Expectations high for World Cup hosts
Despite the fear and trepidation expressed - much of which has been ill-informed and unjust - about having the world's biggest football event in Africa, the signs are that infrastructure such as stadia, security and transport links will be ready in good time for the 2010 World Cup, which kicks off on June 11 next year.
Friday, February 20 was the latest important date in the diary, as the application process for tickets to the tournament opened. There was uncertainty as to what would be the initial response of fans - both domestically and internationally - given the current economic climate but the online numbers alone have exceeded half a million applications from 128 countries. Add to that paper inquiries from the host nation and the excitement of the fans is clear.
Thus, with the vital aspects of the off-field organisation on track to be completed, the men and women in suits can justifiably be proud of their work to date. The same, however, cannot currently be said for the players that will represent the host nation on the field.
For fans of Bafana Bafana, the spectre of being the first World Cup host nation to fail to advance beyond the group stage is one that looms large. A 2-0 defeat to Chile in their latest friendly last month ended a run of five straight wins and provided a stark reminder that there remains much to do for the South African team over the next 15 months.
Traditionally, the home team plays above itself in World Cups. Germany was galvanized by die Mannschaft in 2006 while, eight years before that, France rode the crest of the wave generated by playing at home all the way to lifting the trophy. In all, six hosts have won the World Cup on home turf, while two more have reached the final.
The prospect of captain Aaron Mokoena lifting the famous trophy in Johannesburg on July 11 next year may seem far-fetched but, though South Africa may reside below the top tier of international football - Bafana are currently ranked 70th in the world - there have been shocks before. The USA surprised many when they reached the second round in 1994 and were only beaten by Brazil, the eventual winners.
Eight years later, co-hosts Japan and, especially, South Korea excelled against the odds, reaching the second round and semi-finals respectively. South Africa's burden to perform is a heavy one and, for all the plaudits that will be bestowed upon them for the effective organisation of the tournament, what will ultimately be remembered is what happens between the white lines.
As Danny Jordaan, CEO of the Local Organising Committee, said recently: "I am sure that no one remembers who organized the World Cup in France in 1998 but the winners are not forgotten."
Thus, the pressure is on and nobody is feeling it more than South Africa's coach, Joel Santana. The Brazilian, who replaced his fellow countryman Carlos Alberto Parreira in April 2008, has enjoyed mixed fortunes since taking charge and still has much to do to convince the media in the Rainbow Nation that he is the man for the job.
His first impressions were hardly encouraging. Largely unknown outside his native Brazil, Santana agreed a contract that would see him earn over $2m annually and was promptly thrown into the firing line when the team collected just seven points from six African Cup of Nations qualifiers, meaning South Africa will not be present at the finals in Angola at the start of next year.
By failing to secure a place at the Cup of Nations, not only have Bafana suffered the indignity of failing to qualify for the continent's biggest tournament - the first time since 1994 that South Africa has missed the finals - but they have also denied themselves the opportunity to tune up for the World Cup with meaningful games against 'live' opposition.
Though South Africa benefits from qualifying automatically for the tournament as host nation, the downside of that scenario is that their preparation is dominated by friendlies and so lacks a competitive edge. Aware of this, the South African FA has attempted to put together as testing a schedule as possible. Between March and October, Bafana will play Norway home and away, as well as Portugal (away), Poland (home) and Germany (away).
The lack of a place at the Cup of Nations means that June's Confederations Cup will offer the only non-friendly competition Bafana will face between now and the World Cup. The need to make an impression is pressing and Santana's men will have little excuse for failing to perform, having received the kindest of draws.
Spain are the class of the group but, in Iraq and New Zealand, South Africa face opponents they should overcome, especially on home soil. Should they fail to reach at least the semi-finals, the scrutiny under which the coach already operates - following the defeat to Chile, one newspaper accused Santana of 'living on a different planet' - will only increase further.
The good news for Bafana, however, is that their record goalscorer, Benni McCarthy, appears to be fully committed to his national team once again. Last year, the Cape Town-born striker was left out of four consecutive Cup of Nations qualifiers, the incident marking the latest of a long history of brushes with the SAFA and one which led some to call for his international career to be brought to an end.
Having McCarthy back in the fold is a boost for Santana, who looks set to build his 2010 squad around his established European-based players with previous World Cup experience, who also include Mokoena and Steven Pienaar. Delron Buckley and Macbeth Sibaya - two more veterans of the 2002 squad - also remain on the scene.
Alongside his veterans, however, Santana desperately needs the next generation to blossom if South Africa are to make an impact next year. For example, since taking charge, he has selected five different goalkeepers, none of whom have made the number one jersey their own.
22-year-old Itumeleng Khune has featured more than most under Santana but a loss of form means he recently lost his place to Calvin Marlin, whose own form has been patchy. Rowen Fernandez would likely be the first-choice but the Arminia Bielefeld man has yet to feature for the Bundesliga strugglers this season.
Among the players in the outfield of whom much is hoped is Kagiso Dikgacoi, a midfielder who almost joined Fulham in January and striker, Bernard Parker, who has scored four times in Bafana's last six games. Teko Modise, meanwhile, is a sturdy midfielder who plays for Orlando Pirates and was named 2008 PSL Footballer of the Year.
Further stars of the future may emerge at September's Under-20 World Cup, in Egypt, as South Africa have qualified for the finals for the first time since McCarthy and his peers reached the 1997 tournament. The term 'golden generation' has already been applied to this year's squad although they would be wise to heed the lessons of their predecessors. From the 1997 squad, only McCarthy went on to play at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
South Africa's failure to progress from the African qualifying round (coming third behind Nigeria and Sierra Leone in Group D) means that, were they not hosting the next World Cup, they would not be involved in it. Thus, it is the case that, in the world of international football, Santana's job is one of the toughest there is.
Having made stops at over 25 teams during a nomadic managerial career which stretches back almost three decades, Santana has a wealth of experience from which to draw. However, never before has he held the weight of a nation's expectations on his shoulders.
In a country for which sport has represented so much since it was readmitted to international competition less than two decades ago, expectations are high. Stadia, security and transport links may be the hot-button topics when the 2010 World Cup is discussed globally but, for the people of South Africa, their team's failure to perform is what is generating the most anxiety. After all, nobody wants to miss out on their own party.