Any neutral should be cheering for Bafana Bafana. The whole country has come together over the past few years to organize the World Cup, and it is worth remembering how important this has been for the South Africans.
Many doubted that South Africa would complete its preparations in time, and many had suggested FIFA move the World Cup somewhere else. The corruption of the ANC, the racial tension in the country and the poisonous politics of the last few years would surely stop South Africa from organizing the World Cup properly, they claimed.
But so far the organization seems to have gone smoothly and according to plan. More than a month before its start, South Africa announced it was ready to host the World Cup. In the world of major football tournament organization, rarely do you see preparations completed ahead of schedule. The worry over the organization has now subsided, but has been replaced by worries over the form of the national team.
To immortalize the fall of the apartheid regime in Hollywood folklore Matt Damon and Morgan Friedman chose the story of the mostly-Afrikaner Rugby team winning the Rugby World Cup under Mandela’s blessing. Yet it is perhaps the football team that has done more to define the identity of the post-apartheid society of South Africa, as Tony Karon explains in this excellent piece on football revolution. In their first major tournament after the end of FIFA-imposed ban, a South African team made up of whites, blacks and coloureds dazzled the world and beat Tunisia 2-0 in the final of the 1996 African Cup of Nations.
South Africa, after a thirty year ban from international competition by FIFA, had arrived on the world football stage. The optimism and euphoria surrounding the multi-racial team was analogous to the optimism and euphoria for the post-apartheid South Africa. In time, both have the team and South Africa have had major disappointments. How the country hosts the World Cup, and how the team does in it will carry massive significance for South Africans.
Bafana qualified for the 1998 World Cup, but disappointed their followers and got eliminated in the first round after two draws with Denmark and Saudi Arabia and a 3-0 loss to eventual champions France. In 2002, they put in a respectable performance in drawing with Paraguay, beating Slovenia and giving Spain a good run for their money before losing 3-2. But things went downhill since; they failed to qualify for Germany ’06 and would have failed to qualify for this World Cup if they had had to.
In the African Cup of Nations, the story has been similarly one of decline. Their 1996 win was followed by a second-place finish in 1998, third-place in 2000, a quarter-final exit in 2002, and elimination from the first round in 2004, 2006, and 2008. In 2010, they failed to even qualify.
Against this ignominious backdrop, South Africa found itself facing the awkward prospect of hosting a great party but not being able to make a respectable appearance. After their disappointing performance in the 2009 Confederations Cup they fired Brazilian coach Joel Santana, and reappointed another Brazilian, Carlos Parreira. At the time this seemed more than a comfort luxury buy than a sound-headed decision. Parreira had already been sacked by Bafana a year earlier. Had Bafana wanted to perform well in the World Cup, they would have done much better by getting a coach who knows how to make small teams triumph in the World Cup: Bora Milutinovic, who does World Cup underdog miracles for a living, seemed the ideal choice to me. Guus Hiddink would’ve been another great choice.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Parreira is no fool. He does, after all, have a World Cup winners’ medal after guiding Brazil to the title in 1994—or, more accurately, letting Romario guide Brazil to the title. But since then, Parreira took Saudi Arabia to the World Cup in 1998, where they lost their first two games, and was promptly sacked before he could lose the third—becoming one of only two coaches in history to be sacked during the World Cup. In 2006, he took over the Brazilian team again, and produced unconvincing displays before getting eliminated in the Quarter-Finals by France. His club coaching career has also not been very distinguished.
Nonetheless, there is some ground for hope. Bafana Bafana seem to have improved in their recent friendlies and have developed a cohesiveness about their play. Admittedly, this is largely down to the fact that they have chosen some pretty weak opposition for their friendlies—Jamaica, Thailand, Bulgaria, Colombia and Guatemala are hardly of the same caliber as the teams to expect in the World Cup. But in their last warm-up, South Africa beat a serious Denmark side 1-0, so perhaps the confidence and team spirit is building up at the right moment.
South Africa’s key man is Steve Peinaar. The Everton midfielder who plays in the Andres Iniesta mold has had a couple of excellent seasons in the Premier League. He’s a great passer of the ball, and can weigh in with some crucial goals and excellent finishes. His set-pieces are also excellent. Aaron Mokoena, South Africa’s captain, is a no-nonsense tough-tackling defender with Portsmouth who could command a solid defensive unit alongside 6’5” watchtower Matthew Booth. South Africans seem particularly hopeful of Siphiwe Tshabalala, a young nimble left-winger who has got good skills.
Beyond that, the team does unfortunately suffer from a dearth of quality. However, with proper organization and a good team spirit, combined with some key players playing well, South Africa may yet surprise and make it out of their tough group.
We must also remember that Bafana have in their favor a weapon no other team has: home advantage. Make no mistake about it, no matter the form of the team, South Africans will unite behind their boys and spur them on. With tens of thousands of vuvuzelas shrieking in the stadiums, the dreams of a nation eager to come out swaggering with pride on its big occasion may just conceive another miracle in this paradise.
I, for one, will be among many footballing and anti-apartheid romantics to wish them success.
Squad List with links to player profiles on Fifa.com:
- 2 Siboniso GAXA
- 3 Tsepo MASILELA
- 4 Aaron MOKOENA
- 5 Anele NGCONGCA
- 14 Matthew BOOTH
- 15 Lucas THWALA
- 20 Bongani KHUMALO
- 21 Siyabonga SANGWENI
- 6 MacBeth SIBAYA
- 7 Lance DAVIDS
- 8 Siphiwe TSHABALALA
- 10 Steven PIENAAR
- 11 Teko MODISE
- 12 Reneilwe LETSHOLONYANE
- 13 Kagisho DIKGACOI
- 19 Surprise MORIRI
- 23 Thanduyise KHUBONI