South Africa’s slim chances of progressing through their group stage have been significantly increased by the return of several star players.
It’s fair to say Bafana Bafana wouldn’t be near this year’s finals had it not been for their hosting of the tournament. However, a host nation has never before failed to get beyond the group stages of a tournament, and stranger things have happened. South Africa’s 30-man squad was dealt a slight blow as it was announced on Saturday that central-defender Morgan Gould would be ruled out of the tournament through injury. Gould, who has already been capped twice for his country, underwent ankle surgery in February, hoping that he would be fit for the start on June 11. But it was decided last week that he would be missing out, as a rushed return to action would only increase the likelihood of long-term effects. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has chosen to add Maccabi Netanya’s, Netanya Fransman to make up the preliminary squad, however, the Israeli-born defender will be training on his own, and only called up when needed.
Injuries aside, the hosts were boosted this week by a number of players returning from club duties. Unlike Germany midfielder Michael Ballack, South Africa will be counting their blessings that captain Aaron Mokoena arrived unscathed following Portsmouth’s FA Cup final loss to Chelsea. Mokoena has become a regular under boss Avram Grant since his move to the south coast from Blackburn, and the hosts will be hoping he can transfer his recent good form to the world stage when he leads out his country. With the squad mainly made up of players currently plying their trade in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, Mokoena’s experience of five years in the top-flight of English football will be vital. Versatile as either a centre-half or as a holding midfielder, expect Mokoena’s influence in the middle to be key.
Star player Stephen Pienaar is also due to report for duty later on this week. Everton’s Player of the Year has been in superb form leading up to the finals, and his country are going to need a similar in-form Pienaar if they are to make any kind of impression on home soil. Like Mokoena, Pienaar’s influence on the team could determine how successful they are over the course of the tournament. Although expected to operate down his preferred left-hand side, Pienaar has played a few games for Everton as a second-striker, whilst Toffees midfielder Tim Cahill was sidelined with a calf injury earlier this year. Whether or not Parreira will actually play Pienaar in the middle is another matter, but it gives him another option when naming his starting XI.
Although expectations may not be high, confidence certainly is following a 4-0 win over Bryan Robson’s Thailand on Sunday. The hosts, who were playing in front of a 30 000 strong crowd at the newly opened Mbombela Stadium, opened the scoring after just 22 minutes with Siphiwe Tshabalala’s free-kick. Katlego Mphela, who’s 15 goals for the Mamelodi Sundowns helped steer them to second in the Premier Soccer League, grabbed a brace to finish of the first-half in-style before FC Twente’s Bernard Parker added a fourth late into the game. The victory comes on the back of their 2-0 win against Jamaica on April 29. Regardless of the opposition, South Africa are holding their own without their big names. The starting line-up for the World Cup opener has more or less been decided. Kaiser Chiefs keeper Itumeleng Khune, who saved a David Villa penalty in the Confederations Cup, is the clear favourite to start in goal. The defence will most probably be made up of Sundown’s right-back Siboniso Gaxa, Mokoena partnering Ngcongco who fills in for the injured Gould whilst Masilela starts at left-back. Providing Parreira plays a 4-4-2 formation, Orlando Pirates winger Teko Modise will start at right midfield with Pienaar on the left. Dikgacoi will presumably play a more defensive role in the centre of the field, allowing Sibaya to float from box-to-box. Up front will be the in-form Mphela playing alongside West Ham striker Benni McCarthy.
With a youthful looking Mexico team, the ever improving Uruguay and 10th seeded France to get past before reaching what ultimately could be their goal, things won’t exactly be plain sailing for the hosts. But, with wins under their belt and an almost fully fit squad, preparation couldn’t be going much better.
Preliminary 29-man squad
Rowen Fernandez (Arminia Bielefeld)
Moeneeb Josephs (Orlando Pirates)
Itumeleng Khune (Kaizer Chiefs)
Shu-Aib Walters (Mariztburg United)
Matthew Booth (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Bevan Fransman (Maccabi Netanya, Israel)
Siboniso Gaxa (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Bongani Khumalo (SuperSport United)
Tsepo Masilela (Maccabi Haifa)
Innocent Mdledle (Orlando Pirates)
Aaron Mokoena (Portsmouth)
Bryce Moon (PAOK Salonika, Greece)
Anele Ngcongca (Racing Genk)
Siyabonga Sangweni (Lamontville Golden Arrows)
Lucas Thwala (Orlando Pirates)
Franklin Cale (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Lance Davids (Ajax Cape Town)
Kagisho Dikgacoi (Fulham)
Andile Jali (Orlando Pirates)
Thanduyise Khuboni (Lamontville Golden Arrows)
Reneilwe Letsholonyane (Kaizer Chiefs)
Teko Modise (Orlando Pirates)
Surprise Moriri (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Steven Pienaar (Everton)
MacBeth Sibaya (Rubin Kazan)
Siphiwe Tshabalala (Kaizer Chiefs)
Benni McCarthy (West Ham United)
Katlego Mphela (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Siyabonga Nomvete (Moroka Swallows)
Bernard Parker (FC Twente)