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Upstart takes on the World (Cup): Day 8

The 2010 World Cup finally got what it needed on Day 8 and the tournament's most polarising figure is the man behind it all, writes Evan Harding. And what's that thing he's got in his head?

It continued through the day: ‘This is what’s wrong with soccer!’ they screamed. ‘The best team doesn’t always win… there aren’t enough goals… you can just cheat… all the bloody diving!’ they ranted, immediately seizing the chance to bring up as many complaints they could about the game. While it seemed an overreaction, it couldn’t be denied: the haters had a point.

Yes, there is merit in two teams slugging it out but the match eventually ending as a 0-0 stalemate. But this is not only the world championship of football, it is an advertisement for the sport and the participants were the worst marketers in World Cup history.

The players and coaches, of course, cannot be blamed for doing whatever it takes to win. Their supporters expect no less. Therefore, the game must be at fault. It’s broke and it must be fixed. This was all because not even the beautiful Spanish team could score at this World Cup.

And then their former colonies ended the slump. The signs were there when Diego Forlán led Uruguay past South Africa. But it took Argentina, and later Mexico, to finally give the tournament what it needed. Forget the Barcelona-Real Madrid marriage of pass-masters Xavi and Xabi Alonso, how about the ones who put it in the net, La Liga top-scorers Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín? Or, even, the speed and energy of emerging Tottenham-Arsenal duo of Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela?

The Mexicans did what many, but not all, people wanted them to do: They all but knocked the French out with a 2-0 victory. Giovani was excellent; Vela was not, and eventually injured; but new Manchester United signing Javier Hernandez and veteran Cuauhtémoc Blanco did. Les Bleus were appalling and even if they can beat South Africa by a hefty margin in their third match, they require Mexico and Uruguay to do the right thing and not just play out the draw that would allow them both to progress at the expense of the French. And let’s face it, it’s not like Thierry Henry and co have a huge amount of credit points in the bank.

Also last night, Greece finally got something other than a ‘0’ posted in any of the good columns of World Cup statistics. Their first win, their first points, their first goal even, came last night as they turned around a 1-0 deficit to Nigeria to post a 2-1 victory – with a huge helping foot from Sani Kaita, sent off for kicking Vassilis Torosidis.

But it was Argentina rightfully taking all the plaudits, with Higuaín scoring a hat-trick and Messi superb again – as if there was any doubt – in a 4-1 victory over South Korea. But for a Martin Dimichelis brain-fade La Albiceleste would have matched the German rout of Australasia. (Hey, if we are going to share our triumphs we should share our disasters too, no?)

But perhaps the most striking – and disturbing – thought to come from the exquisite Argentine performance was this: Maradona might actually have a functioning brain after all. A brain, long thought to be destroyed if it ever existed, that allows him to orchestrate a fluid unit in which four, and possibly more, of the world’s most deadly forwards can indeed co-exist. Even if he’s not directing this orchestra, he’s smart enough to listen to someone who can, which is still smarter than anyone had given him credit.

He has even provided sparks away from the pitch, continuing his feud with Pelé and almost starting another with Michel Platini before a subsequent apology. Love him or hate him, Diego Maradona is providing the entertainment the World Cup needed.

MUST-SEE: What we refer to most commonly as ‘special comments’ and the Americans will call ‘color commentary’, so too the British refer to ‘punditry’. Whatever we call it – and the terms are widely-known enough to be interchangeable – what we so often get, in any sport, is awful. For anyone who’s ever yelled at the television not because of a poor piece of play but because of a pundit stating the bleeding obvious or the flagrantly incorrect, you’re not alone. To Tom English of The Scotsman all I can say is, ‘Preach on, brother.’

EYEBROW-RAISER: Probably a ‘must-see’ too but n the day that the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Championship, let’s look at a player from the team they beat on the way to the Finals – the Phoenix Suns’ Steve Nash. A soccer fanatic, Nash has even been sent to South Africa to file reports for CBS Sports. His appearance in this Visa ad is therefore not out of place – with a shout out to fellow Santa Clara alumni Brandi Chastain.

REASON TO CHEER ON SERBIA: Even if Australia beats Ghana, they are going to have to get past Serbia. Best to get their good game out of the way with a surprise win over Zee Germans and suffer a letdown against the Socceroos.

REASON TO CHEER AGAINST SERBIA: On the other hand, a truly demoralised team might slump to a third defeat. Or, if they can get really pummelled by Germany, all of a sudden goal difference is alive again. Unless Ghana can somehow beat Germany. Or Australia can’t beat Ghana. Confused? OK just think of Yugoslavia. They were a sporting power and they threw it away for what? So we would cheer them on as ‘underdogs’? Not on your life. Same with you, Slovenia.

(Disclaimer: This in no way intends to reflect an indifference to the tragedies of the Yugoslav wars, but someone who can’t even work out the requirements in a four-team group is unlikely to have in in-depth knowledge of the claims of justification put forth by Slobodan Milošević… Oh, for an online link to the brilliant Martin/Molloy sketch from the mid-90s: “Mate, if Radovan Karadžić had one more strictly enforced demilitarised zone it’d be lonely!”)

TONIGHT: It’s Germany and Serbia kicking off tonight, and many expect a more polished performance from Serbia. Following defeat by Ghana, they too need a win to get their World Cup campaign on track. Germany, though, were awesome against the Socceroos and there’s no reason why they won’t impress again: Germany 3-0 Serbia. The midnight match sees Team America: World Beaters up against Slovenia. The US got lucky against England, no doubt, but at many stages of the game were the better team and appear to be more in the 2002 mould than 2006. Just like in ‘02, Landon Donovan to top-body the sphere into the score bag: Slovenia 0-2 USA. And finally it’s England meeting Algeria. Gareth Barry’s return from injury has been much-anticipated in Old Blighty, and will allow Fabio Capello to structure his midfield in the way that was so successful in qualifying. The Desert Foxes proved themselves to be not all that in their opening match, but their Africa Cup of Nations semi-final berth came after an extra-time win in the quarters, besides that they rode their luck, scoring just one goal in their other five matches in Angola. In other words, they’re not much chop. Watch the tabloids’ reaction after this false dawn: England 6-0 Algeria.

Evan Harding is co-producer of The Contenders Daily Bite, a daily World Cup short which can be seen on Tribal Football. A Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University, he is an upstart editor armed with a month’s supply of coffee and an ill-conceived $50 bet on France at 18-1. Previous World Cup columns can be found here.

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