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The majority of eyes will be on the other match this evening between Spain and Chile, but this evening’s match between Switzerland and Honduras is, in its own way just as important. Chile and Switzerland could quite easily edge the pre-tournament favourites out before the knock-out stages of the competition even start, and no-one seems to care. There are swathes of empty seats at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontain this evening. The vuvuselas, are out in force. It seems as if, obviously if you think about it, they are easier to play in some sort of formation if there are fewer being blown at the same time. When there is a massive crowd, they merge together into one, long, monotonous drone. There are fewer here this evening, though, and a couple of minutes into the game there is a brief, “parp, parp, parp parp parrrrrp”. It almost sounds like a football chant, and it might even be intentional.
This final group, by the way, is one of those in which there are as many permutations for who could qualify as there are combinations of results that could occur between the two teams. Switzerland need to play for the win, but a draw could be enough if Spain were to lose to Chile in the other match. Even Honduras, were they to suddenly transmogrify into a world beating team, could mathematically qualify this evening, although that seems unlikely. The opening half hour, however, floats by as if both teams are in a dream. It is understandable that Honduras, realising that only an unlikely sequence of events can put them through, may seek to take their feet off the pedal and earn themselves a solitary point which which they can spare their blushes, but Switzerland are playing with the artistry and inventiveness of a photocopying machine and the urgency of a tranquilised koala bear. They need better than this, but it doesn’t feel as if they are capable of it.
One of the great unanswerables of international football is whether the players are told of exactly what is going on in other simultaneous matches. If the Swiss players have been made aware of events in the other match between Spain and Chile (in which Spain, after an apparently off-colour twenty-five minutes, have taken the lead through David Villa after some Chilean goalkeeping that could be charitably described as “overambitious” and uncharitably described as “useless”), they’re making a good job of hiding it. Their tactics are fairly simple. Push the ball wide, loft a high ball in the general direction of the Honduran penalty area and hope for the best. It is a tactic that is, completely understandably, singularly unsuccessful. When, ten minutes from half-time, Gelson Fernandes hauls down Wilson Palacios forty yards from goal and it momentarily feels as if there is a five per cent chance that the referee will pull the red card from his top pocket, it is the highlight of the match thus far. It’s that sort of evening. The Swiss are playing as if their players have come from a footballer-making machine with the settings set to “average”. They are a walking advertisement for cutting the number of places for European teams in the competition. The best that can be said for Honduras is that their shirts are pretty funky. Spain double their lead in the other match in the group and Chile have a man sent off. One additional minute stoppage time? Mr Ambassador, you spoil us.
Hakan Yakin comes on at half-time for Switzerland, replacing Fernandes. The torpor continues, but then, suddenly and quite out of nowhere, Honduras fashion the best chance of the match and Switzerland’s World Cup flashes before their eyes when Edgar Alvarez suddenly (and, it has to be said, quite unexpectedly) finds a little space on the right and crosses in towards the near post. David Suazo ghosts in but his header, from all of five yards out, flashes across the goal and wide. He should have scored. Everybody knows it. He must know it himself. If Switzerland was a cat (bear with me on this), that miss would have been approximately their eighth live, but they can’t take advantage of it. They remain leisurely looking, prodding and poking at the Honduran defence like an elderly lady at a jumble sale, but the clear chances remain few and far between. In the last twenty minutes or so, the pace picks up a little but Switzerland, with one goal from their previous two and three-quarter matches, need two goals in twenty minutes and don’t look much like getting so much as one.
As the clock runs down to zero, the Swiss seem to lose interest. In the closing twenty minutes, there are two further opportunities – one for each team. The Swiss goalkeeper Benaglio saves brilliantly from Walter Martinez whilst at the other end of the pitch, Alex Frei prods the ball wide from six yards when it may well have been easier for him to score. With this, any further realistic chance of Switzerland scraping their way through to the second round evaporates. At the full-time, the Swiss players collapse to ground. They look devastated, but why so little urgency over the previous ninety minutes? With one goal in three matches – the goal, oh irony of ironies, being that which beat Spain in their opening match – they deserve their elimination from the competition. Only six of the European have made the last sixteen, compared to ten in 1998 and 2006, and eight in 2002. Perhaps it is time for FIFA to review how many UEFA nations actually deserve a place in the World Cup finals.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.