It’s the fault of Germany, Austria, Argentina and Peru, although it was bound to happen one day, although as Mexico and Uruguay proved earlier, some teams can enter a game knowing that a specific result benefits both sides, and still treat the game as any other. But, just in case the last two games kick off simultaneously, which is a shame for the viewer. The first game, especially this time round, is cagey, not losing is more important than winning. The second game is about putting a marker down, showing everyone else what you have as your Plan A. And the third game is usually the one where you have to go hell for leather. A ninety minute version of injury time when you’re one-nil down. ITV went for the ratings and going for the likely “dead rubber” featuring France and the hosts, while BBC take a similar tack by showing the Argentina (or “we’ll assume Argentina will top the group” to give them their new full name according to most of the media) game on BBC1. Yet, that is a game where one team only needs to avoid defeat. This one is the “sleeper” game, yet both sides know that a win sees them through. For Nigeria, only a win will do. The night starts with the group set up like this:
1. Argentina 2. South Korea 3. Greece 4. Nigeria
We have the BBC Dream Team of Steve Wilson and Mark Bright, who have given us every possible permutation of past, present and future Premiership players, without going into the permutations of how this pair could qualify. It may have been mentioned in the build up beforehand, but Garth Crooks was involved, and I needed to stay awake. Hey, with preparation like that, I could become as good as Mick McCarthy. And we’re away, and almost from the kickoff Lee Chung-Yong (of Bolton Wanderers, as we’re helpfully reminded) has the first chance of the match in the first minute, after a net build up. The shot goes wide, but he collides with Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyema (who doesn’t play in the Premier League, so does not merit a mention by name by the commentary team). Ki Song-Yung has the next chance which is fired over the bar, and South Korea look the most threatening. There are two sets of treatment in the first ten minutes, as Danny Shittu does, well, something to his knee, as he gets up from going for a diving header. He looks in pain, and it looks very uncomfortable, but he is able to leave the pitch under his own steam. And then we get the first goal. Chidi Odiah receives the ball by the near touchline in no real danger. He races for the touchline, with no real challenge. Odiah then beats Kim Jung-Woo, realises the fullback Lee Yong-Pyo is content with just watching, and puts in a low cross to find Kalu Uche, who steams in ahead of the sleeping Cha Du-Ri, past Jung Sung-Ryong. The lead comes against the run of play, but if the defending had been any better, it would have been nonexistent. 1-0.
1. Argentina 2. Greece 3. Nigeria 4. South Korea
Cha Du-Ri instantly tries to make amends by delivering a whipping low cross, that almost deceives Enyema. Enywma fumbles it under Park Ji-Sung pressure, but it goes safely for a corner, which is wasted. Nigeria are trying to not lose the lead, and in doing so, try and lower the tempo. Park Chu-Young drills a low shot that Enyema gathers relatively easily. We then get a penalty shout (that isn’t replayed) where Danny Shittu challenges a Korean and seemingly doesn’t touch the ball. There might not be any contact on the player either, as the fall seems a touch theatrical. Park Ji-Sung gets the opportunity to run onto a through ball, Enyema rushes out to meet him between the penalty area and the corner flag, and gets booked for holding Park back. The free kick produces a great chance for SK. Ki Sung-Yong whips the ball in, Park Chu-Young doesn’t connect, and Enyema parries out, and the rebound falls harmlessly. Park Chu-Young has another chance from a thirty yard free kick, but it a daisy cutter, and only troubles the advertising hoarding. A speculative Uche shot then hits the post. The pace isn’t relentless, but neither side seems to take time over restarting play. Lee Yong-Pyo makes a great run down the left, and is brought down crudely by Chinedu Obasi, who picks up his second booking of the tournament. It’s an expensive free kick. Ki Sung-Yong floats in the best crossed free kick of the tournament, Rabiu Afolabi falls asleep, and loses his attacker Lee Jung-Soo, who has time to decide whether to head it or kick it, and eventually puts it beyond Enyema with his calf. South Korea are back on track to qualify. 1-1.
1. Argentina 2. South Korea 3. Greece 4. Nigeria
Ayila Yussuf commits his fourth foul of the game, just outside the area, and he finally gets a yellow card. Yeom Ki-Hun delivers the best direct free kick of the tournament (in that he keeps it on target), and it troubles Enyema by bouncing right in front of him, but he keeps hold of it. It’s the last meaningful action of an excellent half. I wonder if Argentina-Greece has been this interesting.
The second half starts just as bright. Lee Young-Pyo drives a shot that Enyema doesn’t hold comfortably. He’s a lot unsteadier today, and after building a great reputation against Argentina and Greece, he’s slowly destroying it. Danny Shittu pushes Park Chu-Young’s head into Odiah, and Odiah gets the pain, and Park Chu-Young gets the free kick on the edge of the box. And what a free kick, because finally we have a goal from a direct free kick. It bends round the wall, and while it isn’t the greatest free kick, Enyema’s positioning is suspect and it’s enough for Korea to take the lead. 2-1.
South Korea tighten up, but still keep the pressure on. Nigeria haven’t had many chances yet, and Obafemi Martins comes on for the disappointing Kanu, and immediately gets into a threatening position, only to overrun the ball, and be dispossessed as he was about to shoot. Obasi makes a surging runs, but goes down easily on the edge of the box, impressing nobody, least of all the referee. This gives the Koreans the opportunity to break, with Yeom Ki-Hun making a great run. Enyema collects the ball confidently in the air, with Park Chu-Young poised to add to his tally. It’s Yeom’s last contribution, as he’s replaced with the defensive midfielder Kim Nam-Il. A great overlapping interchange between Uche and Ayila Yussuf provides Yakubu with a great chance from from yards out. The keeper is stranded, Yakubu is offside, the flag stays down, but the ball hits his heel and goes the wrong side of the post, but hits the keeper’s water bottle. It’s the miss of the World Cup. As in the whole competition, not just the 2010 finals. He doesn’t take long to make amends. Great work from Obasi sees him hit the byline. Kim Nam-Il wins the ball, dawdles on it, Obasi gets the ball back, and Kim brings him down. Stonewall penalty. As defensive substitutions go, it was counterproductive. Yakubu takes the penalty, and he calmly strokes it to the right of the keeper, who goes the wrong way. Game on. 2-2.
The goal only provokes Korea into going for the win. A Kim Jung-Woo shot can only hit one of his teammates, Lee-Young-Pyo and Park Chu-Young link up well again, only for two Nigerians to get in a challenge. Park Ji-Sung fires a shot at the inside netting, and Lee Chung-Young is palmed round the post. Elsewhere, Argentina score, but for all the action and the goals, we’re still where we were three goals ago, and at kick off. A Nigeria goal would put them though, and we almost get it. Obasi feeds Martins with a great pass, and while the chip goes over Jung Sung-Ryong, it also beats the far post. It’s not quite a sitter, but he should have scored. South Korea may have had more chances, but Nigeria are playing with the better football and having the better chances. They should be 4-2 up and in the second round. Victor Obinna’s run, turn and shot deserves more than hitting the side netting, and he tried his luck again a minute later. It’s quite his night. The three minutes added on at the end are the dullest of the match. The referee brings the game to an end, and South Korea join Argentina in the second round. So far, both South American sides are through, while both African and European teams have been eliminated (that has to change, because bad as Algeria, England and Slovenia have been, they can’t all go out). This may not have been the most technically proficient game, but it’s flowed, it’s had a lot of highlights, it’s rarely let up, and most importantly of all, it’s been entertaining. Just as it should be.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.