There are more conventional ways of building confidence before hosting the most scrutinised sporting event on the planet but it has just not been the South African way to follow them. The latest in a series of curious pre-World Cup fixtures on Monday will pitch Carlos Alberto Parreira's side against Guatemala, the 114th-ranked nation, in Polokwane, it was announced yesterday, a few days after Parreira had insisted that he was refusing to face Panama (ranked 74th) because they were not good enough.
If the announcement smacked of desperation for match practice then it was of a piece with the hosts' bizarre attempts to arrange some decent opposition over the past few months. The South African Football Association (SAFA) has written in search of matches to Brazil, Argentina, Germany and England – all nations they see as serious contenders – and has been rejected by each one (the Argentines demanded 11m rand – £1m – for the honour). The air of rather hapless disorganisation was compounded by South Africa arriving for a training camp in Germany last month to find that some hastily organised games against local second division sides had been cancelled. North Korea, preparing for the tournament in Spain, were subsequently flown up for a match in Wiesbaden, eliciting a 0-0 draw that dismayed the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter. "If they want to progress in the competition, they will have to score goals," Blatter said of the Bafana Bafana. "What is missing is tactics."
But the clouds have started to lift in the month or so since Blatter's unhelpful contribution, and never more so than on Monday night when a result which did mean something – a 1-1 draw in Soweto's Orlando Stadium against a Bulgaria side ranked 44 places above Carlos Alberto Parreira's team – kindled a nascent belief that South Africa might not, after all, become the first hosts in the World Cup's 80-year history not to progress beyond the group stage. It was not so much the result – Parreira's team led on 20 minutes and looked lively in the first half – as the personnel who achieved it. Parreira deliberately started the match with his contingent of Africa-based players and their lively contribution before changes were made in the second period suggested that the manager will not be as painfully reliant as some had feared on players like Portsmouth's Aaron Mokoena, Fulham's Kagisho Dikgacoi and Twente's Bernard Parker, who have been warming substitutes' benches for long periods overseas this year.
Parreira, whose last World Cup ended with the ignominy of Brazil's quarter-final defeat to France, has made it his job to nurture something in these locals. When his nation were forced to sit out the Africa Cup of Nations in February – their elimination by Sierra Leone in qualifying has also contributed to a deep foreboding about their prospects next month – he took a squad of 40 of the home-based contingent to Durban for a training camp and set about eliminating the indiscipline that he had detected when he took over in October, having left in April 2008 to care for his sick wife. The strategy for the World Cup was to make up in ball retention, passing and shape what South Africa lack in strength, compared to the top African nations. No tricky stuff: the hosts will mark zonally and do the simple things well.
That message has certainly got through to Steven Pienaar, whose own injury problems mean he will play his first match for Parreira against the Guatemalans. "We need to play carpet-football," he said in Sandton yesterday. The Everton player, comfortably his native country's biggest star, would be many South Africans' preference for the captaincy, despite Mokoena's popularity with the manager. He certainly sees a leader's role for himself as South Africa prepare to set about Javier Aguirre's Mexico before a 95,000 crowd in Soccer City a week on Saturday in the tournament's opening fixture. The hosts will probably need to win it to progress in a group that also includes Uruguay and France. "I think I can bring a lot of confidence and self-belief to the team because I am always the one with the big mouth trying to keep the guys awake all the time," Pienaar said. "I don't think Aaron will be retiring soon but I would definitely be ready [to captain one day.] It would be an honour to lead the country."
But Parreira's work with the nation's lesser lights has provided some new names to conjure with, not least Katlego Mphela, the South African league's leading scorer last season, who is understood to have been offered a trial at Birmingham City. He, rather than the old talisman and all-time leading goalscorer Benni McCarthy, seems likely to lead the line for Parreira against Mexico, in front of a three-man line of small, tricky playmakers: Kaizer Chiefs' Siphiwe Tshabalala on the left, Pienaar in the centre and Orlando Pirates' Teko Modise on the right. Parreira is also excited about holding midfielder Thanduyise Khuboni, who plays for the local Golden Arrows side, yet another with potential to force a better-known overseas player, Rubin Kazan's Macbeth Sibaya, on to the bench.
For once, the observations about confidence in the camp are genuine. "We're just enjoying training every day and the spirit is good within the team," Pienaar declared. "We're definitely ready. The confidence is there and the spirit is high so now it is only the last bit of preparation to come."
South African football being what it is, an off-field difficulty is just around any corner, it should be said. Observers of the nation's build-up were astonished that the host country were the last to secure their training camp venue for the tournament and the general sense of chaos seems to have been the product of an outgoing chief executive of the SAFA determining to have as little in place as possible for his successor at the turn of the year.
South Africa are also potentially mentally fragile: an abysmal losing run in the second half of 2009 proved how quickly heads can drop and prompted a fourth managerial change in as many years. But there is one curiously uplifting omen for a side so evidently looking for self-belief: their group stage opponents are the same as England's in 1966 and everyone, from Cape Town to Durban, knows what happened that year.
Worst records as hosts
1982 Spain (second group stage)
Made it past the first group stage despite losing to Northern Ireland, but the hosts exited the competition after failing to win in the next group stage.
1994 US (second round)
The US won just one match in the tournament. Knocked out after 1-0 defeat in last 16 to eventual champions Brazil.
2002 Japan (second round)
Japan's 1-0 second-round exit to Turkey failed to match the semi-final heights scaled by co-hosts South Korea.
Six hosts have been winners: Uruguay in 1930; Italy in 1934; England in 1966; West Germany in 1974; Argentina in 1978 and France in 1998.
Carlos A Parreira
Since the turn of the year, Parreira's side have won three games: Zimbabwe (3-0), Jamaica (2-0), Thailand (4-0). They are unbeaten in their last five matches.
In his second spell as Bafana Bafana manager. Resigned in April 2008 to care for his ill wife. Returned last October.