It’s hotting up, you know. Two terrifically entertaining matches this afternoon in South Africa have continued the 2010 World Cup’s awakening from slumber, and this evening France play Mexico in Group A. France’s advancement to the finals wasn’t, of course without controversy, but there is no place in their starting eleven this evening for Ireland’s bête noire, Thierry Henry. Should he come on at any point, you will probably be able to hear the booing that will come from the other side of the Irish Sea from any point on the entire planet if you cup your ears and concentrate hard enough. Irish supporters could indulge themselves, keep the sound turned down and imagine that the green-shirted Mexican team is Ireland, should they choose to.
In terms of build-up, there at least won’t be many other matches that sound as dramatic as this one. We already know just how fantastic La Marseillaise sounds when belted out at full blast over a public address system, but Mexico have something to bring to this party as well. Himno Nacional Mexicano is as appropriately jaunty as you might expect, and there is something very pleasing about the way that the Mexican supporters in the crowd hold their arms across their chests while it is being played, even if the players don’t seem to do it any more. It is small details like this that offers a gladdening antidote to the increasing homogeneity of modern World Cups.
After such an introduction, is is perhaps unsurprising that the match swings from end to end, with Mexico making mincemeat of whatever may remain of people’s assumptions that some sort of “natural” European superiority may give France an edge over them. The French defence seems to be at sixes and sevens every time the Mexican team gets anywhere near their penalty area. Inside three minutes, Giovanni Dos Santos hits the inside of the post (although the whistle, it turns out, has already blown for offside), and two minutes later Guillermo Franco picks up a yellow card. It’s frenetic and occasionally a little clumsy – for while, it feels as if France are settling into a rhythm, but Mexico then break, Carlos Salcida shows Sagna a clean pair of heels and shoots on goal, only for the French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to block his shot.
Lloris looks a little less convincing a couple of minutes later when he comes for a cross and is beaten to the ball by Pablo Barrera, but does enough to put him off and the ball squirts over the crossbar. France are dominating the possession, yet Mexico seem more likely when they get in sight of goal. Dos Santos comes close again, shooting a foot and a half or so wide of Lloris’ left-hand post. Half-time feels as if it has come too quickly. The first forty-five minutes has had a slightly raffish and chaotic air about it – no goals, but plenty of entertainment, and the lion’s share of it has come from Mexico.
The break also allows us a moment to review the peculiar shirts that France are wearing, which seem to have baby harnesses built into the back of them. It does rather feel as though if Franck Ribéry were to get a little space to run on the left-hand side, his mother would appear from nowhere and go chasing after him, shouting, “And where do you think you’re going, young man?”. There is undoubtedly a highly complex (and, let’s face it, ultimately improbable) reason for this design feature that Adidas technicians can describe in enormous detail. Alternatively, perhaps Raymond Domenech is controlling them all with invisible wires in the manner of a Gerry Anderson puppeteer. This theory would certainly explain one or two things about their first half performance.
The ball continues to swing from end to end throughout the first ten minutes of the second half, but France, who are perhaps starting to realise that, having only drawn with Uruguay in their opening match, they really rather need three points this evening, have a brace of chances when Malouda shoots from the edge of the penalty area, forcing Oscar Perez to tip the ball over the crossbar, and then, a couple of minutes later, Ribery forces the goalkeeper to push the ball around his right-hand post. Meanwhile, the subtle feeling of oddness that seems to be accompanying the match continues when the television cameras linger momentarily upon Thierry Henry, who is sitting on the substitutes bench with a woolly hat on and a blanket over his legs in the manner of one half of a Darby & Joan-esque couple braving the elements of the seafront at Eastbourne in the middle of the winter.
Eighteen minutes into the second half, the breakthrough. It’s almost comically poor defending from France, whose attempt at an offside trap as Rafael Marquez flicks the ball through resembles what an offside trap carried out by the statues of Easter Island might have looked like. Javier Hernandez races clear, composes himself, jigs around Lloris and rolls the ball over the line to give Mexico the lead. Suddenly, a France team that would have quite fancied a draw and a crack at South Africa next week needs a goal. The spark, however, is missing, and with twelve minutes to go the game is almost certainly put beyond the French team. Pablo Barrero is in a comparatively harmless position on the right hand side of the French penalty area but runs at Patrice Evra and is tripped. Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a Mexican football icon but a player that was capable of little more than a walk on role in Germany four years ago, lumbers up and rolls the penalty past Lloris.
The last ten minutes of the match on the BBC sounds like little more than a living obituary for this French team. They push forward, but the drawbridge has been pulled up are no clear opportunities for them to work a way back into the match. Raymond Domenech stands, blank-faced, by the dugout – a busted flush. He should have gone after their disastrous European Championship campaign two years ago, yet was inexplicably retained by the FFF. They can still mathematically qualify, but the matter is now out of their hands. Should Uruguay and Mexico draw their final match next week, France are out even if they wreak terrible vengeance upon South Africa. And there can be little question, by most barometers that they will have deserved it. We all know the underhand means by which they squeezed into the final thirty-two in the first place, and over the one hundred and eighty minutes that they have been here so far they have offered almost no evidence whatsoever that they deserved their place in the finals.
Mexico, meanwhile, join Uruguay at the top of the group and both of them thoroughly deserve their position there. It is to be hoped that neither team succumbs to the obvious temptation and that they play ou a competitive match against each other on Tuesday night. Mexico haven’t, in the past, quite lived up to what their supporters might have hoped, having been knocked out in the last sixteen of the competition at the last four attempts. On the evidence of this evening’s match, though, they have little to fear from anybody – even, whisper it, the Argentina team that is rapidly becoming a Messi and Maradona double act. Indeed, the most damning indictment that can be heaped upon France this evening is that on tonight’s evidence, Argentina will be keeping their fingers crossed Domenech’s old stagers can pull something out of the hat against South Africa and squeak through. Les jours des gloires couldn’t possibly feel further away for France tonight.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.