Dispatches From South Africa: Filling-Out The Early Picture

PRETORIA, South Africa – Can we start coloring between the lines now at South Africa 2010, begin to seriously define this 19th World Cup?

It may be a little early yet, but as we’re at the mid-point of the first round, let’s give it a go.

We’ll mention the vuvuzelas and the ball, and then just move on. For better or worse, they will certainly help brand the first World Cup on this continent.

From there, it’s surely a World Cup of shock and awe. Can we already anticipate that one of the giants will be done early, eliminated in the first round?

It could be Fabio Capello and his pricey glasses that depart in three-and-out disgrace; England looks awful, and signs that the pressure is getting to people throughout the Three Lions camp are plentiful. The headline in this morning’s Independent says it all: "England in chaos – with one last shot at salvation."

Or, could it be Germany, a side that managed to hack its way into trouble after such an inspiring debut? Or dare we say it, even Spain, which may be getting undone by the old World Cup jinx that has struck so many times before.

And can somebody take please take France out behind the barn and just get it over with? We usually see this level of infighting and discord on Real World and the like.

Brazil was something less than inspiring, but Dunga’s team did collect all three points to start, and it seems relatively safe. Italy wasn’t particularly impressive, but a date against the overmatched All Whites of New Zealand will probably remedy matters for now.

What it all says is that this tournament is wide, wide open. Fortune will surely favor the bold. So a team like Netherlands or perhaps Ivory Coast may have an opportunity to rise and accomplish something spectacular. Some team just needs to seize the moment and exploit the gap. Perhaps even one of the lesser decorated Eastern Europeans, Serbia, Slovenia or Slovakia.

Somewhat predictable is the unpredictability of this tournament, much the way Asia 2002 was a tournament of upsets and surprising performances from unlikely nations.

This may also be a tournament defined by goalkeeping that has sometimes landed between shoddy and comically shocking.

Robert Green spilled spectacularly for England. Algerian No. 1 Faouzi Chaouchi wasn’t quite the butterfingers that Green was, but he was surely culpable for a goal that put the Northern African’s bid on the skids.

South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, who had been outstanding until a telling moment against Uruguay, spilled his way into trouble and then committed a foul that probably ended all hope for Bafana Bafana.

And Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima should have been able to turn away Wesley Sneijder’s high velocity Dutch blast on Saturday. It was hardly the worst back-stopping mistake you’ll ever see, but you shouldn’t witness such a thing at this level.

Yes, the ball as something to do with it all. But listen to the reasonable approach taken by Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo: "The ball is pretty difficult but I’ve always said the important thing is training for it," he said. "We are training more and being more demanding of ourselves so that it doesn’t create problems."

Seems reasonable, eh?

Finally, everyone wondered if this would be the time for Africa’s shine? Injuries subtracted some bite from Ghana, to be sure, and maybe from Ivory Coast, depending on Didier Drogba’s comeback bid. But South Africa has looked nervous and less committed than needed. A petulant moment from Nigeria has the Super Eagles in trouble.

This may be Africa’s World Cup in some ways, but it doesn’t seem that it’s in the cards for an African run for the trophy.

All that said, it’s still only midway through the first round. Fortunes and trends can change. It will be worth watching no matter what.

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