Monday, November 29, 1999

Disgusted, yet living on hope and prayer

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Johannesburg, June 18 -- The World Cup may not be the same after what happened at one of South Africa's oldest stadia and one built specially for the 2010 finals. Pain in Pretoria and Disaster in Durban were headlines avoided by the media, perhaps because the alliterations were too obvious, but underestimate the impact of Spain and South Africa's losses only at your own peril. The danger of South Africa being the first hosts to exit soonest from the finals got more real than ever on a freezing Wednesday night at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria when Diego Forlan found the scoring boots that gave Atletico Madrid an European title. And even if Spain overcome this Swiss nightmare, they may run into Brazil in the second round. Didn't we want that to be the final? They will also do well to forget that no team has won the World Cup after losing the opener. Diego Maradona's Argentina came the closest, in 1990 when they finished runners-up to Germany after Andreas Brehme's penalty made the difference in one of the drabbest finals in World Cup history. Earlier, West Germany had lost the opener in 1986 to Algeria, but progressed to the final, only to be beaten by Argentina. "Not a good omen," Spain coach, Vicente del Bosque, said. About South Africa first. Bright makarapas, the hand-painted hard hats that South African wears to football games, the vuvuzelas and drums created the atmosphere all right but the 12th man can do only that much. South Africa didn't have a shot on goal till near the 70-minute mark. "Pregnant cows", "death of a nation's dream", "three goals is no longer an embarrassment. It's humiliation," were some reactions splashed in the local media - only the World Cup seems front-page worthy here - from Bafana Bafana fans. Those less disgusted are living on a hope and a prayer while working out complex combinations that start with the most difficult of them all - South Africa needing to beat last edition's runners-up France. Switzerland's reputation for being party-poopers is at least two years old, while co-hosting the Euro 2008. Given Spain's reputation - winning 33 of their last 34 matches, a team with an enviable blend of Real Madrid and Barcelona stars and their status as European champions - the dour Swiss weren't given much chance at the spectacular Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. "Three very unexpected points," said Switzerland coach Ottmar 'Der General' Hitzfeld. As a drab, defensive unit, they were the anti-thesis of the Spanish maestros, but as Diego Maradona said earlier in the competition, "You don't win because you deserve to, you win because you score."Now, for Spain to walk the talk.

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