16 June ~ Newspaper columnist Ann Crotty last week described post-apartheid South Africa, now 16 years old, as a self-conscious teenager. Exactly 34 years ago, a generation of real teenagers in Soweto kicked off the uprising that would culminate in the demise of apartheid in 1990. June 16 is now observed as Youth Day. It probably is no coincidence that South Africa should be scheduled to play their second group game, against Uruguay, on this most evocative of national holidays.
It's not that Bafana Bafana (nobody in South Africa calls the national team anything else) need further inspiration. The team, long derided as a national embarrassment, is now fervently supported, to such an extent that the squad took an open-top bus parade through Johannesburg before the World Cup even started, without anybody seeing much wrong with it.
Bafana's encouraging performance (after a nervy start) in the 1-1 draw against Mexico in the opening match has cemented that fervour. Siphiwe Tshabalala's goal triggered a national orgasm. For some 15 minutes after that, the team played like Brazil 1970 Lite. They passed skilfully and with imagination, ran well into spaces and defended with comedic timing. Bafana fans, always more impressed by skill than results, were so pleased with their team that few were angry about the denied penalty or upset about Mexico's equaliser. On the evidence of Friday's games, there is a belief that Uruguay can be beaten.
The newspapers certainly are getting in on the act of collective giddiness. Johannesburg's daily, the Star, exclaimed Ayoba, Mzansi (Cool, South Africa), as much about the successful opening of the World Cup as about Bafana's performance. In his post-match press conference, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said that he believed four points will suffice to qualify from Group A. His prediction may prove to be astute and his assistant, Pitso Mosimane, has confirmed the target for the three required points: Uruguay. The controversial vuvuzela is supposed to help Bafana. Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune complained that at the opening match, the noise generated by the polytrumpets was too muted. Parreira himself spurred on local fans: "It's the culture of the country. We will not change it. We will stress it. We want it louder and louder and louder."
Uruguay might not have impressed in their opening game against France, but there is a danger that South Africans, if not the team, might now underestimate Uruguay and expect too much from the 83rd ranked team in the world. Uruguay, 16th in the FIFA rankings, must be regarded as the favourites. Still, just over two years ago, Bafana recorded a 3-0 win over Paraguay, a better side than today's South American opponents. That was Parreira's last game before his 18-month hiatus as Bafana coach. He will doubtless remind his team of that result.
A South African victory would likely see the hosts through to the Second Round. And on a symbolic level, it would be seen as a fitting tribute to the heroes of June 16, 1976 – those whose sacrifice was so important in getting South Africa to the point where it can host a World Cup. Günther Simmermacher