Hosts retain pride after thrilling opener
"The game must start. We must enjoy the game."
Words delivered by South African president Jacob Zuma but passed on to him by Nelson Mandela - "our icon", as Zuma had hailed him. "Mandiba" was not present at Soccer City, his family having suffered a tragedy the previous night. To follow the great man's thinking, Bafana Bafana, the South African national team, were now the icons to be hailed. Such a status often proved difficult for them to live with. And for an expectant nation, enjoyment was perhaps not an overriding emotion. This must have been an agonising match for them to sit through.
When an opening ceremony planned for years by the organisers is consequently drowned out by the incessant drone of the vuvuzela, a host nation must hope that it can fall back on the fortunes of its football team. No pressure then. And while it is true that they shall not want for support, Bafana Bafana know their results are maintaining a brittle sense of national confidence. They must succeed where R Kelly, the main event of the ceremony in the absence of Mandela, was denied. Flop and those infernal horns would sound ever-more off-key.
Their aim is simple. Qualify from Group A and this will have been a successful campaign. Continuing the record of no host team going out in the first round will have been the diktat handed to coach Carlos Alberto Parreira on his retaking of the reins last October. That aim now looks difficult but achievable, and not without tension.
As first opponents, Mexico provided confirmation that the hosts had not been handed an easy group by last December's draw. If any team is used to playing to a high-altitude, noise-drenched stadium, it is the Mexicans. While their fans may have failed in their aim of making Soccer City their own Azteca, driven back by force of numbers and use of high-volume weaponry, Javier Aguirre's mix of youth and experience possessed the comfort on the ball to frustrate their over-eager and highly nervous hosts. When Giovanni Dos Santos went close both in the opening moments and then in the 19th minute, a palpable sense of tension personified Bafana, with even the crowd's volume descending at moments of panic.
South Africa's style of play, dependent on athleticism and a perhaps unfit Steven Pienaar supplying the artistry, suited Mexico, ever happy to play around lunging and headstrong defenders. Guillermo Franco, recently rid of West Ham, was the weak link in a free-flowing and interchangeable attack that often troubled a defence marshalled by South Africa skipper Aaron Mokoena.
Mexican frustration set in when Carlos Vela looked to have given them a 37th-minute lead as he latched on to a lofted header back across goal and poked home. The Uzbekistani referee and his assistants deserved congratulation for their collective decision as South Africa could be grateful that the cartoon keeping of Itumeleng Khune in coming off his line had put Vela in an offside position.
Such a narrow escape perhaps served to fuel South African belief. Katlego Mphela's narrow failure to head in a Siphiwe Tshabalala cross and Kagisho Dikgacoi's nod over from a resultant corner gave South Africa crumbs of half-time comfort and the Mexicans a feeling of unfulfilled potential, itself too often their World Cup story.
And, indeed, that creeping familiarity will have been vindicated when, in a breakaway move in the 55th minute, Tshabalala drilled in a shot that flew beyond Oscar Perez and into the far right-hand corner of the net. The initial reaction among home fans was almost one of shock before vuvuzelas were abandoned and voices raised in an explosion of raw emotion. A special moment for the hosts, and one that had seemed beyond the realms of possibility for much of the first period. However, when Teko Modise twice went close around the 65th-minute mark, it seemed as if the sheer excitement of a baying crowd may have got to the Orlando Pirate as he blew two chances to take three vital points.
By then, his team had been playing with more assurance, the Mexicans beginning to show the frustration of another of those days, their previously pinpoint passing too often falling short or being dealt with by somewhat agricultural South African defending. But then, as the dream neared reality, South Africa's discipline deserted them as Mexican substitute Andres Guardado was granted time and space to drift in an even less occupied Rafael Marquez to convert the equaliser.
From that point, Mexico's greater technique looked to be holding sway, only for their defensive soft centre to be exposed once more. Another breakaway, this time by Mphela, saw the striker take down the ball and divert the ball past Perez, only for the ball to crash off the post: agony once more for the hosts, more exposed failings for Mexico. After a thrilling opener, the pride of both nations had not yet dampened but the doubts may be creeping in.
MAN OF THE MATCH: It was little surprise that the sponsors awarded the accolade to Siphiwe Tshabalala for his goal, yet Giovani Dos Santos gets this vote for his constant probing and invention. The former Barcelona starlet exhibited a high level of class and creation in the early stages and remained influential as Mexico reasserted themselves late on.
THE BIG KICK-OFF: A mounting drone of you-know-whats had battled with the straining larynxes of the home support as kick-off neared, the conflicting sounds reaching a crescendo as South Africa took to the field to confirm their status as a continent's first ever hosts of the World Cup. Zuma's short speech, while not as polished as that of Sepp Blatter, was met with rapture as it conveyed the pride of a nation so keen to assert itself.
MEXICO VERDICT: Their comfort on the ball created many problems for South Africa, and they should have been streets ahead by half-time. When they went behind, they may have feared the same old story but showed resilience and composure - through Guardardo and Marquez - to fight back. Defence, though, is a definite worry.
SOUTH AFRICA VERDICT: Raw and riding on a sea of emotion, they looked hugely overawed in the opening periods. But once the chances came, they exhibited danger on almost every attack before going to sleep for Mexico's equaliser. The games against Uruguay and France promise to be similar rollercoasters.