Sing it loud – the hosts are in with a shout
Sunday 13 June 2010
South Africa's goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune had a complaint about Friday's opening game against Mexico at Johannesburg's Soccer City: the vuvuzelas sported by home supporters were not loud enough. It should be said Khune was in a minority – possibly of one – and that it could even have been the continuing din after Siphiwe Tshabalala's superb opening goal that was responsible for Bafana Bafana's captain Aaron Mokoena not hearing a call to move out of defence following a corner, leading to Rafael Marquez's equaliser.
It all added up, however, to a fair result in an entertaining game to begin what is clearly going to be one of the very tightest of the eight groups. The feeling afterwards among Portsmouth's Mokoena and his team-mates mingled relief with satisfaction; the former at having not let anybody down on what was being called the biggest day in South African football history and the latter at a job well done and a point deservedly gained.
All the host nation's brave words beforehand were in reality tinged with apprehension but as a result of the recovery from early nerves, there is now some genuine confidence to carry into Wednesday's second game against Uruguay at the less intimidating Loftus stadium in Pretoria. As Fulham's Kagisho Dikgacoi put it, having set up Tshabalala's goal with a sweet pass: "We learnt a lot by being out there on such an important day. Hopefully we can take that into the next game." The scoring hero added: "We can build on this performance. We now know we can compete with some of the best players in the world. They put us under a lot of pressure but we managed to contain them."
Apart from one defensive lapse, there were encouraging signs in the way Reneilwe Letsholonyane brought them back into a game that Mexico had dominated early on. The spirit exemplified by seeing the squad emerge from their bus at the stadium all singing their team anthem clearly helps, as does the fact that all the players from the domestic league have been together now for four months. Indeed, the only two starters from European clubs, Mokoena and Everton's Steven Pienaar, were among the side's weaker performers on the day.
Pienaar, in the key role just behind the main striker, has an important part to play but the experienced coach Carlos Alberto Parreira hauled him off as ruthlessly as he had done at half-time to the hapless left-back Lucas Thwala, who was being exposed by Mexico's attacking right-back Paul Aguilar.
Mexico coach Javier Aguirre was equally quick to remove strikers Guillermo Franco and Carlos Vela when they began to wilt in the second half. All in all, Mexico look like being one of the more entertaining sides.
Aguirre has targeted Thursday's game against France as one his team must win, which is perfectly possible. Parreira's experience tells him that four points will be sufficient to progress from the group. If South Africa, back at their Sandton base, watched the second match on Friday night, they will also feel they could reach that target by stifling Diego Forlan and beating Uruguay.
The Soccer City match reminded us again of just what advantages accrue to a host nation and why none has ever lost an opening game. Upping the noise levels from the vuvuzelas will doubtless help, even if it does no favours to the rest of us.
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