No such danger of underselling from commentator Steve Wilson though, who declared Cape Town the most picturesque setting for a World Cup game ever. Back in the studio, a three man formation saw the two experienced Alans flanking debutant Emmanuel Adebayor, who turned out to be generally more personable than his reputation might have led you to expect. In a free role out by the England camp was Gabby Logan (a Welsh girl married to a Scotsman), who was rather let down by her teammates when technical difficulties cut her off in mid-flow during her half-time report. By and large though, they did okay, and nor could I really fault their analysis of the match – because somewhere in the midst of it all there was one going on.
The French team’s off-field struggles and lack of form had been well-publicised before the game and no one was quite sure what to expect. I’m always a little sceptical of talk of teams in disarray before the tournament starts, much of it can be media-driven particularly when – as here – the press have evidently taken a dislike to manager Raymond Domenech. And even if true, it can cut both ways, social dynamics are a funny thing that way and a bit of a punch up between player and manager the day before a game can get the adrenaline flowing and spark a bit of flair, especially in such a one-off event as a World Cup. For their part, Uruguay had similarly scraped though qualifying, also via a play-off, but boast a front pair of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez who have both had prolific seasons for their clubs (Atletico Madrid and Ajax, respectively).
In the event, France did indeed look as disjointed as everyone said they might – not helped by a rather unenterprising gameplan which remained cautious until the last ten minutes when they were playing against ten men – while Uruguay were decent enough but a bit limited in midfield. It didn’t, in all honesty, make for a very good game.
It had started quite brightly – France looked to have an edge and with Uruguay defending a bit deeper than they would have liked for spells in the first half, I thought at that stage the chances would come. But the only time they really cut Uruguay open was in the seventh minute, when Ribery got a break of the ball on the left and fed in a low cross which Sidney Govou sidefooted neatly and carefully wide of the far post. In terms of chances, that was as good as it got. The most impressive player for France, as the Alans correctly identified, was Abou Diaby, who looked twice the player he had whenever it was I last saw him, not just battling hard and imposing himself in midfield but striding forward purposefully when in possession. He produced the sweetest moment of the game on half an hour with a lovely defence-splitting pass for Govou, which was spoiled only by being intercepted by an offside Anelka.
Forlan has similarly grown in stature since he first appeared in European football a few years back, having long since thrown off his joke tag from his Man United days and become one of La Liga’s most accomplished forwards. When Uruguay did attack, he was usually the lynchpin of it. Much more than just a goalhanger, he was frequently dropping deep into a much more creative role, and looking to find Suarez. Unfortunately Suarez had an off-day, nothing quite fell for him, though the defence had enough difficulty in tracking his runs to suggest he’ll cause someone a lot of problems on another day when he gets the timing of them right.
As the game wore on, France’s advantage began to look more and more illusory, and Lawrenson – the BBC’s other big gun, this time co-commentating – became more and more trenchant in his criticism of the French tactics. He had a point. When Thierry Henry did finally come on with twenty minutes to go, it was as a replacement for Anelka and they persisted with one up front. Meanwhile Govou would drift inside leaving them short of width on the right, while on the other flank Ribery was mostly anonymous in the second half. Uruguay grew visibly in confidence and began to push forward more themselves in search of a winner. They could have found it too, in the 73rd minute, when the only real chance either side had in the second half dropped to just the man they’d have wanted it to – Forlan, fifteen yards out. Slightly off-balance, he cracked it wide.
The first red card of the World Cup came with ten minutes left when Uruguayan substitue Nicolas Lodeiro received a second yellow for a crude lunge on Bacary Sagna, his first booking having come for kicking the ball away just a minute after his entry to play in the 62nd minute. Only once they were a man down did Uruguay shut up shop and look to settle for the point, and only then did France show the urgency they’d been missing for too much of the previous eighty minutes. It was too little, too late, and when Henry wasted a free kick from 25 yards in the closing moments their last half-chance was gone.
And most importantly we’ve seen that, for all the gripes about certain individuals, the BBC still has the class to beat their commercial rivals. But then that was perhaps the only feature of the World Cup on which no bookie would have been daft enough to offer you odds.