JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Diego Maradona’s Argentina lit up the World Cup with its first hat-trick on Thursday while fellow Latin Americans Mexico humiliated European heavyweights France in a comfortable 2-0 win.
African gloom deepened, though, when Nigeria joined hosts South Africa in a potentially fatal defeat.
After mainly cagey opening games, there was a free-flowing feel and some scintillating football in Thursday’s matches as teams went for the points they need to make it into the last 16.
Off the pitch there was trouble again between police and stadium guards removed from duty in a pay dispute that has embarrassed South Africa just as it tries to show its best face.
Police fired rubber bullets and a stun grenade to disperse stewards protesting outside the offices of their employers, a local security firm, in the coastal city of Cape Town.
Many people had doubted the charismatic but maverick Maradona’s coaching skills. Yet his attack-minded Argentina team put on a performance to thrill the enormous global audience longing for more goals at the first World Cup in Africa.
Oozing skill, and with world player of the year Lionel Messi again superb, they beat South Korea 4-1, equalling the tournament’s highest tally in Germany’s 4-0 rout of Australia.
Gonzalo Higuain notched three at Soccer City and eclipsed a defensive lapse that gave the Asians their goal.
“This made us stronger,” said Maradona, again all antics on the touchline.
Argentina lead a South American charge that makes them by far the most successful region in the tournament so far, with five wins and two draws from seven matches.
Mexico continued the Latin American party, with a stunning victory over France that left Les Bleus with one point in Group A and on the verge of exit from South Africa.
That result will probably be celebrated nearly as ecstatically in the Republic of Ireland as Mexico after Thierry Henry’s notorious handball which led to the goal which stopped the Irish qualifying.
Africa is having a miserable time at its own party, Ghana the only one of six teams to win a game.
Nigeria had looked the likeliest winners before their match with Greece on Thursday and went ahead in the 16th minute.
But they lost 2-1 after playing most of the match with 10 men when Sani Kaita was sent off for aiming a kick at an opponent.
It was Greece’s first World Cup victory.
Now Africa looks in danger of losing most of its record number of participants in a World Cup before the second round.
A near miracle will be required for the local Bafana Bafana (the Boys) to avoid the shame of being the first hosts eliminated in the first round.
Nigeria’s defeat, which leaves them struggling on no points in Group B, will add to the depression from Cairo to the Cape.
South African optimism over qualifying for the second round was crushed by a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Uruguay on Wednesday night. A highway billboard summed up the national mood: “Sorry Bafana. Don’t give up,” it read.
South African pride will not disappear altogether with elimination. They have earned huge kudos by successfully staging the tournament, confounding pessimists at home and abroad who predicted it would be a crime-scarred failure.
There was a reminder on Thursday of a tragedy which marred the start of the World Cup, when former president Nelson Mandela attended the funeral of his 13-year-old great-granddaughter Zenani, killed in a car crash on the eve of the tournament.
On a lighter note, a South African student got the chance to join Italy in training when a local player failed to arrive on time to make up numbers. But he lost his shorts attempting a diving header — and bared his bottom to photographers.
Underlining the winter conditions that have surprised many foreign fans, frozen pitches at Ghana’s training base caused a two-hour delay in their practice session. (Reuters)