James Lawton: Emotions run high as hosts face defining moment

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The Independent Football

He was born Ephraim Matsilele Sono in Soweto township. His father died in a car crash and he was abandoned to the care of poor grandparents, whom he helped to support by selling fruit and peanuts at train stations and football stadiums.

That in itself might make him a good candidate to represent the astonishing emotion which is building around South Africa's game with Uruguay in Pretoria tonight, one that the nation has come to understand in the last few days will almost certainly decide the World Cup fate of their beloved Bafana Bafana team.

But then Sono has brought still more impressive credentials to his impassioned claim, "It's not a matter of 'we hope' or 'we wish' – we have to win."

He was a player of such passion and skill and force that he quickly acquired the name Jomo – "Burning Spear" – and it was prowess that brought him success and wealth with the Orlando Pirates league team and then a career in North America with New York Cosmos and the Toronto Blizzard in the old National Soccer League.

Now he is viable evidence that if you try, and believe, hard enough you can achieve almost anything. As technical director of the South African FA, and a totem of successful ambition in every township across the land, he was invited to address the team who earlier this year were given no chance of surviving a group which pitched them against France, who came so close to winning in 2006, Uruguay, historic practitioners of brutal defence and twice world champions, and Mexico, who have made a habit of both qualifying for the biggest football tournament and fighting their way out of the group phase.

Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who guided Brazil to their fourth World Cup triumph in Pasadena in 1994, is anxious to tighten defence but he was thrilled with the spirit his men displayed in almost forcing victory against the skilful and obdurate Mexicans in the opening game on Friday. "We've had some hard work to do this week," he said after the team's last serious workout, "but I'm happy with the morale of the team. They have faced amazing pressure, one a Brazilian can probably understand better than most, and they have stood up."

It is a stance that Parreira can only hope will be helped by Jomo, the man who literally played his way out of poverty. He was one of a breed of naturally skilful and exuberant footballers who caught the eye of the leading English coach Malcolm Allison and a group of English stars like Johnny Haynes when they spent a summer playing against all-white South African teams and making the odd foray into the townships.

"The atmosphere was incredible in those games," Allison recalled many years later. "You had to wonder, 'What could these guys – one of them was so skilful he was known as 'the Card Shuffler' – achieve on a level playing field?'"

There are few more compelling questions in this World Cup. Jomo says: "I think this match is much more important than the one against Mexico. All four teams in the group have one point so the going will be very tight. I think if our team can play to 70 per cent of what we did in the second half against Mexico we can definitely beat them.

"Uruguay don't have any pace at all at the back and they are very physical. So it helps us that the referees are not taking any nonsense."

The theory that football is football and should be separated from the real world whenever possible makes much sense, but perhaps not in the context of the South African belief that, for a few weeks at least, the game has become the means to prove its worth.

It has been pointed out that Bafana go out against Uruguay on the 34th anniversary of the bloody Soweto uprising, a ferocious protest against poor living standards and the lack of adequate educational facilities.

Steven Pienaar, the Everton star who comes from a Johannesburg township and was one of the team's most impressive performers against Mexico, says that every member of the team is aware of the significance of the date.

He declares: "It's going to be a special day for us. We know it's a big day in South Africa and, hopefully, we can get all three points. It will be a celebration for the nation."

The other possibility is something that appears to be too painful to contemplate. One point of comparison may be the devastation of national spirit that hit Italy 20 years when they were knocked out in the semi-finals by Diego Maradona's Argentina. It happened in Naples, where the crowd worshipped the man who had brought them their first scudetto and were thus a little torn by the result. The rest of Italy, however, went into national mourning.

One thing is certain tonight. No small corner of this land will share the Neapolitan ambivalence if Bafana Bafana ignore the warrior's call tonight.