RICHMOND, VA—The usual cliches about a side "crashing" out of a competition in no way apply to South Africa's exit from this World Cup. Bafana Bafana put together not just a spirited but a technically excellent performance over the first hour of today's match vs. France, taking a two goal lead and very nearly going up 3-0 early in the second half when Katlego Mphela's close range effort hit the post. For a solid half hour, the impossible seemed possible: South Africa might win the match 4-0 and supplant Mexico as Group A's runner-up.
Instead, France got its act together after Thierry Henry, suspected ringleader in the failed French revolt of the last few days, got his chance on the pitch. A counter-attacking goal rolled in by Florent Malouda salvaged a small amount of pride for France and effectively ended South Africa's chances of qualifying.
Still, they held on for what should nonetheless count as a historic win over France, nearly getting a third goal in injury time. The lasting memories of this World Cup, no matter what happens the rest of the way, must include the host crowd's proud singing of their national anthem before the matches, and the celebrations after watching their side score three goals. South Africa exits the competition on an upbeat, and perhaps has provided a bit of inspiration to at least one of their continental neighbors to go ahead and qualify for the second round.
Mexico's loss to Uruguay probably leaves them to face Argentina in the next round—Mexico have some history with Argentina in the Copa America, and certainly are capable of making that a very tough match. The Nigeria-South Korea match this afternoon will probably decide who goes through to face Uruguay.
As to France, they own an apology not just to their own fans, not just to the Republic of Ireland, but to all football fans worldwide cheated out of seeing a team truly compete at the World Cup. It would have been a better event had the Irish been here, no doubt—sure Ireland have had their own player mutinies in the past (Roy Keane in 2002), but even in that case they got it together and qualified for the second round. France should be one of the most compelling teams in the world to watch with their assemblage of talent.
Commentary about the players' one-day strike has been harsh, though my view is that commentators often rush to blame players rather than coaches and management a little too quickly. What is certain is that the mother of all blame games is about to unfold over the next few days in France as their humiliated team returns home. Players and coaches alike will be hoping that their efforts to spin events in their own favor go better than their "efforts" on the soccer pitch these past 11 days.