With all but two of the second round fixtures decided, we can look back on a group stage that has featured passion and intrigue but has been somewhat short on goals.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been exciting off the pitch, thanks in large part to France’s embarrassing implosion: the 2006 runners-up finishing bottom of a group that many thought an easy ticket after they qualified unseeded.
The star of the tournament so far? He’s short, Argentinean, left-footed, is known for scoring thrilling goals of extraordinary virtuosity, and has provided many a thrill to FC Barcelona fans. Diego Maradona.
The 1986 World Cup-winner is now besuited and bearded (a ploy to cover scars sustained in a dog attack, apparently) and his Argentinian side won three from three.
Maradona’s also been a winner on the touch line with his affectionate embracing of players and subsequent press conference-assurances of his virile, macho masculinity and beautiful, 31-year-old girlfriend. His eccentricity may give Argentina what other quality sides lack.
Fellow South and Latin Americans teams have performed strongly in South Africa, with Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico all progressing to the last 16. Chile could follow them tonight, leaving only Honduras to fly back home across the Atlantic this weekend.
The European teams have looked less sure of themselves. Reigning champions Italy laboured, and were finally put out of the tournament by World Cup debutants Slovakia following an embarrassing draw with New Zealand, a squad not even composed of 23 full-time professionals.
England’s camp has been fraught with tension: former-captain John Terry spoke out in a press conference as Fabio Capello’s side prepared for their last group game against Slovenia (a 1-0 win). He was subsequently told to pipe down, via a press conference, by the Italian manager.
The feeling emanating from the camp is that Capello’s rigid disciplinarianism, so lauded by press and players when the £6m-a-year Don Fabio was brought in by the English FA, is now suffocating them. They only just scraped through Group C in second place behind a USA side with quality and talent, spearheaded by record goalscorer and David Beckham-botherer Landon Donovan.
The Dutch have impressed in not looking impressive. A 2-1 win over Cameroon put them through at top of Group E and set up a clash with Italy-slayers Slovakia. So often accused of playing prettily without winning, the Dutch largely bored spectators in their first two games but won them both without conceding – a possible recipe for a first World Cup win? Probably not as their defence remains low on real quality.
The same cannot be said of Brazil, who have two wins from two ahead of their final group game against Portugal. They have real quality in defence and despite only sneaking past North Korea 2-1 in their opener, have impressed in attack. Robinho looks lively and Luis Fabiano netted two against Côte d’Ivoire after a goal drought and could go on a scoring spree.
As could David Villa, who scored two for Spain in their second game against Honduras and found time to miss a penalty. When Fernando Torres isn’t even your best striker, you know your team is good. Spain lost their first game versus Switzerland, however their Friday-night match against with a high-octane Chilean side should see them through. It will make for an exciting end to the round of group games.
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