Spain raining on South Africa's plain

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Before July 11, 2010, the closest thing between South Africa and Spain was a common belief that the United Nations security council should be restructured and also a shared success in producing red wine. However, on that night three-plus years ago, Andres Iniesta was added to the list.

His World Cup winning goal meant that Spain would hold South Africa dear for being the place where they conquered the world. And the host country would have similar feelings towards the conquistadors to whom they provided the battleground. Even though the two countries went back to politics and party-drinks, they would always have those memories of each other.

It was only natural that, with another World Cup looming, they wanted to recreate some of that fanfare. When South African football bosses announced a friendly fixture between the world champions and humble Bafana Bafana, it was considered a massive coup.

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The marketers would be able to milk the fixture for all it was worth and few were really concerned about the result. Lowly South Africa, ranked 61st in the world, have not even managed to secure a spot in Brazil, and were expected to succumb to the superstars of Spain. And few would have had a problem with that outcome. Spanish soccer is popular in this part of the world and their national team became world beaters right here.

The Spanish arrived with the manners of schoolboys educated at the best private institutions. They visited Potchefstroom -- the student-town where they were based before the World Cup -- to thank them for their hospitality three years ago. They even brought the World Cup with them and allowed mere mortals to touch it.

They romanced the media and the public and there was a sense that on game day, more people had gone to see Spain than South Africa. Although Spain were on the attack early on, South Africa had their chances too. In the 56th minute, they made one of them count. Bernard Parker scored his 19th goal in the national fleet when he was in the right place to collect Oupa Manyisa's pass and shoot home.

But the most important part of the match actually took place 25 minutes after that. Victor Valdes had to leave the field with a calf injury, and because Spain had already made the six substitutions allowed by FIFA rules in international matches, Alvaro Arbeloa decided to step into the shot-stopper's role.

Vicente del Bosque had other ideas. He sent on Pepe Reina on, much to his opposite number Gordon Igesund's horror, in a move that would rule the result of the match null and void. A decision on whether the match will be deemed worthless is yet to be made, but officials from both sides of the divide are hopeful that will not happen.

South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan expects the result to stand because "Bafana were not at fault and therefore cannot be penalised." But they may not be enough to save South Africa.

FIFA allows for more than six replacement players as long as it has been agreed to before the match. Del Bosque said he asked whether he could bring Reina on after Valdes' injury and "FIFA conceded to us." Igesund, who was gesturing emphatically at the time, said the Spanish bench asked him if they could bring Reina on and he told them he didn't have a problem with it because he does not control the game, but reminded them the rules were put in place before kickoff.

The eventual decision may depend on what the referee said he would be willing to accommodate or whether he made a mistake. In 2008, FIFA did not strike the result of a match between England and Trinidad and Tobago off the record, even though Fabio Capello made seven substitutions, because he believed he had permission. The official confirmed that he had received no instruction for the special dispensation but had allowed it in error, and because no protest as lodged, FIFA allowed the match to remain official.

Bafana Bafana will hope that applies again. They could gain more than 500 points for shocking the world champions, but this is more about pride than places on a chart. South Africa do not think they are the best in the world after beating Spain -- and they had their media to remind them of that as soon as the final whistle blew -- but, as even del Bosque himself admitted, "they have improved," and this was a tangible sign of that.

For La Roja to take that away would leave a stain as glaring as the one a rioja wine leaves at the bottom of a glass, and that is something few South Africans will be willing to toast to.

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