way to a sweep in their three opening-round games. Now they get a boost with the addition of star Arjen Robben, who claims he’s healthy and ready to go.
PRIME TIME PLAYERS
1. Lionel Messi (Argentina): No, he hasn’t scored. But there have been very few players in history who make you hold your breath in anticipation of magic happening whenever they touch the ball. He’s shown in this tournament he’s one of them.
2. Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina): In a tournament thirsting for goals, scoring a hat trick is quite the accomplishment.
3. Robert Vittek (Slovakia): His three goals are a primary reason the Cinderella Slovaks made it through.
MOST IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE
Portugal 7, North Korea 0: Ronaldo kicks the extra point to seal the deal.
THE GREG LOUGANIS AWARD (Worst Dive)
To the Ivory Coast’s Kader Keita, who clutched his face and dropped to the turf as if he’d been shot after bumping into Kaka during a 3-1 Brazil win. The problem? No contact was made anywhere near his mug. Get up, you bad actor.
WORST MISSED CALL
In the same Brazil-Ivory Coast contest, Brazil’s Luis Fabiano had the ball go off his arm – not once but twice! Not a good night for referee Stephane Lannay.
THE GOAT HORNS, PLEASE
Robert Green (England): The Three Lions would have enjoyed a much smoother ride into the second round had their wobbly goaltender not butchered an American shot that allowed the U.S. to squeak out of their opener with a 1-1 draw. Some British media claimed his breakup with Guelph native Elizabeth Minett was a distraction. Sure. Blame Canada. P.S.: Wonder how Green feels now that some English tabs have suggested Minett has now “taken a fancy” to actor Chace Crawford?
1. England: No hooliganism, no rowdiness, no silliness. Instead, every stadium they stuffed was wallpapered with flags. They have been the only fan base whose singing managed to drown out the wailing of the vuvuzelas.
2. South Africa: Bafana Bafana Mania was everywhere – until their beloved team was knocked out.
3. Netherlands: We didn’t know there was this much orange clothing in the entire world (other than at Denver Bronco games).
4. Argentina: You can almost hear these people all the way in Buenos Aires.
(Honourable mention: Greece, Japan, Australia, Brazil)
South Africa 1, Mexico 1 (June 11)
The host country came ready to roar in the opener of World Cup 2010 at Soccer City. It was an electric scene. Even those of us wearing earplugs were still deafened by the chorus of non-stop cheering and vuvuzela honking.
GOOD LUCK CHARM
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was on hand to see Landon Donovan’s extra-time 1-0 winner against Algeria, propelling the Americans into the Round of 16. Clinton was so enthralled by the dramatic ending, he changed his travel plans in order to attend Team U.S.A.’s knockout-round contest against Ghana Saturday . If he proves to be a good luck charm again, Donovan might ask him to stick around until July 11 – the day of the final.
BAD LUCK CHARM
Two days before Australia was to meet Germany, actor John Travolta visited the Socceroos and even showed off some of his Saturday Night Fever dance moves. The movie star is an ambassador for one of the team’s sponsors, Qantas. The words of encouragement backfired. The Australians were humiliated 4-0 in Durban.
STOP WHINING ABOUT ...
1. The Jabulani Ball: Maybe it sails. Maybe it floats. Maybe it’s not the perfect orb. But all the teams are playing with the same ball, so stop bitching and learn how to use it. The Argentines did and they scored seven goals in three games. The Portuguese did and they scored seven goals in one game. Obviously it can be done.
2. The Vuvuzelas: The biggest joke of the tournament came when the French complained that the noise from the African horns kept them from hearing their teammates call for the ball. Pass them a crying towel. Oh. Wait. They don’t need any. They’ve already packed up and gone home.
3. In The Case of The French, Everything:: These guys humiliated themselves on a national stage. They complained about the coach, held an impromptu strike ... the crybabies of the tournament.
(Pele) should “go back to the museum.”
- Argentine manager Diego Maradona, reacting to Pele’s claim that he took the Argentina job for the money.
“Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is ... for (bleep’s) sake.”
- Striker Wayne Rooney after English fans booed his team off the field after a moribund 0-0 tie against Algeria.
- “This is football, not kung fu fighting!”
- Maradona, reacting to all the hard tackles going on in the tournament.
UNDER THE RADAR AWARD
James Milner (England): Doesn’t get the ink like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard, but the English certainly looked like a different squad with him in the lineup against Slovenia. It was his marvelous cross that Jermaine Dafoe converted for the winning goal in the 1-0 victory that put England through to the round of 16.
BEST YOUNG GUN
Mesut Ozil (Germany): No wonder Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City are clamouring for his services. Even in a make-or-break game against Ghana in which he didn’t play well, he needed just one moment of magic to rip a beautiful shot into the far corner, giving Germany a 1-0 victory and putting it through to the next round.
Ronaldo (Portugal): Cradled a ball on his back, allowed it to drop, then ripped it into the net before it hit the ground in Portugal’s 7-0 win over North Korea. Think it’s easy? Just try it at home, kids.
To the Port Elizabeth cabbie driving a rusty junkheap who looked back at the Canadian reporter who she was taking to the airport and asked: “Canada’s near England, right?” That’s right, honey. Just across that little pond we like to call THE ATLANTIC FREAKIN’ OCEAN!”
WASSUP WITH THAT?
1. Remember that old sarcastic adage: “Go play on the freeway?” Some brave – or should that be idiotic – souls in Johannesburg do almost exactly that. At many major intersections, peddlers walk between the traffic stopped at a red light and try to sell flags, vuvuzelas and newspapers to people in their cars. Hope they have good life insurance policies.
2. There are no such things as media homers in Canada. Not compared to some of the yahoos here. Saw one clown last week walking through the Ellis Park press centre with a Brazilian flag draped around him as if it was Superman’s cape. Think his reporting will be unbiased? Or how about the British reporter who, during Fabio Capello’s post-game press conference after the 1-0 victory over Slovenia, asked: “Do we now have a better chance in the next round after the way we played out there?” Funny, WE didn’t see this chap out on the field all afternoon.