With the world’s biggest global sporting event so close, the hosts will be undergoing their final preparations before going into battle with Mexico. The hope of a nation rests upon their shoulders, but it is a wonder what a result can do to ease a bit of the pressure.
No host nation has ever failed to get beyond the group stage – it is a fact that will surely weigh heavy on the player’s minds throughout their first three games. The game against an in-form Mexico (fresh off a 2-1 win against cup holders Italy last week) on Friday evidently will not be a rollover. Add a France team who are expected to progress and a seemingly unpredictable Uruguay team, and it s hard not to rule Bafana Bafana out of progressing from Group A. Their 12 match unbeaten streak has been ignored by everyone but fans at home, mainly due to the level of opposition they have faced to obtain it. In fact, it was not until a game last Saturday that a few people eventually started to turn their heads. Romps over Thailand and Guatemala may raise the spirits back home, but they will do nothing to silence the critics that have the hosts down for an early exit. Although Denmark are no Brazil, they are at least taking part in this year’s tournament, as well as standing an outside chance of progressing past Group E. It was also no weakened side that lost 1-0 to South Africa on Saturday – Feyenoord’s Jon Dahl Tomasson and Liverpool’s Daniel Agger both started before being subbed in the second-half.
It will come as a relief to the camp as to who scored the solitary goal on the 76th minute. The omission of Benni McCarthy from the final 23-man squad came as a shock, but Katlego Mphela’s goals through their warm-up matches have at least highlighted that there is life up-front beyond the West Ham striker. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira shared his praises for the team after the game: “They played with confidence and showed that we are ready for the World Cup. I think we concluded our preparations well with this kind of result.” Not only was Mphela’s goal welcomed by the team in their well deserved victory, but the assist from man of the match Reneilwe Letsholonyane provides a bit of healthy competition in places for the midfield. The Kaizer Chief midfielder has battled through many injuries that have kept him out of a regular spot in the South Africa squad, but he looks to be in good shape coming into possibly the biggest stage in his career.
As various countries mourn over the loss of their key men – such as Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel and Ghana’s Michael Essien to injury – Bafana Bafana can count themselves lucky that they have enjoyed a week without drama in the treatment room. The initial worries over the condition of goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune as well as defender Tsepo Masilela have been quashed over the past week with both players taking part in daily training. And after Stephen Pienaar came away unscathed after playing 63 minutes against Denmark, the hosts will go into their opener against Mexico with all assets intact.
Off the field it was business as usual, as the hosts made a number of visits to boost their name in the press leading up to the tournament. A visit to Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg worked its way into their schedule – a tradition for all South African national teams before participating in a big tournament. They were also treated to a ‘good luck’ dinner by FIFA President Sepp Blatter and SAFA President Kirsten Nematandani (amongst others). But it was not the ‘good luck’ meals or the obligatory meet with the former President that spoke the loudest last week. It was the player’s own voices in press conferences that really got people talking. All 6ft 6” of defender Matthew Booth signified his intentions in the media last week, as well as sending a warning to the footballing world: “Our major hurdle is going to be our first game. Should we qualify for the next round I feel sorry for anybody who’s going to meet us such is the support we will have. From then on anything’s possible.” Coach Parreira then spoke of his side’s new found confidence and how it will help them progress, along with their fearless nature: “We do not fear anybody but we respect everyone. What we saw here has given us the confidence to go into the World Cup, and that is the most important thing for me.” Actions speak louder than words, but make no mistake about it. South Africa are more than ready.