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South Africa & Mexico share the spoils in World Cup curtain raiser

June 11, 2010

Sip Tshabalala celebrates scoring the first goal of the 2010 FIFA World Cup

Whatever your assumption or opinion on Africa’s social and economic status within the world, you cannot deny that they know how to party. Even without the presence of South Africa’s inspirational ex-President Nelson Mandela (his absence was due to the tragic death of his great grand-daughter in a motorway accident on Thursday night), the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg had a typical carnival feel about it, a true representation of the spirit and joy that Africa is so famous for.

As for the football, you couldn’t have wished for a better spectacle to mark the opening of what is sure to be the most special World Cup in its 80-year history. The hosts entered the game on the back of a 12-match unbeaten run, which stretched back to November of last year. In Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bafana Bafana have a man who knows how it feels to lift the World Cup trophy, having led his home nation to victory in the 1994 tournament. The message from Parreira; Relax and enjoy the moment.

No matter how wise his words or how calming his presence, South Africa started the Group A match like rabbits in the headlights. Ex-Tottenham forward Giovani dos Santos looked to be the most threatening, and any concerns that Parreira was reported to have had over his left-back were duly confirmed. Lucas Thwala looked sickeningly out of his depth, and was ultimately replaced at half-time by the more experienced Tsepo Masilela.

Despite having the best of the opening quarter, Mexico gradually allowed South Africa, led by Portsmouth’s Aaron Mokoena, back into the match, and although chances were few and far between, the threat of national star Steven Pienaar and Kaizer Chiefs’ Siphiwe Tshabalala was becoming more and more prominent. However, you can never let slip against a flair-ridden South American nation, and recently-released West Ham striker Guillermo Franco showed exactly why as he forced a superb one-handed save out of charismatic shot-stopper Itumeleng Khune, after Arsenal’s Carlos Vela had neatly fashioned himself a yard of space. That remained the best chance of the first 45, and both sides went into the interval relatively happy with their first-half work.

The second period started much the same as the first, with both sides reluctant to take any undue risks, or push too many men forward. However, 10 minutes in, a lovely flowing South African move, arguably the best of the match, resulted in Tshabalala finding himself one-on-one with Mexico’s bald-headed custodian Oscar Perez, and in typical emphatic style smashed the ball into the top left corner of Perez’s net, only to set 70,000 Bafana supporters inside the stadium, and millions outside absolutely wild. Cue the dancing.

For a while Mexico seemed shellshocked, either by the unexpected South African counter-attack, or most probably by the eruption of noise primarily made by the traditional vuvuzelas (an African horn). But, as the shock wore off, Mexico slowly but surely got themselves a foothold in the game, and after Giovani brought out another wonderful save from Khune, and Teko Modise had a rather soft penalty appeal turned down, the moment everybody in Africa feared arrived. Substitute Andres Guardado crossed, the South Africa defence pushed out, and Rafael Marquez found himself onside and unmarked at the back post. With the whole world watching on, the Barcelona anchor man pushed the ball past the helpless Khune, and silenced the thousands of Africans who had clamoured to see their heroes in action.

The stuffing had well and truly been knocked out of the spirited hosts, and there seemed no way back. That was until the 91st minute, of course. South African Premier League top-scorer, and Bafana’s talisman, Katlego Mphela, made one last hopeful burst forward with only Francisco Rodriguez to shrug off and Perez to beat. As Soccer City held one last deep breath, Mphela poked the ball past Perez, only for the right-hand post to stand in the way of Mphela’s inevitable glory. The whole nation put hands to head, and that was game over. 6 years of hype and excitement and the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup was over in 90 minutes of enthralling football.

As Adrian Chiles quite rightly put it; “63 more of those please boys”.

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