11 June ~ In 2006 it was inconceivable that Germany would be the first host nation to depart the World Cup at the group stage. Yet by their own high standards the squad was one of the country’s weakest and pundits had the knives out. We should have known better – they were edged out only in the semi-finals and the tournament was a huge success in uniting and popularising the country. Here in South Africa we are well on the way to emulating the second half of that success, with all races and cultures flying the flag and wearing Bafana Bafana colours. As much as this is a welcome, and perhaps surprising, aspect of the World Cup so far the very real fear of national embarrassment on the football field looms large.
Realistically it will take a huge effort for Bafana Bafana to avoid group-stage elimination and deep down everyone knows it. You could almost hear the sigh of despair echo across the country as the draw placed Bafana in a tough group including two past winners. This came as Bafana had just struggled through a run of eight defeats in nine internationals culminating is the dismissal of coach Joel Santana just eight months from the World Cup kick-off. With the Springboks rugby world champions and the Proteas becoming the number one international cricket team the year before football took centre stage it was the worst time for Bafana to hit rock bottom.
Like other African nations the problem for local football is that many footballers who show a glimpse of potential are quickly whisked away to European leagues. Even though South Africa has the richest domestic league on the continent it still pays far more to sit on the bench for a German second division club. It’s a 22-hour return flight to get back for a midweek FIFA international break hence many players develop small niggles that require treatment in Europe rather than risking a 30 minute run-out against Swaziland on a Wednesday night.
Unless they have the obvious qualities of a Stephen Pienaar many promising players have simply become lost to South African football at a time when their potential could be nurtured. It is also fair to say that being the richest league in Africa the club sides have neglected youth development at the expense of simply buying in established talent from neighbouring countries. South Africans not only love to watch the English Premier League they also want to replicate its greatest follies.
So this leaves a potential humiliation to unfold over the next couple of weeks. However there is a glimmer of hope. The domestic league was terminated early and the players sent on glorified boot camps in Brazil and Germany. They have come back fitter and better organised under the new coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. Incredibly they go into the opening fixture on the back of a 12-game unbeaten run (although that does include wins over carefully selected opposition including Guatemala, Thailand and Jamaica and a string of home team penalty decisions that would make even Sir Alex blush). Suddenly there is reason to believe and the country is grabbing it with both hands. With France’s problems, Group 1 now has what any good sporting event needs – a hint of unpredictability. Even two months ago the nation did not give Bafana a hope of qualifying; now it seems it is the competition’s most difficult group to call.
Despair has slowly turned to hope and as the final hours to kick-off count down it has genuinely become expectation. But just in case things don’t work out the country held its celebration party early. A campaign by the national media to slip out of work at midday on June 9 and blow your vuvuzela in support of Bafana led to commerce grounding to a halt as Sandton in Johannesburg, the country’s economic heart, was swallowed in a sea of yellow-shirted office workers. A perplexed looking Parreira lead his team through an estimated 180,000 dancing fans. Should the team actually be successful in this tournament the celebration will have to be something out of this world to top events so far. Paul Giess
Read the WSC World Cup preview for South Africa