World Cup host South Africa faces huge challenge

Bafana Bafana, as the team is known, has not reached the knockout stage in its two previous World Cup appearances in 1998 and 2002. And there has been only one high point before a steady decline since readmission to international football, post-apartheid, in 1992.

JOHANNESBURG  _ World Cup host South Africa faces a huge challenge if it is to reward the excitement and anticipation of a country with something to cheer on the field.

The first African nation to host the tournament will have to make history again if it is to qualify for the second round of the tournament _ the realistic target.

Bafana Bafana, as the team is known, has not reached the knockout stage in its two previous World Cup appearances in 1998 and 2002. And there has been only one high point before a steady decline since readmission to international football, post-apartheid, in 1992.

The country won the 1996 African Cup of Nations on home soil but the outlook has never been as bright for the Rainbow Nation as it lost the 1998 final, finished third in 2000, and was a quarterfinalist in 2002. The deterioration continued with three straight first round exits, and the shock of failing to qualify for this year’s event in Angola has put the challenge at the World Cup in stark contrast.

Now ranked below teams like Benin and Burkina Faso, South Africa will find Group A opponents Mexico, Uruguay and 1998 winner France all formidable tests.

Experienced coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is in charge, for the second time, and he believes his team can makes use of its underdog status in the tournament opener against Mexico at Soccer City.

“We are the lowest of the teams at the World Cup. That’s OK, because our opponents might think we are not going to be difficult for them,” the Brazilian said. “But well prepared, in our home ground, with 90,000 supporters, we are going to give them a good fight.”

The 67-year-old Parreira resigned for personal reasons in April 2008 but was reappointed in late 2009. With national pride at stake, the country was eager to make use of his vast knowledge and not afraid of paying top dollar.

Parreira recognizes the expectation is immense and has chosen to take his team to Brazil and Germany, and away from the pressure at home, for pre-World Cup training camps.

“I wish to say to my players everything they do is important. Even at training because we are now a World Cup team, we are World Cup players, the whole world is focused on us. So everything changes,” he said. “There is something about the World Cup, once you have been there you will know the feeling. It’s priceless.”

Parreira is expected to rely heavily on the England-based trio of Aaron Mokoena, midfielder Steven Pienaar and mercurial striker Benni McCarthy. But much of the World Cup squad will be made up of relatively inexperienced local players who will be forced to step up to the highest stage.

At just 22, Itumeleng Khune of the Kaizer Chiefs is a talented goalkeeper. Central defender Matthew Booth is a crowd favorite whose every touch draws a lengthy chant of his name by fans, though people who don’t know mistake the chant for boos.

Mokoena, the country’s most experienced player and the team’s undoubted leader, can play in defense or as a holding midfielder.

Teko Modise, Siphiwe Tshabalala, Benson Mhlongo, Macbeth Sibaya and Kagisho Dikgacoi are all useful midfielders but Pienaar, who has shown outstanding recent form in the Premier League for Everton, is crucial to the team’s creative edge.

Mamelodi Sundowns striker Katlego Mphela proved he has an eye for goal with two against Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, including a stunning long-range free kick.

And then there’s McCarthy.

Brought up on the Cape Flats near Cape Town, an area renowned for poverty and gang-related violence, McCarthy offers the rags to riches story that warms the hearts of football fans.

Now 32, McCarthy scored South Africa’s first ever World Cup goal in 1998 and is the country’s leading scorer with 35 goals in 83 games. But his commitment to the cause has sometimes come under scrutiny. He retired from international football after the 2002 World Cup, at the age of just 24, to concentrate on his club career in Europe.

He returned in 2004 and despite up and down performances since, and recent injury problems, he remains a crucial member of the squad, according to Parreira.

“I believe Benni is a big asset for us because of his quality and experience. and if he can’t be here with us it’s a big blow,” the coach said. “We need him for his experience.”

With McCarthy up front, South Africa is always capable of scoring a goal, surprising an opponent and maybe reaching that second stage.

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