Assured Mexico will test hosts' fresh confidence

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

"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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions