With seventy-eight minutes on the clock, it seemed as if South Africa had been granted the World Cup opening they wished for. Siphiwe Tshabalala had given the hosts the lead with a stunning left-footed strike, with the atmosphere bordering on ecstasy. That was, until, the stadium – bar a handful of Mexicans – was completely silenced. Poor defending gifted Rafael Marquez a simple opportunity to equalise; an opportunity he grabbed with both hands. Nonetheless, it was a momentous night in South Africa, certainly a night that Tshabalala will never forget.
President Jacob Zuma had asked for people to ‘enjoy the game’, something of an understatement in hindsight. The Bafana Bafana lined up with the same side that had eased past Guatemala and Denmark, whilst Javier Aguirre’s side was as expected; free-flowing, knocking the ball around with consummate ease. This was evident within the first five minutes, where El Tri could, and perhaps should, have taken an early lead. What seemed like a simple cross was flapped at by the nervous-looking Itumeleng Khune, presenting Tottenham-reject Giovani Dos Santos a simple tap-in. With the ‘hearts-in-mouth’ cliche coming to mind, Aaron Mokoena salvaged the situation with a tremendous last-ditch block, leading to a rapturous round of applause from the majority of the stadium.
Mexico then increased the tempo of their attacks, with the skill of Vela and Giovani occasionally making the South African defence look like schoolboys. Guillermo Franco wastefully headed wide from a corner, before Vela was rightfully judged offside from a Giovani cross, despite pleading his innocence. Franco was proving to be the Mexican talisman, despite inadvertently keeping South Africa in with a chance – first he headed wide once more, before seeing a 25-yard drive tipped round the post by Khune.
But despite their dominance, Mexico couldn’t find a way through. And when Tshabalala gave the hosts the lead early into the second half, it seemed as if this lack of accurate finishing would come back to haunt them. After Modise had slipped the ball to Katlego Mphela, a deft touch saw the left-footed Tshabalala through on goal. A nation held its’ breath. He sprinted to the corner of the box, before unleashing a rasping left-footed belter into the top corner – writing his name into football folklore in the process. The game had turned itself on its’ head, and South Africa almost doubled their lead moments later. Modise burst clear and was seemingly dragged down by Marquez, but the Uzbekistani referee waved away the protests.
South Africa seemed comfortable on the ball, until Mexico destroyed the hopes of a nation desperate for success. Giovani clipped the ball into the box, and Mokoena didn’t follow his defence in rushing out; thus playing three attackers onside. The ball fell kindly to Marquez who took a touch, picked his spot, and fired past a helpless Khune. Aguirre looked more relieved at equalising than overjoyed, with his side expected to succeed. However, it was the Bafana Bafana who almost snatched the victory in the dying seconds. Substitute Bernard Parker sent hitman Mphela racing clear, but his toe-poke agonisingly clipped the post and went out for a goal-kick.
As the referee blew for full-time, a despondant South African side felt as if they should have won. But they had achieved far beyond many’s expectations in displaying one of the most entertaining opeing games ever seen, as well as showing that they could compete with the ‘big-guns’.