So that’s it, then. The feast is over. That glorious month spent knowing what you were going to be watching the next day has finally reached an end. Withdrawal begins here. Still, there’s only four more years to go.

Spain are world champions for the first time, and no-one could argue that they weren’t the most deserving winners. Okay, the final was probably the worst World Cup final in living memory, made so in large part by the cynical approach of Holland. Having decided they couldn’t beat Spain on the ball, the men in orange decided they would beat the Spanish off the ball, by literally beating them. Feet, elbows, legs and hands were used liberally, breaking up the passing magic that Spain use to wear out their opponents, eventually enraging the Spaniards and reducing the game to an unsavoury statistic as the most yellow-carded World Cup final in history. Sadly, this match will be remembered only for Nigel de Jong’s insane karate kick on Xabi Alonso, Arjen Robben’s continual histrionics, Mark Van Bommel’s complete inability to get himself sent off and the undeserved jeers aimed at referee Howard Webb as he collected his commemorative medal. Oh, and Andrés Iniesta’s expertly taken goal. Let’s not forget that some football was actually played. Mostly by Spain, but in all fairness when Robben wasn’t rolling on the floor in mock agony like an extra from Platoon or chasing Webb around the pitch, he was by far Holland’s best player and virtually the only one who looked like he wanted to take the game to Spain, rather than just stop Spain taking the game to them.

Poor Howard Webb, the only Englishman to actually make it to the final, has taken a lot of stick for the way he handled the game. Predictably, this has been mostly Dutch stick, with Wesley Sneijder accusing Webb of costing Holland the World Cup, but he has also been criticised for the leniency he showed the Dutch. It’s true that Holland were lucky only to have one man sent off, but Webb seemed determined to give each team as much of a chance as he could to provide a decent game. Imagine the outrage if he’d reduced Holland to nine men before half time (which he would have been well within his rights to do). To my mind, Webb did an excellent job coping with the crèche, and what cost the Dutch the World Cup was the Dutch. End of story. This is what happens when you adhere to that dismal technique, Not Playing Football™. It has been a technique too often used at this tournament, and for the team employing it to have won the prize would have been a travesty.

This is the point where the pundits look back and give their opinions on South Africa’s first World Cup. The verdicts have been almost universally positive. The stadiums were all excellent, the South Africans were joyous hosts, the atmosphere was infectious and I look forward to hearing the vuvuzelas in the new Premier League season, although that may put me in the minority. Any shortcomings were down to the matches themselves, with too many teams seemingly reluctant to just Play Football™. Thank God for Spain.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But then I always do. The mark of a thing’s worth is how sorry you are when it is gone, and I will be suffering withdrawal for a little while. If anyone knows where I can obtain World Cup patches or gum, please let me know.

Thank you, South Africa. It’s been a blast. Get ready Brazil.

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Final World Cup Standings

1st – Spain

2nd – Holland

3rd – Germany

4th – Uruguay

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The FIFA awards

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Golden Boot – Germany’s Thomas Müller.

Player of the Tournament – Uruguay’s Diego Forlán.

Golden Glove – Spain’s Iker Casillas.

FIFA fair play award – Spain

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My Awards (perhaps not so prestigious)

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Best Match – Uruguay 1-1 Ghana (4-2 on penalties). Okay, so no match should end with penalties, but up until that point the game was absolutely breathless. With one of the tournament’s best goals from Ghana’s Sulley Muntari, the whole match was on a knife edge from the start. It was a game that you just couldn’t predict, and not even Paul the octopus could have foreseen the drama at the end. Absolutely enthralling.

Worst Match – The final. This was more like watching the 70s movie Rollerball than the final game of the world’s biggest sporting event. The only redeeming feature was that the right team won the trophy.

Best Player – David Villa. Spain’s intelligent, alert and imaginative forward was one of the few big name players who lived up to his reputation at this tournament. Only two assists short of the Golden Boot, Villa was the perfect front man for the excellent Spanish side. Take note, Worst Player.

Worst Player – Wayne Rooney. Or rather, that guy who ran around at the front of England’s team who happened to look like Wayne Rooney, but clearly had no idea how to play. What happened to England’s only untouchable player? The biggest disappointment of the tournament, Rooney looked lost, bumbling and error prone from his first minute to his last.

In the universe in which I exist, octopi aren’t known for their psychic powers. Sure, they can spray ink, squeeze into tight places and perhaps change colour, but when it comes to predicting future events most people don’t rush to consult a cephalopod mollusc. Behold, then, the wonder that is Paul. Yes, my friends, he’s called Paul, and this is one octopus who defies the lowly expectations inflicted on his kind; for Paul is a seer of German football.

Paul was born in England but moved to the Oberhausen Sea Life Aquarium where he has become a national celebrity, correctly predicting 70% of the German team’s results in the 2008 European Championships. His predictions in this World Cup have a 100% success rate so far, right down to Germany’s loss to Serbia, which even most bipedal mammals didn’t see coming. All hail the mighty Paul!

Paul’s arcane ritual involves choosing a mussel from within one of two jars, placed in his tank and bearing the flag of either Germany or their next opponent. The jar the invertebrate decides to eat from has invariably carried the flag of the eventual victor. This uncanny ability has propelled images and videos of Paul around the world, as news of his great feats of precognition snake their way across the web.

Fame may now be the only thing that saves poor Paul. Yesterday, before today’s semi-final between Germany and Spain, the octopoda oraculum predicted a Spanish victory. This sent ripples of consternation through Germany, as you can imagine. Germany had suffered defeat to Spain at the final of the aforementioned European Championship and had no desire to see that result repeated, but they took heart in the fact that Paul had not predicted the result of that game correctly. If he could be wrong once, right?

Unfortunately for his adopted homeland, Paul wasn’t wrong this time. Spain beat Germany 1-0, winning a place in their first World Cup Final, in which they will face the Holland team that dispatched Uruguay yesterday. Meanwhile, Germany will face Uruguay in the third-place play-off on Saturday, a game which Paul may feel less pressure to get right in his predictions. That is assuming he survives that long.

Even now, there will be whispers and accusations against the hapless sea creature. People will start to wonder if his prediction corroded the psyche of the team, a subliminal influence that became the cause of the effect. Fingers will point, wrath will become focused, attention will be drawn to his English heritage and the German nation will wonder if Paul was really seeking vengeance for the second round defeat of his birth place. It will only be a matter of time before the ironic words ‘Polbo á feira’ are uttered and Paul’s infamous stay in this world will be ruthlessly cut short.

Pray for Paul. Or enjoy your meal.

Last seen heading for the Swiss border.

Polbo á feira. With some fresh bread and a gorgeous Pinot Noir. Sorry, Paul.

Yet another day of shocks, scares and insanity in South Africa. The bookies must be making a fortune on this World Cup. If there is anyone out there who successfully called the result of today’s first quarter-final at Green Point Stadium, then you are psychic, and I would appreciate the receipt of next week’s lottery numbers.

Argentina v Germany always promised to be a fascinating meeting. Diego Maradona had claimed beforehand that Argentina had God on their side; perhaps a little hark back to his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in 1986. However, after the full 90 minutes of this match had elapsed, it must have seemed that even if Maradona had fielded God and all his divine Angels in the blue and white kit, Germany still would have won. They were simply unstoppable. Barely three minutes had passed before Müller headed Schweinsteiger’s free kick past the crouching Argentinean Goalkeeper Romero. It wasn’t clear if Romero was stooping to catch the ball, or assuming a position of prayer. Either way, the ball sailed past him and into the net. Germany were just getting started, however, and the first half was a long story of German dominance and Argentinean frustration. When they did create chances, they were wasted, as the Germans left little room for them to work with, and cleverly caught their opponents offside when Argentina put the ball in the German net.

The second half started better for Argentina, but the German defence was rigid and indomitable. Then, on 68 minutes, Germany launched another of their ruthless counter-attacks, Podolski sweeping the ball to Klose, who rolled the ball over the Argentinean line. They never recovered. Four minutes later, Friedrich easily ended another attack with Germany’s third goal, and Klose got his 2nd on the 88th minute, a breezy finish from Trochowski’s cross. Argentina 0-4 Germany. The Argentineans staggered from the field in utter shock. Another big South American team go out and yet another big name, Lionel Messi, exits the tournament without a goal to his name.

Spain went into their quarter-final clash with Paraguay in the knowledge that the implacable Teutonic machine awaited them in the semi-finals if they won. You would understand if this put the wind up them a little, and it could explain their rather lacklustre performance against a side who had never reached this stage before. The three previous meetings of these two teams had all finished goalless, and so it remained at half-time, after a plodding and nervous 45 minutes had elapsed. The only event of any real note had been a Paraguayan goal, rightly disallowed for offside.

Things got a lot more interesting in the second half, however, when Paraguay were awarded a penalty after Cardozo was dragged to the ground in the Spanish goal area by Piqué. Cardozo took the spot kick, only for the Spanish keeper Casillas to save it! Spain raced to the Paraguayan goal, where Villa was brought down, resulting in a Spanish penalty! Two penalties in two minutes, at opposite side of the field! Now we’re having fun, right? But there’s more. Alonso takes the shot, scores, and is told to take it again! There were Spanish players running into the area too early. So, Alonso brings the ball back, takes the penalty again, and it’s saved! Replays suggested that the Paraguayans also rushed into the Spanish area too early, and that penalty should have been retaken too. What an ungodly mess.

Spain picked up a little after this and, finally, thankfully, on 83 minutes Pedro shot at the Paraguayan goal. The ball rebounded of the right post and back to David Villa who met it, shot it back at the right post, where it rebounded and hits the left post before landing gratefully over the line. A messy goal for a messy game, but Spain go through to meet Germany in the Semi-finals. However, beneath the celebrations must be the nagging certainty that if they don’t improve, the ruthless, efficient, and rather scary Germans will have a very easy day.

Fate can be cruel, but football can be crueller. Ghana discovered this first hand. The only remaining African team in the tournament went out to Uruguay, justifiably feeling that they deserved to take the victory themselves.

In what could stake a convincing claim as the most exhausting match of the World Cup so far, the two sides looked set to go into the half-time break level on 0-0. Uruguay had started the better the side, but Ghana slowly eased themselves into the game. Then, on 47 minutes, the last kick of the first half, Sulley Muntari scored an absolutely outrageous goal, sweeping the ball into the net from 35 yards out. Uruguay 0-1 Ghana. Vuvuzelas rang out, and I imagine it will be about two days before anyone in that stadium recovers their hearing. Uruguay went into the tunnel for their half time break looking a little shell-shocked.

The second half found Ghana whizzing the ball around with a renewed spring in their step, leaving Uruguay rather fighting for it during large portions of the game. Then, on 54 minutes, Panstil brought down Fucile on the far side of the Ghanaian goal, setting up the kind of free kick that Diego Forlán eats for breakfast. Sure enough, Forlán sent the Jubulani straight into the top corner of the goal, bringing the score level at 1-1. Then the game really got started.

After another breathless 38 minutes, normal time ended at 1-1. Another 30 minutes of extra time and the teams were still level, but it was Ghana that were showing most of the industry and creating most of the chances. Extra time looked set to end with a Ghanaian corner, the ball sailing into Uruguay’s goal area and resulting in a moment of utter insanity. The ball bounced to the keeper, back into the huddle, back toward the goal, back out again, back in again, and that’s when Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez, standing on the goal line, pushed the ball back out with his hands. Both of them. What was he thinking? Something along the lines of, ‘Maybe the Ref won’t see it’. The Ref did see it, Suárez was sent off and Ghana were awarded a penalty! The last kick of the second half of extra time was going to be a penalty! Ghana could be through to the semi-finals in one kick. Up stepped Gyan, who had already scored two penalties in this tournament…and misses it! My God, man! You choose now to miss a penalty?

Extra time was over; the game would now be decided on penalties. I mean, the usual ones. Come the end of the shootout, which included Gyan scoring his penalty (oh, the irony), Uruguay had won it 4-2. Ghana out, Uruguay to play Holland (who knocked out Brazil in the day’s other shock) in the semi-finals. Cruel, cruel, cruelty of the cruellest kind. No matter what came after, Ghana were cheated out of a second goal by a Uruguayan striker who took the ‘foot’ out of football.

A short while before the start of the World Cup, Nike released a three minute commercial, featuring six of the tournament’s ‘big’ names. The mini-movie painted a fantasy picture of these football giants, and the legends they might write large on the international stage. We are now three weeks into South Africa’s highly enjoyable soccer fest, and the truth has been remarkably, and quite laughably, different.

Here is the commercial itself.

Now, witness the fiction and the fact, as we examine Nike’s little opus with the glorious gift of hindsight.

Scene 1 – Didier Drogba and Fabio Cannavaro

Nike’s fiction – The Ivory Coast striker, Drogba, is seen weaving gracefully through Italy’s defence, curling a perfectly placed ball toward the net. Italian defender Cannavaro speeds manfully for the goal and, in a feat of magnificent athleticism, scissor-kicks the ball away. We then see Cannavaro back in Italy, a national hero, celebrated by old crooners and dancing girls alike.

World Cup fact – Both teams are knocked out in the group stage, Italy at the bottom of their table. Drogba’s contribution is limited, due in part to the broken arm he is recovering from. Fabio Cannavaro’s return to Italy is about as far from a hero’s welcome as is possible. Tutto Nero!

Scene 2 – Wayne Rooney and Franck Ribéry

Nike’s fiction – England v France, and Rooney places an inch perfect pass toward a teammate. However, the ball is skillfully intercepted by Ribéry, who begins racing up field with it. Rooney has nightmare visions of the shame and disgrace he could face back home, including satisfied smiles from USA players, Landon Donavon and Tim Howard. Rooney sprints after the French menace, making a spot-on tackle to reclaim the ball. We then see Rooney being knighted by the Queen, having babies named after him, beating Roger Federer at table tennis, etc etc.

World Cup fact – Franck Ribéry and France also go out in the group stage, also at the bottom of their group. Wayne Rooney is England’s biggest disappointment, scoring a total of no goals and losing more tackles than any other player in the tournament. England are knocked out in the second round. Notice of Rooney’s impending knighthood is, as yet, unforthcoming. In fact, the satisfied smiles of USA players may be the only thing that proves accurate. At least until their second round match.

Scene 3 – Ronaldinho

Nike’s fiction – Next up is Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, collecting the ball and confounding his opponent with a series of magical step-overs. Cue a series of clips demonstrating how everyone in the world is doing the ‘step-over’. Why, it’s even become an exercise video! This is Ronaldinho’s World Cup!

World Cup fact – Ronaldinho isn’t even selected for Brazil’s squad. He’s presumably watching the tournament on TV with the rest of us.

Scene 4 – Cristiano Ronaldo

Nike’s fiction – Ronaldo collects the ball, haring toward the opposing goal (Holland’s, by the look of it). Cut to Homer Simpson answering his door to a cartoon Ronaldo, who then winks at the camera, no doubt enraging England fans everywhere. The ponce, I mean player, is then brought down in a tackle and as he prepares to take his free kick, we see clips of the premiere of Ronaldo: The Movie, and the unveiling of a huge statue in his honour. All eye-rolling stuff, and not quite the way it turned out.

World Cup fact – Ronaldo cuts a dejected figure in the four games Portugal manage before being booted out in the second round. Mainly because his team don’t have a lot of use for their Captain, preferring instead to avoid crossing into the opposing team’s half unless it is absolutely necessary. He scores once. Against North Korea. My mum could score against North Korea. And she can wink too. Where’s her guest spot on The Simpsons?

So, there you go. All six of Nike’s chosen ones are either home, or on their way home, before the quarter-finals have even begun. Perhaps Nike should have stuck to their old favourite, ‘Just Do It’. All six of their expensive front men could have used that advice.

So, while the English media dissect the rotting corpse of England’s World Cup campaign, deluding themselves that it ever actually had life, the tournament itself continues apace.

Spain 1-0 Portugal. A pleasing victory for Spain’s attacking football over Portugal’s mean-spirited defensive goal crowding. Coming up to this game, the Portuguese had kept a clean sheet in 22 games. It sounds impressive, but then you see them on the pitch and realise they are using that old reliable technique, Not Playing Football™. Rather, they all huddle around their own half, waiting for the opponent to make a mistake, and then pelt downfield to try and snatch a goal. It often works, of course, but it’s not much fun to watch. Especially when they have one of the best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, hanging around up front, hoping one of his team mates might pass the ball to him. They didn’t, and Ronaldo was left to do the other thing he excels at; pouting with his hands on his hips.

Conversely, Spain like to come out, keep the ball well, pass quickly around the pitch and score great goals from open play. The team that won the European Championship in 2008 are the kind that you watch this tournament for. They play football at its best; skilled, intelligent, energetic and fun. After 63 minutes of beating at the Portuguese door, the Spanish finally got through. David Villa, one of the few big names to actually shine in this World Cup, calmly knocked Eduardo’s saved ball into the net, leaving the Portuguese to look at each other in bewilderment, as it dawned on them that they now had to start Playing Football™. Clearly, they hadn’t counted on needing a Plan B, and they floundered. The game ended as it should have, with Spain going through to the quarters, and Ronaldo’s bottom lip scuffing the grass as he plodded away. Bless.

Elsewhere, Paraguay eliminated Japan on penalties to set up their quarter-final place, with Spain as it turned out, in which the Paraguayans will be mashed. Oh yes, I’m a seer of all things today. Well, some things. That thing, anyway. Brazil pretty much squashed the plucky Chileans, and Holland brought Slovakia’s party to an end. Yep, they’re dropping like flies now.

The debate about goal-line technology reached fever-pitch, with FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, apologising to England fans for the disallowed goal which, as we all know:

A)    Had absolutely no bearing on England’s elimination whatsoever, because it has been scientifically proven that goal-line technology can’t stop a football team being rubbish.

B)    Changed the course of history, thereby dooming the England team, who really were just getting warmed up after three and a half games, to a loss which could have been avoided had the linesman just got it right.

(Delete as applicable).

Meanwhile, the ire and wrath of England is turning implacably toward its Italian manager, Fabio Capello, who had the audacity and temerity to tell our boys what to do. Tactics and formations which gave the England team an almost perfect qualification record are now clearly crap, and Capello really should be spanked for being stupid enough to think they would lead to great performances at the tournament itself. What was he thinking?

The latest defence being offered by the England camp is ‘tiredness’. Apparently, they were all really tired, and hadn’t had enough time off, or something. A nation of people working nine to five, five or six days a week (20 days holiday a year) roll their eyes and wonder why they supported such a bunch of mewling old farts in the first place.

And still, in the stadiums of South Africa, football is alive and well.

Germany 4-1 England. The first half disallowed goal is pretty much moot now. Losing 4-2 isn’t much of a consolation, let’s be honest. The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ have failed spectacularly to be anything approaching golden. Wayne Rooney has been abject throughout, John Terry has been plodding and flawed, Steven Gerrard was excellent for just over 4 minutes, and Frank Lampard has been practically invisible. Players who excel for their clubs have been miserable and ineffective for their country. And the saddest part is few of us are shocked. The media will most likely target the manager, Fabio Capello, for their wrath, and there certainly is a measure to be taken by him. But the truth is it’s the men on the pitch who are really to blame. They simply didn’t turn up. This is a collection of 11 great players, but never a team. And there is a mighty difference.

Perhaps it’s time to think outside the box now. Germany have littered their team with a new breed of up and coming players. When are we going to do the same? Isn’t it time to start ditching those players who have repeatedly failed to replicate club form at international level, and start running out the some of the younger players like Jermaine Beckford or Jack Wilshere? England had one of the oldest teams in the tournament. Isn’t it time to start rebuilding this team from the ground up? Just a thought. I mean, what have we got to lose that we aren’t already losing? One thing’s for certain; the ‘Golden Generation’ are long past their sell-by date.

So, my first and second choice teams, England and the USA, have both been dumped out in one weekend. It’s galling, but I confess I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the tournament without the sofa-chewing tension that comes from supporting a wayward team. That, and the guilty pleasure of watching Argentina dismantle Germany. Yep, England fans cheering for Argentina. This is a very bizarre World Cup.

Tutto Nero!

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