Quarter-finals loom, losers lick wounds
Johannesburg: The last eight teams in the World Cup geared up on Thursday for the quarter-finals where Ghana remain the only outside challenger to the traditional soccer hegemony of South America and Europe.
For the 24 teams knocked out, recriminations and repercussions continued, especially in countries where soccer is virtually a matter of state.
Following a government-led inquest in France, and the Nigerian president’s suspension of his side from international competition, it was England’s turn to feel some political heat for their humiliating exit from the World Cup.
Ruling Conservative Party legislator David Amess demanded an inquiry into England’s “pathetic” performance and the state of soccer in a nation of “grossly overpaid” Premier League players.
England’s second-round departure was their worst defeat ever in the World Cup, 4-1, but even that piece of unwanted history did not sting as much as who beat them: old foes Germany.
In Mexico, Javier Aguirre announced he was resigning, citing his failure to reach the quarters.
Mexico impressed with their skill and speed, but lost to Diego Maradona’s rampant Argentina, 3-1, in the second round.
“I have to leave, it’s the most honest thing to do,” Aguirre said, ending a second stint as Mexico coach.
In a string of changes at the top, South Africa’s football association said it would offer the post of national coach to local Pitso Mosimane, who had been assistant to outgoing Brazilian boss Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Though “Bafana Bafana” were the first hosts ever out in the first round, they performed creditably and even beat France.
Greece’s football federation said it would replace German Otto Rehhagel with former PAOK Salonika and Porto coach Fernando Santos, who is Portuguese, in its post-tournament reshuffle.
In Japan, midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura quit international soccer two caps short of 100 appearances after the “Blue Samurai’s” exit in the last 16. “My next Japan game? There won’t be one,” the 32-year-old told local media.
The quarter-finals start on Friday with a clash of two super-talented sides -- Netherlands and Brazil -- before Ghana carry African hopes against Uruguay. On Saturday, Argentina play Germany, and Paraguay face Spain.
Ghana’s “Black Stars” have salvaged pride at Africa’s first World Cup, equalling the previous best feat of any team from the continent by reaching the quarter-finals.
Five of Africa’s six teams at the tournament went out in the first round, to the immense disappointment of fans around the continent longing for national sides to replicate the success of their best players in European leagues.
Ghana, though, would make it a memorable tournament if they could beat Uruguay and reach the World Cup semi-finals, something no African side has ever done.
Their Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac, however, was trying to play down the expectations. “The players concentrate on what happens on the pitch. There are no other pressures,” he said.
Uruguay’s “La Celeste” also have history on the mind: they have a rich past pedigree, winning the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, and are in the quarters for the first time in 40 years.
They are one of an unprecedented four South American sides in the quarter-finals. South America and Europe have won every World Cup so far.
In Friday’s other game, Brazil and Netherlands both boast teams packed with talent, technical skill and organisation.
Most pundits give Brazil the edge, thanks to the steely defensive qualities Dunga has instilled, giving his side an impregnable air at the back behind a razor-sharp forward line.
While the populations of eight nations stay on the edge of their seats, and 24 others still ponder what went wrong, spare a thought for some bizarrely misguided Russians.
According to a poll, eight percent of them still think their team will win the World Cup -- even though they never qualified.