The pride that the Rainbow Nation has felt ever since being awarded this World Cup six years ago was redoubled in its magnificent new stadium yesterday afternoon as Bafana Bafana – the Boys – grew into men. At the end of the rainbow there was just an opening draw rather than a three-point crock of gold, but they had been only 11 minutes away from finding one.
Initially tentative and nervous, they somehow kept a clever Mexico side out and finally found some form and confidence to carry over into the second period.
Siphiwe Tshabalala's hammer of a strike brought the lead before the old Barcelona hand Rafael Marquez, operating ostensibly as a holding midfielder, stole forward to catch out some naive defending and equalise. Tshabalala would later be named man of the match ahead of Mexico's Giovani dos Santos, whose lively running had threatened to leave Carlos Alberto Parreira's team as the first hosts to lose in an opening game.
The outcome left both coaches satisfied. "All in all the result was fair," said Parreira after the first game of his sixth World Cup. "I couldn't ask more from the boys. Mexico is the most daring teams here with three strikers and attacking full-backs. They're full of quality." His opposite number Javier Aguirre was disappointed only that the quality did not bring them a goal in that dominant first half. "We could have won, we could have lost," was his philosophical take. "First half we really had them in a corner but second half they were good on the counter-attack. Now we're really forced to beat France, but we're confident of winning our other two games."
Not until the last few minutes of the first half did Bafana Bafana do any more than huff and puff as doggedly as their supporters on the ubiquitous vuvuzelas. Mexico were as composed as they had been at Wembley just under three weeks ago with Paul Aguilar, as in that game, a right-back in name only, constantly forcing his way down the right wing to take crossfield passes. There was danger from the second minute, as Itumeleng Khune failed to hold his low cross and Aaron Mokoena scrambled the ball for a corner.
Once Carlos Vela and Dos Santos switched flanks, Guillermo Franco took Vela's pass on his chest and Khune did well to keep out a smart shot with his right hand. Dos Santos then had a shot deflected for a corner that was headed on and nudged in by Vela; but he was rightly adjudged to have strayed offside.
At last the hosts were galvanised, exerting pressure on the diminutive goalkeeper Oscar Perez. He would have been beaten had Katlego Mphela's bald head been a fraction closer to Tshabalala's fine cross.
That flurry was something to take into the dressing-room and 10 minutes after the resumption the new stadium was rocking as it had never done before in its short life. Fulham's Kagisho Dikgacoi played a perfect pass for Tshabalala to take in his stride and thrash the latest Adidas football up and across the groping Perez into the far top corner of the net.
Khune saved splendidly as Dos Santos cut inside on his left foot, and all things seemed possible. In the space of four minutes, however, two glorious chances were wasted by the midfielder Teko Modise.
Aguirre sent on the veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Manchester United's much younger acquisition Javier Hernandez, though it was his earlier substitute Andres Guardado who fashioned the equaliser. As he swung a cross from the left South African hearts joined vuvuzelas in mouths to see Mokoena left all alone against three men in black shirts, one of whom, Marquez, calmly took the ball down and dispatched it past Khune.
In an end-to-end last few minutes, Khune began hoisting huge punts downfield and from one of them Mphela jabbed a shot against the post.
A winner at that point might have brought almost too much emotion to bear. As it was, Bafana Bafana richly deserved their ovation in the centre circle.
South Africa (4-4-1-1): Khune; Gaxa, Mokoena, Khumalo, Thwala (Masilela, h-t); Modise, Dikgacoi, Letsholonyane, Tshabalala; Pienaar (Parker, 83); Mphela.
Mexico (4-3-3): Oscar Perez; Aquilar (Guardado, 55), Rodriguez, Osorio, Salcido; Juarez, Marquez, Torrado; Dos Santos, Franco (Hernandez, 73), Vela (Blanco, 69)
Referee R Irmatov (Uzbekhistan)
Man of match Tshabalala