Durban: Brazil meet Portugal in a mouth-watering finale to the World Cup group matches on Friday after holders Italy were knocked out in a humiliating defeat by tournament debutants Slovakia.
The miserable display by Italy, four times world champions, followed the earlier shaming of 2006 losing finalists France, who like their European neighbours finished the first round at the bottom of their group.
It was the first time that the two previous finalists had gone out at the group stage of the next world cup and meant Paraguay joined Slovakia in the knockout stage from Group F after drawing with New Zealand.
Brazil are already qualified from Group G and Portugal could go through even if they lose -- unless Ivory Coast turn around a nine-goal deficit in their match against North Korea. Portugal earlier beat the lowly Asian team 7-0 in the tournament`s highest score.
Pre-tournament favourites Spain need to beat Chile to be sure of qualifying from Group H. Chile only need a draw to go through.
The action in the tropical port of Durban on Friday is likely to produce classy football but less agonising suspense than the Italy v Slovakia shocker on Thursday.
It was a fairy tale result for Slovakia, playing in their first World Cup as an independent nation, and coach Vladimir Weiss was close to tears as he saluted supporters in Johannesburg`s Ellis Park stadium.
Slovakia dominated to win 3-2 against the ageing champions, who came to South Africa haunted by prescient press criticism of coach Marcello Lippi for keeping faith with the 2006 veterans.
"I take all responsibility. I haven`t prepared this team well enough," said an ashen-faced Lippi, whose frank and extended mea culpa at a post-match news conference may defuse some of his castigation by the Italian press.
Africans Down To One
The Ivory Coast`s likely elimination will leave only Ghana in the tournament out of the six Africans who started the first World Cup on their continent.
Ivory Coast striker Salomon Kalou said the African players had been too nervous in carrying the hopes of the whole continent.
"Expectations were huge and we owed it to ourselves to perform well, but the pressure has caused us more stress than anything else and even inhibited our talents," he said.
France`s disgraced team arrived home under heavy police guard after a players` revolt combined with terrible performances by the former champions.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered a shake-up of French soccer and captain Thierry Henry rushed to see him as soon as he got off the plane from South Africa.
With the first round almost over, some tantalizing matches are in store in the last 16, including Germany against old rivals England on Sunday.
"The joy of preparing for (the) England match is huge," German coach Joachim Loew said.
"It starts here -- it`s a knockout. How you played in the group doesn`t mean anything," said England`s Frank Lampard.
Argentina, egged on by their eccentric but inspirational coach Diego Maradona, face slick-passing Mexico on Sunday
The United States, who qualified due to a near miraculous late goal from Landon Donovan against Algeria, will face Africa`s probable last hope, Ghana, in Rustenburg on Saturday.
With the Americans brimming with confidence, the Black Stars must overcome their difficulty in converting great creative moves into goals if they are to win.
With most of the African teams out, including hosts Bafana Bafana, South Africa plans a "million flags march" on July 3 to try to sustain interest, which rose to a crescendo before Africa`s first World Cup began on June 11.
FIFA and local organisers have long been concerned that South Africa`s early elimination would reduce not only the crowds and passion but also the unifying effect of the tournament in a country still torn by racial and social divisions.