After 11 days, Tuesday brought the tournament's first real winners and losers, though the four teams eliminated by the close of play took their own individual approaches to the role of "loser."
In Group A, South Africa and France met with each knowing it must triumph by a handful of goals to hope to depose Mexico in second place. In the end, neither did, though the host threatened to in a first-half performance that represents an embarrassing nadir for French soccer. When Yoann Gourcuff was dismissed for an elbow in the 25th minute, there was confusion over whether the card had in fact been shown to DjibrilCisse. When the referee made it clear that Gourcuff was being sent off, Cisse looked even more miserable.
By contrast, South Africa scored two goals before halftime, but a more deadly team would have had more. It may have become the first host nation to exit at the group stage in the history of the World Cup, but it went out with an energetic display and gave the home fans an afternoon to enjoy and be proud of. Former French captain Patrice Evra ended the day promising mortified French fans they would "know everything soon."
The result means both Uruguay and Mexico survive Group A, going on to play Group B runner-up South Korea and winner Argentina, respectively. Uruguay and Mexico rested any fears that they had come to an arrangement to tie the match with a feisty encounter that swung back-and-forth before Uruguay scored and sat back on its lead to win 1-0. In Group B, Argentina had 67 percent of possession against Greece -- another departing team that didn't exactly cover itself in glory with a tepid, ultra-defensive display -- but had to wait until the 77th minute before defender Martin Demichelis smashed the ball emphatically into the net.
For those who had a choice, Argentina's game probably attracted a similarly lopsided share of the television audience, but Nigeria and South Korea's winner-take-all contest was easily the more enthralling. The initiative swung this way and that in a match marked as much by mistakes as by moments of real quality, and Group B's second-place spot repeatedly changed hands. In the end, Nigeria's lack of composure in front of goal cost it dear. On Wednesday, when Ghana and Algeria play, the host continent will hope for better luck.
The best thing about the tournament's progression is that there's plenty of choice in this section (though that does create more space for disagreement). I was impressed with what I saw from South Africa's Siphiwe Tshabalala, and in particular, the way he combined with Katlego Mphela. Tshabalala ran ceaselessly and played some rapier balls -- in the 50th minute he played Mphela in behind Bacary Sagna only to see his teammate hit the post.
Abou Diaby was hapless in the extreme against South Africa, culpable to varying degrees for both goals conceded. His day was summed up perfectly when, just after halftime, he attempted to dummy his marker and managed to put the ball out of play. It's only right to also mention Yakubu here. The Nigerian striker produced the miss of the tournament when, three yards in front of goal and with the keeper stranded, he managed to sidefoot the ball wide. He did show good composure to score a penalty moments later, but had Nigeria scored a third Tuesday, it -- and not South Korea -- would now be preparing for the last 16.
Egidio Arevalo Rios and Diego Perez worked tirelessly in front of Uruguay's defense, keeping things neat and tidy and generally soaking up Mexican pressure in the second half. Though Uruguay threatened sporadically in that period, it looked first and foremost to protect its lead. And for all the Mexicans' prodding and poking, they were unable to find a way through. There was virtually nothing heroic about Greece's performance against Argentina, but having been detailed to man-mark Lionel Messi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos stuck to his task with admirable dedication, even if most neutrals would rather he hadn't.
Two things surprised me Tuesday. First, there were further depths for France to venture into and make its own, producing the most shambolic performance of its three games. Second, even when it needed a win to reach the knockout stages, Greece opted to defend. That's like protecting a house that's already been burgled. The fact that players started taking long-range pot-shots at goal only once they were two goals down and had only seconds on the clock was bizarre.
It seemed Mexico and Uruguay were destined to reach halftime without a goal, despite both sides being willing. But then EdinsonCavani received the ball on the right and, with his first touch, produced a cross of sublime quality: weighted and directed perfectly onto the head of Luis Suarez, who obliged by momentarily straining his neck forward and pushing the ball into the net.
Raymond Domenech has not had a good week, and it didn't get any better as his reign as French coach ended Tuesday. The starting XI he named contained a mixture of players who've yet to openly abuse him and players he hasn't (yet) admitted to despising. Only 10 of them could be rounded up for the pre-match photograph. Having watched another comically shabby performance from his men, Domenech elected, for reasons only known to him, not to shake South African coach Carlos Alberto Parreira's hand after the game, choosing instead to point his fingers in his face.
"I am proud of the boys. They made this country proud" -- South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira praised his team after it becam the first host nation to exit at the group stage, despite a valiant effort against France. Whether his statement was intentionally comparative, we'll never know.
20 -- Number of shots Lionel Messi has had at goal without scoring in the group stage.
Ledley King is still missing for England with a groin injury, while Wednesday opponent Slovenia will have to do without defender Marko Suler, who took a knock to the ribs against the U.S. Ghana will have John Mensah and Isaac Vorsah back in defense.
Portugal's Ruben Amorim (called into the squad to replace the injured Nani) has hurt his thigh and will be out for at least a week. Teammate Deco is still recovering from a hip injury.
Judgement day for Groups C and D, both of which could still see any of their four inhabitants qualify, depending on how the cookie crumbles.
In the earlier kickoffs at 10 a.m. ET, the U.S. takes on Algeria while Slovenia plays England. Simply put, if the U.S. wins, it's through, and it will focus on that rather than attempting to play the statistics. Algeria will make some changes up front, which means the U.S. will have to try and break down the defense that's been breached just once so far. Bob Bradley won't have striker Robbie Findley available, so EdsonBuddle looks likely to deputize. Since both teams can qualify with a win, expect an open game -- but the U.S. needs to get the first half right to give itself the best chance. The defense has started both previous games about 20 minutes after everybody else.
England faces the slightly tougher task of beating Slovenia to guarantee its survival -- Slovenia will keep things tight, knowing that a draw will do, and will be reasonably confident of keeping the uninspired English at bay. But England hasn't failed to qualify for the knockout phase since 1958, and hasn't lost a third and final group game since 1950. The onus is certainly on FabioCapello and his men to turn their form around, and fast.
In one of two games at 2:30 p.m. ET, Germany faces a powerful and energetic Ghana team without striker Miroslav Klose, who is suspended. Cacau looks likely to come into the team, which needs to win to stave of arithmetic nightmares. In the other match, Serbia only needs a draw against Australia to go through, while the Aussies, who've yet to go 90 minutes without having a man sent off, can still qualify if they win and Ghana beats Germany.