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South Africa 2010

Mixed reaction as hosts face tough draw

December 7, 2009
By Don Peters

To say that South Africans greeted Friday's draw in mixed fashion would be something of an understatement, for opinion is already raging in the streets, bars and, of course, the media.

South Africa
GettyImagesSouth Africa face a tricky draw at the World Cup finals

Cape Town's Weekend Argus Saturday lead was among the more negative: "Bafana Bafana were handed a draw from hell when grouped with France, Mexico and Uruguay for next year's World Cup."

But some fans have tried to put a positive spin on the challenges of Group A, where the World Cup hosts must face three sides ranked in FIFA's top 20.

"I'm happy with the draw because it's going to force us to raise our game and then anything is possible," said one young Capetonian. Yet as the prospect of becoming the first World Cup hosts to exit at the first hurdle drifts in and out of view, some fans are already plotting their excuses.

"There are a lot of top teams in the group, so we can go through if we perform - but if we don't, we can just say it was a tough group," another 'Bafana Bafana' fan said. "My hopes of drawing New Zealand and Paraguay were not fulfilled, so I'm disappointed."

Indeed, emotions and optimism could have been so different if the first team out of pot four had been the likes of Slovenia or Slovakia rather than 1998 champions France, and the draw left coach Carlos Alberto Parreira using rich analogies as he was afforded the chance to finally channel his energies on the task at hand next June.

"This group is like climbing Everest for us and no one climbs Everest just by words. You need planning, passion, mental fitness and intelligence to conquer that mountain," he said. "We must get our message across to the players that the only way to qualify is by working. It's our Everest - we are going to reach it and raise our flag on the top."

To do so, the competition's lowest-ranked team must win at least one match against foes packed with World Cup experience. 'Bafana Bafana' kick off Africa's first World Cup when taking on Mexico on June 11 in Johannesburg's Soccer City, which will host the final itself exactly a month later.

Five days on, the South Africans face two-time champions Uruguay in Pretoria - although the South Americans' glory days, in 1930 and 1950, are becoming ever less relevant to the fortunes of Diego Forlan and company. Nonetheless, this is a game South Africa surely need to win if they are to avoid setting themselves up for a must-win clash against the French in their final group match on June 22.

"I'm happy we're playing against France and I want to give them revenge against the Irish," said one local fan, summing up the mood of many. In truth, the city of Bloemfontein is probably the ideal venue for South Africa to take on Raymond Domenech's side for it is often labelled the hotbed of the local game.

"We can get out of the group, even if France will be a bit of a challenge," Steven Pienaar, South Africa's indisputable star, says. "The fans will be behind us and will get 10% extra out of the players. The World Cup has been living with us for more than two years now and the moment has come."

But, first, South Africa have to intensify their preparations and Parreira has made it his mission to recreate the spirit of the Confederations Cup, when 'Bafana Bafana' impressed - albeit in defeat - against both Brazil and Spain.

Fellow Brazilian Joel Santana was in charge then, but 66-year-old Parreira followed events closely and is well aware of the positive impact the long build-up to the competition had on the hosts. And in 2010, the 1994 World Cup-winning coach will have plenty of chances to work with his local players, if not necessarily with those based overseas. With the local PSL stopping for the duration of January's African Cup of Nations to allow the Africans based here to travel to Angola, Parreira will have two weeks to work with his charges.
Carlos Alberto Parreira
GettyImagesCarlos Alberto Parreira recently returned as South Africa coach

And in March, after the PSL's early conclusion (so planned to aid South Africa's World Cup preparations), there are more training camps, in both Germany and Brazil, where some of the local magic will hopefully rub off on the likes of Katlego Mphela, Teko Modise and Siphiwe Tshabalala.

Yet Parreira's main problem is that many overseas-based South Africans rarely play for their clubs, with several - such as Bernard Parker, Benni McCarthy and Kagiso Dikgacoi - often finding themselves on the bench, which greatly reduces their fitness levels.

"We are going to try to get the players released six weeks before the finals, when we start the final lap of our preparations," Parreira said. If they fail, Parreira is likely to have a little over three weeks to work with his charges - a tall task for a man who took charge just over 200 days before the finals.

Yet while the concerns about Bafana Bafana's fortunes swing ever more wildly up and down, there is at least some good news for the locals. Friday's colourful draw effectively showed the world that the nation is indeed a suitable nation to host the World Cup, even if there is still plenty of work to be done. And it was FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke who raised the loudest rallying cry over a weekend that handed the locals a first chance to witness the impact a World Cup will bring.

"I can safely take the risk of telling the world that South Africa is ready for the World Cup," he said, "and the message I want to send to the world is 'Come and see for yourself'."