I watched this game for free. I didn’t spend extravagant sums on flights and hotels, didn’t use valuable annual leave to get out there, didn’t pay for a ticket or even get one off Robbie Earle. I even watched it on free-to-air UK television. It literally didn’t cost me a penny. Yet still I feel robbed. This was surely the most disappointing game of the World Cup so far.
This was the tie of the round; one of the most exciting prospects of the entire group stage. No-one could have predicted that two so talented sides would play out a match so low on quality. They don’t call them groups of death because the football is so moribund.
Mostly this match was an opportunity for English viewers to be reminded of just how annoying Cristiano Ronaldo can be. After just seven minutes he ran at the Ivorian defence and went down under a challenge from Didier Zokora, who was booked. Replays showed Ronaldo knock the ball one side of Zokora, run around the other side, then fall over when absolutely no contact was made. But the referee fell for it and Ivory Coast’s makeshift centreback was duly forced to play the remaining 80 minutes on eggshells.
Moments later Ronaldo produced the game’s only moment of genuine quality, proving there’s nothing wrong with the Jabulani ball by crashing a fierce shot off the bar from 25 yards. If that was the best of Ronaldo the worst was inevitably not far behind. He went down on the edge of the area after a Demel tackle, and the referee waved for him to get up. Demel didn’t appreciate a perceived attempt to con the referee and both men quickly drew their handbags. Both players were booked; replays showed that this time there had been contact.
In fact it seemed as if Carlos Queiroz’s gameplan didn’t go much further than give the ball to Ronaldo or Deco and get fouled. Deco was miles off the pace, news of no surprise to any watching Chelsea fans. Annoyingly the game was conforming to the laziest of stereotypes: Ivory Coast the athletic brutes, Portugal the fancy-dan Latin sorts who you’re not allowed to tackle.
Much of the first half was bad-tempered, with Ronaldo’s early work ensuring the tackles flew in hard and fast. Pedro Mendes in particular was lucky to escape at least a booking, a horror challenge on Emmanuel Eboué leaving the Arsenal bete noir turned fan favourite in a heap on the turf.
Many had hoped that Didier Drogba would be fit to start, and the morning’s news that FIFA had cleared him to play with a protective cast on the arm he broke in the friendly with Japan two weeks ago suggested he would play some part. In fact he had to wait until 65 minutes for his introduction, the noise levels around the stadium reaching crescendo as Africa’s most famous, most talented footballer replaced his club-mate, the typically ineffectual Salomon Kalou.
Unfortunately Drogba’s contribution was minimal. Ivory Coast struggled to get the ball in to him and he was conspicious by his absence from the scrums at free kicks and corners. Clearly Drogba was under orders to watch his arm and he did so. Hearts met mouths as the ball fell to him in the final minute of the game, but he scuffed his shot so badly that it went backwards of square across goal. It was a fitting epitaph for a match that had promised so much, and delivered so little.