World player of the year Lionel Messi lived up to his billing with a wonderful performance in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Nigeria to confirm the South Americans’ status as one of the World Cup favourites.
Though he did not score, Messi peppered the goal with shots, drawing a string of finger-tip saves, and tormented the Africans’ defence with ceaseless dribbling and incisive passes.
The diminutive 22-year-old striker, nicknamed “The Flea”, put in a performance to confound critics who said maverick manager Diego Maradona could not bring out the best in him.
Though Messi and Maradona — and their sensitive relationship — have galvanised media attention, it was defender Gabriel Heinze who headed home an early corner for the goal that beat one of Africa’s perennial heavyweights in the Group B game.
Agitated and shouting on the touchline throughout at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, the bearded and besuited Maradona hugged and lifted Messi off the ground in jubilation at the end of arguably the highest quality match so far of World Cup 2010.
Earlier, South Korea, who were unbeaten in qualifying, took that confidence straight into the Group B opener at Port Elizabeth. They played a slick and fast passing game to beat the Greeks 2-0 through goals from Lee Jung-soo and Park Ji-sung.
For Greece, unable to capture the form of their shock Euro 2004 triumph or make their aerial superiority count, it was business as usual at the World Cup. Their sole past appearance, in 1994, brought three defeats without a goal.
As the euphoria over Africa’s first hosting of a World Cup gave way to on-field action, Saturday was also bringing an intriguing match between England and the United States in Group C’s first match at 1830 GMT near Rustenburg.
Though police said there was no indication of a specific plot, the England-US match was to be the most closely-guarded of Africa’s first World Cup in case of a terrorist threat.
South Africans were thrilled at the successful start to a tournament pessimists said the continent was ill-equipped to handle. Bafana Bafana basked in the love of a nation after they met euphoric public expectations with an exciting 1-1 draw against Mexico in Friday’s opening game.
Rooney takes centre stage
That result, and the trouble-free start to the month-long, 64-game tournament, kept the local vuvuzela horns blowing and South African flags flying across the nation.
“RESPECT! That’s what we earned yesterday,” Johannesburg’s Saturday Star newspaper boasted, with reason.
Showing South Africa’s determination to overcome its reputation for crime, a court handed rapid punishment to two men who robbed World Cup journalists from Portugal and Spain, sentencing them to 15 years in jail.
England have lost captain Rio Ferdinand through injury and are notoriously slow starters at the World Cup, but have another of the world’s best strikers, Wayne Rooney, in their ranks and remain one of the favourites behind Spain and Brazil.
They were facing awkward opponents in a much improved US side under seasoned coach Bob Bradley.
“I understand this is a really, really important moment for the country, but I am relaxed,” England’s Italian manager Fabio Capello said of national hopes he could end a wait since 1966 to bring the trophy back to the nation that invented football.
Seldom outnumbered, England’s famously raucous fans looked set to be outdone for once, with 30 000 Americans expected at the game from a burgeoning “Sam’s Army” US supporters’ club.
Some complained of a lack of respect by rival England fans. “People don’t know about American soccer,” said Steve Heard.
In sad news for Italy fans, combative midfielder Gennaro Gattuso (33) — who was a major part of their 2006 World Cup success — announced he would retire after the tournament.
“It’s right to give my spot to people with more energy,” said the man nicknamed “Rino”, a play on his name but also befitting his aggressive style of play. – Reuters