The gloves are now off. For the first game of any World Cup, you always need to pick your strongest side. Anything else would be foolhardy, so we can be fairly sure we are seeing people’s strongest hand. How, then, did ITV do? This year it was their turn to take the opening game for the first time in eight years, and they looked keen to show they meant business. Their key new acquisition was Adrian Chiles, who continued to exude his unaffected charm with such familiarity that you could almost believe he’d been kidnapped from the BBC in his sleep and no-one has yet told him.
Their new signings weren’t just limited to Chiles, however. Marcel Desailly, who has previously proffered his insight on the BBC has now crossed the great divide, whilst Kelly Cates, the artist formerly known as Dalglish, steps across from ESPN. Some familiar faces remain, of course. Gabriel Clarke and Jim Rosenthal – who must surely have two-to-three-hundred years broadcasting experience between them – are fixtures from the sidelines, as is increasingly ubiquitous roving reporter Ned Boulting. In the studio, meanwhile, Andy Townsend is now the senior pundit god help us. Today he was joined by Gareth Southgate, CV clearly printed out for watching club chairmen and pinned to his lapels, still looking like a man who could burst into tears at any moment.
As regards footballing matters, ITV followed the general trend for broadcasters to be particularly favourable to the host nation, caught up in the hospitality and excitement of the whole business. It was difficult for Mexico, then, to be painted as anything other than the villains, the party-crashers, the buzzkillers. Adrian Chiles and Kelly Cates spent some time half an hour before kick-off trying to soothe one another’s troubled souls, Chiles in fact admitting in as many words that he couldn’t face the prospect of Bafana Bafana not getting something from their opening fixture. An interesting opening gambit, and one which could be symptomatic of the giddy headrush of being free from the BBC Compliance Unit’s oppressive and unreasonable standards of even-handedness. Back in the studio, our learned punditry panel extolled the tactical virtues of a crowd armed with vuvuzelas, which no doubt calmed Adrian down even further.
Mexico (spit spit, eh lads?), whose chances appeared to rest entirely on football skills alone, also got a pre-match look in from ITV, albeit a brief one. A fine young side, who are nevertheless filled with experience, Mexico entered the game as perhaps a dark horse to win a tight-looking Group A, even though their fans are not fully-zelaed up. ITV’s assessment of the teams filled me with enormous hope for my ongoing mental health. Do South Africa have a real tactical understanding of their shape, Marcel? Why, yes, of course, they have five in the middle and one up front. Well, that’s that sorted out, then. Mexico, on the other hand, impressed Andy Townsend during their friendly defeat at Wembley recently, though clearly not enough for the full consideration of their prospects to be given more than 60 seconds of airtime. Personally, I think that is ample time for any team to be given, though perhaps not when their opponents had just been analysed in depth for the previous three-quarters of an hour.
for anyone searching for evidence that there is a God, a football match broke out before Chiles had time to strip down to his waist and paint his chest in Bafana Bafana colours. Those seeking confirmation of the alternative, however, could point to the fact that in the gantry for the opener were Peter Drury and Jim “Jim Beglin” Beglin: ITV no doubt saving Clive Tyldesley for England’s opener tomorrow, for which a grateful nation salute you. In the style of Adrian Chiles, I feel it best to get my particular prejudices out of the way early by pointing out that I don’t like Peter Drury or Jim Beglin’s commentary styles. Hopefully, that will suffice for the rest of this review.
Nevertheless, it could all be worse, as FIFA emphasise by allowing Sepp Blatter and Jacob Zuma to address the crowd before the national anthems. Perhaps the one time I would appreciate Peter Drury saying a few words, or even armpit-farting the Birdie Song. But that would go back on my earlier vow to say nothing else about Peter Drury’s shortcomings in my eyes. Which I would never do.
Predictably, it was the Mexican team who made most of the first half’s early running. Launching waves of attacks, Geovanni almost opened scoring after just a minute, South Africa’s goalkeeper Khune spilling Carlos Vela’s shot into his path following some unsure defending. Captain Aaron Mokoena made the saving challenge, but it seemed that all the vuvuzelas on the planet were not going to be able to undo the gulf in class indicated by either side’s FIFA ranking. It took the hosts a full 15 minutes to find their feet enough to string together a meaningful and prolonged spell of attacking possession, which was sad news for my already bleeding ears. The din from the vuvuzelas is unrelenting even from half a world away and for the first time, I honestly began to think there could be some truth in the plastic trumpet being the great new tactical advantage of 21st century football.
By hook or by crook, though, South Africa weathered the storm and the first half ended goalless. There were some close moments, and Carlos Vela had one chalked off for a marginal, but most-likely correct, offside decision. In the closing minutes of the half, South Africa even rallied enough to threaten their opponents twice before the whistle, both time as a result of crosses causing all kinds of problems for Mexico’s diminutive goalkeeper Perez. To the Africans’ credit, they could point to as many missed chances as their better-fancied opposition as the oranges came out.
The second half began with more of the same, with the hosts – now with Masilela on for Thwala – pushing on and Mexico seeming as though they were starting to lose a bit of their swagger. But it was after they had begun to get their foot on a ball a little more that South Africa’s pressure told: a swift counter attacking move boldly and stylishly finished by winger Tshabalala on 55 minutes. Coach Aguirre, already looking to make a change before, was forced into action, bringing on playmaker Guardardo in place of a centre half. Two more attacking changes – Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Javier Hernandez – followed within the next quarter of an hour, as Mexico – who having been the better side were now looking like they were starting to panic – continued to lack fluidity and bite.
Mexico’s efforts finally began to pay off on 79 minutes. A left-side cross by Guardardo caused chaos in the South Africa back line and the Mexican players found themselves queuing up to finish at the back post: Rafael Marques taking the honours. South Africa now were starting to look as though they’d run themselves ragged and would be happy to just hold on, although Parreira continued to espouse an attacking philosophy, replacing Steven Pienaar with the similarly forward-minded Bernard Parker. It oh so nearly paid off, too, the lone-striker Mphela making the break through the Mexican lines before seeing his low shot bounce off the outside of the right-hand upright with just added time remaining.
Overall, then, Mexico had all the better technique but South Africa had all the spirit. Mexico can’t argue with their point, but South Africa could easily have deprived them of it. It’s going to be a fascinating group.
Our thanks go to Historical Football Kits for allowing us to use their images for this report.