With seven weeks to go until the start of the World Cup finals, even the South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira admits his team have "a mountain to climb". They may be playing all three group games this summer at altitude, in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but that is not what the vastly experienced Brazilian had in mind.
This is a coach who knows all about the requirements of a World Cup. The first ever finals staged in Africa will be his sixth, and as well as winning one of those tournaments with his own national side in 1994, he also has no shortage of practice in leading teams that could be described as making up the numbers. He managed Kuwait in 1982, the United Arab Emirates in 1990 and Saudi Arabia in 1998. That trio failed to win a single game between them – and their experiences may prove to be far more relevant to South Africa than Brazil's could be.
On a scale of success from chasing glory to avoiding ignominy, Bafana Bafana, as the South African team are known, are at the bottom end. Unreliable as Fifa's official rankings can occasionally be, their position 88th in the table, between Moldova and Mozambique, tells a tale.
No previous World Cup hosts – and there have been some weak ones – have ever failed to progress beyond the first group stage. Teams as limited as Switzerland in 1954, Chile eight years later, Mexico twice and Japan in 2002 all kept the home fires burning and their nation enthralled with unexpectedly defiant performances. Parreira's boys have much to live up to and can only hope that the customary advantages of playing at home, such as crowd support, familiarity with conditions – all the more useful at altitude – and the occasional refereeing decision, subconscious or otherwise, help them along.
Less than a year ago, some of those benefits were to be felt in a Confederations Cup tournament that encouraged positive thought about both the staging of a successful World Cup and the home team's prospects. Bafana Bafana were eliminated only by Dani Alves' late free-kick for Brazil in the semi-final, and they led the European champions Spain until the 88th minute of the third-place match before succumbing. From the start of this season, however, results and performances deteriorated so badly that after an eighth defeat in nine games the coach Joel Santana (another Brazilian) was forced out. Many South Africans wanted one of their own to be appointed but Parreira was chosen to return, 18 months after leaving the position when his wife fell seriously ill.
Two more goalless draws with Japan and Jamaica confirmed that scoring would be a particular problem, since when the team have avoided defeat against Zimbabwe, Namibia and, more impressively, Paraguay, who were held 1-1 in Asuncion.
That result came during the first of two extended training camps, the current fortnight in Germany being the second. Both, however, have had to take place without players based with European clubs. Some, like Everton's Steven Pienaar, Portsmouth's Aaron Mokoena and Fulham's Kagisho Dikgacoi, can count on being called up and Parreira retains faith in Benni McCarthy, who has hardly distinguished himself since joining West Ham's struggle against relegation in January.
Criticised in the past for his less than full-hearted approach to international football (he has retired twice), McCarthy is the country's record goalscorer with a tidy mark of 32 goals in 78 games and Parreira appears to value experience.
He has also just recalled Siyabonga Nomvethe, a 32-year-old absent for over two years whose goal gave South Africa their only victory at the World Cup finals, over Slovenia in 2002. The coach says of McCarthy: "Benni is very important to South Africa. He is a quality striker who is a natural finisher. His track record speaks for itself. I have had some chats with Benni, he knows what I expect from him. For the World Cup, we need a fit and focused Benni. He is an asset to South African football, and we cannot ignore him. He needs to play, though, he needs to be sharp for the tournament. I have always said that I rate him very highly. He is the best finisher in South Africa."
Mokoena will be captain, alongside a distinctive figure in Matthew Booth. The shaven-headed centre-half from Mamelodi Sundowns, is the only white member of the side, hugely popular with the country's football public, whose chants of "Booth" should not be mistaken for boos. He has been whiling away his spare time at the training camp interviewing other members of the squad, the somewhat stilted results of which can be seen on YouTube. Other prospects include Booth's club-mate Katlego Mphela, a striker who played briefly for Strasbourg and Reims, and Teko Modise, a midfielder with the Soweto-based Orlando Pirates.
Parreira recently told Fifa.com: "The most important thing is to identify a group of players from this local squad, and when the overseas-based players are available, blend the two groups together. You see, this is a process – it's like building a house. You cannot think about putting furniture inside when there is no roof. You have to do things step by step. It's a process that involves patience and skill. We need to change our mindset and believe. A lot of people will say we won't make it, but we don't have to listen to everyone who has an opinion. The most important thing is to concentrate on our priority, and that is to go beyond the group stages. We believe we can do this."
If getting a full squad together is impossible – Parreira says "there isn't much I can do, we have to learn to work with what we have" – the Brazilian has met frustration in securing opposition for spring friendlies. Estonia, due to play South Africa in Frankfurt on Saturday, pulled out because of problems with flights, and the coach deemed reserve teams of Bundesliga clubs inadequate for his purposes. So last night there was a hastily arranged game against North Korea, opponents whose realistic ambitions this summer are even slimmer than those of their hosts after being drawn as the no-hopers in a group of almost certain death against Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.
South Africa's section contains France, Mexico and Uruguay, which is neither glamorous nor a cause for optimism. Even before the draw, back in November, the former Bolton and Charlton defender Mark Fish, who played at the 1998 World Cup, told The Independent that his country's football was at such a low ebb, they should be focusing on 2014 and 2018. "After being readmitted to world football in 1992, I think we won the [Africa] Nations Cup too soon and lived on that for too long," he said. "It stagnated after that and we're just playing catch-up." Now he just hopes the players will be motivated by a desire to avoid a piece of unwanted history: "In the changing room you say to them, 'We don't want to be the first host country to not even qualify from the group. This is do or die'."
South Africa's Cup record
1998 World Cup (France)
After reaching the finals for the first time, Philippe Troussier's side opened with a 4-0 defeat against hosts France before a draw with Denmark. Another draw, 2-2 against Saudi Arabia, ended their interest at the group stages.
2002 World Cup (Japan & South Korea)
Quinton Fortune's penalty earned a 2-2 draw with Paraguay before Siyabonga Nomvethe gave the Bafana Bafana a first finals win. An agonising 3-2 defeat to Spain in the final group match eliminated Jomo Sono's side on goals scored.
2009 Confederations Cup
A disappointing goalless draw with Iraq preceded a 2-0 win over New Zealand, which clinched a semi-final spot despite a 2-0 loss to Spain in the last group game. The hosts ran Brazil close in the semi-finals before Dani Alves' late strike.
How the 'minnow' hosts fared
1962 Chile (finished third)
After beating Switzerland in their opener, goals from Jaime Ramirez and Jorge Toro secured an impressive victory over Italy to take Fernando Riera's side through to the last eight for the first (and only) time. Chile beat the Soviet in the quarter-finals before going out 4-2 to holders, and eventual champions, Brazil.
1970 Mexico (Quarter-finals)
Comfortbale victories over El Salvador and Belgium took Raúl Cárdenas' side through to a quarter-final meeting with Italy. Jose Luis Gonzalez put the hosts ahead after 13 minutes before eventual finalists Italy prevailed 4-1.
1982 Spain (Second round)
Depite being on the end of an almighty upset in losing to Northern Ireland in the final group game, the Spaniards scraped through to the second group stage on goal difference. José Santamaria's side continued to underpeform in the next stage, going to down 2-1 to West Germany and being held to a goalless draw by Ron Greenwood's England to finish bottom on one point.
1986 Mexico (Quarter-finals)
The Central Americans sailed to top spot in Group B with victories over Belgium and Iraq and a draw with Paraguay. Led by the much travelled Bora Milutinovic, the Mexicans then overcame Bulgaria in the second round before penalty misses by Fernando Quirarte and Raul Servin sent the hosts to a shootout defeat against eventual finalists West Germany in the last eight after a goalless draw.
1994 USA (Second round)
With Bora Milutinovic again leading a host nation, the US drew their opening game with Switzerland before beating Columbia (including an own goal from Andrés Escobar) to reach the last sixteen. Despite putting up commendable resistance, Brazil proved too strong for the hosts, a late Bebeto goal securing victory for the eventual champions.
2002 Japan (Second round) and South Korea (fourth)
In the first World Cup to be played across two countries, both host nations exceeded expectations by topping their groups. Although Philippe Troussier's Japan went out in the second round after a disappointing display against Turkey, a Guus Hiddink-inspired South Korea scaled previously unchartered heights in reaching the last four. Fortunate wins over Italy in the second round and a quarter-final penalty shoot-out success over Spain preceded a 1-0 semi-final defeat to Germany.
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