At the end of their encounter with France, Carlos Parreira turned to a camera and tearfully said, ‘I feel at home here, these boys have been unbelievable. I will always remember this country.’ This moment will always stay in my mind; it summed up the whole spirit of South Africa perfectly. Whilst South Africa didn’t qualify, their campaign has been a memorable one – from entertainment, to despair, and back again.
Never before had there been such a pre-tournament anticipation; once a dream, an African nation hosting a World Cup was now a reality. The ‘party fever’ was in full swing, even in the many friendlies that South Africa came through unscathed. The Bafana Bafana’s preparation was ideal, including morale-boosting victories over Denmark and Colombia.
But nothing had prepared them for the attacking onslaught that they had to face in the opener with Mexico, a team renowned for attacking flair and prowess. Mexico had been proven as a solid side in their warm-up encounter with Italy, and included Carlos Vela and Giovani Dos Santos in their squad.
Within five minutes, it was evident as to why South Africa were underdogs. Khune’s fumble drew a fantastic block from Mokoena, whilst Franco wastefully headed over three times. South Africa rarely threatened – until the world took notice of one man: Siphiwe Tshabalala. The Kaiser Chief’s winger ran on to a delightful ball, before drilling home superbly. Cue a typical African celebration – South Africa were enjoying themselves.
Pure excitement turned to despair with just twelve minutes left however when Rafael Marquez scrambled home from six yards, silencing the controversial vuvuzelas. Katlego Mphela hit the post late on, but South Africa settled for a point.
Next up for the hosts were Uruguay, a team with a supposedly-tense training camp. Many saw this as South Africa’s chance for a victory, but how wrong were the pundits?! Diego Forlan capped an impressive performance with two goals, the first being a deflected 30-yarder that finally showcased the benefits of the much-disputed Jabulani ball. The second came from the penalty spot after Khune brought down ‘every-man’s-villain’ Luis Suarez – thus resulting in the ‘keepers dismissal.
Nevertheless, South Africa battled hard. Cult-hero Tshabalala narrowly missed with two efforts, before Gaxa headed wide. The hosts’ resistance was finally overcome in stoppage time, as Suarez’s exquisite cross was headed home by Perreira – leading to a silent exodus from the stands.
Mexico added to South Africa’s woes by defeating France 2-0, meaning that the hosts’ would have to hammer France whilst hoping there was a winner in the all South-American clash. The Bafana Bafana’s chances were given a boost by the mass-covered French in-fighting, with a huge squad divide.
This in-fighting was fully demonstrated in the first half as South Africa ran riot against the supposedly-superior French side. Bongani Khumalo headed home from a poorly-defended corner, Gourcuff was dismissed for elbowing, before Mphela grabbed a well-deserved second. Suarez simultaneously put Uruguay ahead, as hope began to increase.
Mphela saw two efforts tipped wide by Lloris, before his screamer clipped the post. And then, totally against the run of play, France scored. Ribery ran on to a through ball before slotting a pass to Malouda, who tapped into an empty net. Campaign over, but South Africa had firmly put themselves on the footballing map.
Some media pundits had debated continuously over Parreira’s selections for their games, but his decision’s were spot on. Moeneeb Josephs’ performed fantastically when covering for Khune, and their backline were defensively sound – bar a mad half against Uruguay. Mphela and Tshabalala were excellent attacking choices, although his midfield selections were disputable. Pienaar and Modise never lived up to their expectations and should have been replaced midway through the Uruguay game, a decision which proved costly.
Ultimately, South Africa’s campaign was successful, despite their failure to qualify. They showed passion and spirit, something unseen from many of the participating nations. Parreira told BBC Sport, ‘We can’t see this as a failure. We never talked about progressing, everyone knew it was one of the toughest groups in the World Cup. We just missed out on goal difference and if we had a little luck it could have been different.’
Moment of South Africa’s campaign: It has to be that goal. No opening World Cup goal will ever come close to challenging Tshabalala’s strike, especially the elation it brought to the fans’ faces.
Oddest occurrence:Domenech’s refusal to shake Parreira’s hand. When you’re in a hole, stop digging Raymond.
Best opponent faced: Diego Forlan. The long-haired striker was unplayable against the hosts, firing two brilliant goals.
Most pleasing TV moment: The sheer elation and tears coming from fans’ after their victory over France. Football isn’t just about £100,000-a-week ponces, you know?
So there you have it. South Africa’s tournament – perhaps the most entertaining so far.