South Africa's lowly national team will need all the home support it can get during the World Cup. But past struggles won't stop fans, players and even the President from dreaming of glory.
"Bafana Bafana" will feel the weight of expectation at their home World Cup
South Africans call their their national soccer team "Bafana Bafana." It translates as "the boys." The boys will need to become men - and fast - if South Africa is to avoid making unpleasant history.
No host team has ever failed to make the second round of its own World Cup finals before. South Africa was 90th in FIFA's latest world rankings, with only no-hopers North Korea from the 32 teams at the World Cup finals further down. South Africa didn't qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and probably wouldn't have qualified in 2010 had it not been hosts.
In Group A, it faces runners-up from four years ago France, as well as experienced World Cup contenders Mexico and Uruguay. Hope, however, springs eternal.
"We're playing at home and we must give our best for our country," says Bafana Bafana captain Aaron Mokoena. "So far, every host team has given a good account of itself at the World Cup. It's my job to lead the team." He and his teammates have quite a task on their hands.
South African hands on the World Cup trophy
Turn down your TV sets
Mexico will walk into the cauldron of Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg, to face the hosts in the opening game on June 11. The vast majority of the 94,000 fans packed inside will be supporting the home team. "The fans are our 12th player," says captain Mokoena. "I am confident that we have a great chance."
Players and fans alike will look forward to the opener, knowing that playing on home soil can be used to good effect. Last year at the Confederations Cup, South Africa went all the way to the semi-final, where it was narrowly beaten by eventual winners Brazil.
Vuvuzelas - loud plastic horns hugely popular amongst South African soccer crowds - were widely criticised abroad, but helped spur Bafana Bafana on. Captain Mokoena acknowledges that to play in front of his own fans at the game's biggest tournament is something special. "For me it will be a dream," the Portsmouth defender said. "I am part of the first World Cup on the African continent, am part of this event and playing for my country."
Another Pienaar, another miracle?
The top-level European, and World Cup, experience Mokoena can call upon will be invaluable for South Africa this summer. 29-year-old Mokoena, the record-holder for the most caps for his country, played the last time it reached a World Cup finals in 2002. Otherwise, the majority of the 23-man squad play their club football at home in South Africa's Premier Soccer League. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has invested a great deal of time with these young prospects, holding training camps in Germany and Brazil in recent months.
Steven Pienaar (r) continues to attract a lot of attention
But if South Africa is really going to cause a serious World Cup upset though, the man it will be looking to is Steven Pienaar. The former Borussia Dortmund and Ajax midfielder now plays his club football at Everton, but is reportedly a target for even bigger clubs in England. In 1995, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup on home soil, led by Francois Pienaar (no relation), who famously received the trophy from President Nelson Mandela. Steven Pienaar is certainly Bafana Bafana's star man, although a repeat performance looks unlikely.
With the team not having to qualify for 2010, Bafana Bafana's World Cup preparations have consisted of an extensive number of friendlies. Recent victories over Jamaica and Thailand, although far from conclusive, were a vast improvement upon its 2009 record.
Coach Joel Santana was sacked last October, after the team lost eight out of nine matches. The odd game out was a 1-0 home win over Madagascar. Santana's fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira then took charge of the national side for a second time. South Africa will be the fifth team he takes to a World Cup, a tournament he won as coach of Brazil in 1994.
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"We are a small football country," Parreira said, trying to keep South African feet on the ground. "Our first goal is to come through the group stages."
The country's president, Jacob Zuma, made no such effort to keep pressure off the players' shoulders. "We in South Africa will not allow the trophy to leave the country again," he said, predicting a triumph over Brazil in the final. While imprisoned as a political dissident, Zuma himself was actively involved in establishing a football league in the Robben Island prison.
The specter of apartheid still looms large over the nation's sporting sides. When white and black players were prevented from playing together after racial policies were introduced following the second world war, South African teams were excluded from international sporting competiton. Bafana Bafana played its first game in over 30 years in July 1992, after apartheid ended and these bans were repealed. Four years later, on home soil, South Africa won the Africa Cup of Nations, beating Tunisia 2-0 in the final. It remains its only international soccer prize.
Mokoena wants to surpass that achievement in 2010 though. "I have achieved virtually all of my ambitions. And I am very proud to be captain of this team at the World Cup," Bafana Bafana's leader said. "But my dream in this great tournament is to hold the trophy aloft."
In a tournament that's as much about what football can do off the pitch as what the players can do on it, the title of the official World Cup song by Shakira is particularly apt. "This time for Africa."
Author: Uli Petersen / tms
Editor: Matt Hermann