Group E ultimately followed the form book, as favourites Netherlands won all three of their matches and comfortably finished top. A slight surprise was to find the Oranje defence, which was breached only once, outperforming the much-vaunted attack, which fashioned a lower-than-expected total of five goals. Japan fell to the group winners, but sealed second spot by beating Cameroon and Denmark, the second of the victories with the help of two well-struck free-kicks. The Scandinavians overcame Cameroon, leaving the Africans at the bottom of the group table.
How it finished
1. Netherlands, 9 points
2. Japan, 6 points
3. Denmark, 3 points
4. Cameroon, 0 points
Netherlands: For all the dominance exerted by Bert van Marwijk’s men, it became clear that there is as yet no solution to the conundrum of how best to deploy the "Fab Four" of Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. The latter’s absence with injury until late into the third match perhaps explains why Dutch guns were a trifle spiked at times. However, the solid defence never looked in trouble, and Maarten Stekelenburg was a safe pair of hands in goal.
Japan: The Japanese mustered the only goal of their opening game against Cameroon, making the winning start they wanted and proving even then they would be a tough nut to crack. The Elftal duly huffed and puffed for long spells before finally overcoming the Samurai Blue 1-0. That meant Keisuke Honda and his team-mates needed only a draw against Denmark to be sure of going through, but Honda and Yasuhito Endo stroked home stunning free-kicks on the way to Japan’s 3-1 triumph.
Denmark: The Danes’ premature exit from South Africa came as a shock to the proud footballing nation, especially as the players and coach were unshakeably confident of beating the Japanese and making the last sixteen. Veterans Jesper Gronkjaer and Martin Jorgensen immediately announced their international retirements, and coach Morten Olsen’s future at the helm looks uncertain. However, starlets Nicklas Bendtner (22) and Christian Eriksen (18) provided rays of light amidst the gloom, and will now be expected to spearhead a new generation in the national set-up.
Cameroon: The nation which in 1990 gave the world Roger Milla and Co, writing one of the most fondly remembered chapters in FIFA World Cup™ history and announcing the arrival of Africa on the global footballing map, simply failed to spark in South Africa. Voices from within the camp are now revealing a lack of shared purpose, which may explain their disappointing performance. The one minor positive is that all involved appear to recognise the need for a fresh start. The first major change has already taken place, as coach Paul Le Guen quit in the wake of the third defeat.
Moments to savour
Killer free-kicks destroy Danish dreams
Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo curled in stunning direct free-kicks to leave Denmark reeling. "We knew exactly which players would step up and take the free-kicks. We prepared ourselves for it, but it was futile. The game was settled by the two first-half free-kicks," Olsen lamented afterwards.
*After losing their opening game, Cameroon urgently needed a decent showing and result in their second match. On ten minutes, Samuel Eto'o seized on a Danish defensive error and fired his team into the lead. The 29-year-old has seldom celebrated a goal with such fervour, reflecting pride, relief, and the special feeling of scoring at a FIFA World Cup™ in Africa. The goal also gave him hope of igniting his team’s campaign, but it was not to be: Denmark came from behind to win, and Cameroon were the first team knocked out of the tournament.
The stat 4 – Cameroon veteran Rigobert Song has now appeared at the FIFA World Cup finals in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2010, the only African player to contest the trophy four times. The only men to appear at five finals are Germany’s Lothar Matthaus (1982 to 1998) and Mexico’s Antonio Carbajal (1950 to 1966).
The final word
"There’s no place for individual egos on the field of play. We should have been standing together as a team. That would have given us a positive vibe, but that’s exactly what didn’t happen. I saw this situation coming a long time ago and I spoke to the coach about it, but I think I may have been misunderstood. I was just trying to point out the problem, it was meant to be constructive. And look where it's got us now…" Rigobert Song, Cameroon defender.