Assured Mexico will test hosts' fresh confidence

South African hopes are high ahead of today's opener but their opponents are also much improved
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The Independent Football

"Ready" has been a buzzword put around by the organisers of this World Cup, possibly with fingers crossed behind their backs. But suddenly the South African team at least look as though they are, which represents a huge step forward from the position in October when Carlos Alberto Parreira, world champion with his native Brazil in 1994, returned to replace the hapless Joel Santana, whose side had just lost eight of their previous nine games.

At that stage, and when the draw was made two months later, there seemed little chance of avoiding the humiliation of becoming the first host country not to come through the group stage. Now, however, with the experienced Parreira having rejuvenated the domestic members of his squad and integrated half a dozen players from European clubs, there is a real sense of optimism about the prospects of finishing at least second.

Deservedly defeating Denmark last weekend meant that Bafana Bafana were unbeaten in 12 matches. Yesterday Parreira made a declaration of intent by publicly naming the same side 24 hours ahead of today's opening game and telling them to go forth into the magnificent Soccer City stadium and show the world what they can do.

"It wouldn't be wise to put more pressure on them than there already is," he said. "I just want to tell them to enjoy the game. The opening game is always very difficult and intimidating with the whole world watching."

Parreira has built up team spirit and cohesion during training camps in three different countries, initially only with players from the domestic league. Now his captain Aaron Mokoena, who was a defiant force for Portsmouth in the FA Cup final, has been drafted back into the centre of defence, where he has appeared 101 times. Everton's Steven Pienaar carries many of the hopes in his role just behind the main striker Katlego Mphela, who has been knocking in goals regularly. Mokoena, asked what Parreira had brought to the party, said: "The experience of the coach is very vital.He's been there before [five times] and done it. We had to get the confidence back into the team and win the support of South Africans."

For his part the coach says: "We've given them identity. I believe in technique and skills. It takes time to develop but we encourage that, like we do in Brazil. The players have improved a lot in that respect and there won't be a fitter team than ours in the competition."

It is perhaps unfortunate for his team to be facing Mexico first, a team also just coming on to their game. Unfortunate to lose 3-1 at Wembley recently after taking the lead, they demonstrated their potential in beating Italy last weekend more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline suggested. In a front three familiar to Premier League followers, Giovani dos Santos, once of Tottenham Hotspur, and Arsenal's Carlos Vela provide youthful vigour on either side of the more experienced Guillermo Franco, who improved after a slow start at West Ham United.

Mexico are expected to deploy Barcelona's versatile Rafael Marquez as a holding player to mark Pienaar in a duel which could heavily influence the outcome. They have an abundance of clever technical players who, as they showed against both England and Italy, can keep the ball for long periods.

As with South Africa, recalling a former coach had the desired effect when Sven Goran Eriksson, always an unlikely fit, was replaced by Javier Aguirre, who had led El Tri to their traditional second round place in 2002. Speaking in the bowels of Soccer City yesterday, he was damning about what he inherited from the laid-back Swede: "I don't know what Mr Eriksson did. What I know is my team were really downhearted. They were feeling down, losing their energy. There was a lot of quarrelling and a lack of order in the ranks. I spoke to them and laid the foundations. Nobody thought we could qualify but we did."

Aguirre, like Parreira, also has a formidable back catalogue from World Cups, with the added advantage in his case of having played in one, in his home country in 1986. He claimed to understand the pressures of being a host nation, without mentioning that his tournament ended with a red card in extra-time against West Germany after his country had for once advanced as far as the quarter-final.

He believes they can do so again: "We feel very confident, we've spent 60 days together and are highly motivated. We're where we wanted to be and I see hunger in their eyes. It's my fourth World Cup and I've had all sorts of experiences. I know what it is to be the host nation and I think it will be a beautiful party."

The watching world hopes these two teams can get it going in the right spirit.