South Africa v Mexico
Soccer City, Johannesburg
Kick off: 3pm BST
The eyes of the world will be on Johannesburg this afternoon as the first African World Cup finally kicks off, marking the beginning of a festival of football that will last for over four weeks.
And with Group A looking like one of the trickiest to predict, this opening clash between hosts South Africa and tournament regulars Mexico, in the 94,700 capacity Soccer City stadium, may ultimately prove pivotal.
The Bafana Bafana enter the finals burdened with the tag of being the lowest-ranked hosts in the competition’s 80-year history and they will be hoping a carnival atmosphere can carry them to victory over a comparatively young, and improving, Mexico side. A win for either team will immediately turn up the pressure on group rivals France and Uruguay, who posses greater World Cup pedigrees than these two and face each other later on the opening day.
It is only the fourth meeting between the two nations and the first since the 2005 Gold Cup, where South Africa recorded a 2-1 victory in Los Angeles. Mexico won the two previous encounters and they enter the match as slight favourites with the bookmakers, despite having to overcome odds of an historical nature: host nations are undefeated in seven World Cup openers.
South Africa’s Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is preparing for his sixth World Cup, with the high points of his long career coming in 1970, when he was an assistant coach to Brazil’s Golden Team, and in 1994, when Brazil won the trophy with him in charge.
He faces a huge task this time round and will be under pressure to guide South Africa through to the knockout stage on home soil, despite them never making it out of the group stage and only scoring one goal in their two previous appearances at the finals.
Parreira will have found grounds for optimism in their recent progress though, particularly in warm-up victories over Columbia (2-1), who only missed out on a playoff spot from South American qualifying by a solitary point, and fellow finalists Denmark (1-0). The latter result extended South Africa’s unbeaten run to 12 matches, though it should be noted that this streak has included fixtures against the likes of Thailand and Guatemala.
But the quality of players, or rather lack of, at Parreira’s disposal highlights the magnitude of the challenge ahead. The expectations placed on him are mainly borne out of the fact that he is in charge of a host nation whose feverishly excited fans are desperate for them to progress, and are probably an unrealistic reflection of the squad’s overall talent.
Eight of today’s starting XI play their club football at home in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League and will be unknown to the majority of the hundreds of millions tuning in across the globe. 22 year-old goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune is one of the more likely candidates from within this group to secure a move to Europe after the finals.
After the somewhat surprising omission from the squad of all-time leading goalscorer Benni McCarthy, Parreira will be looking towards two English Premier League players to galvanise the team at opposite ends of the pitch. The captain, Aaron Mokoena, who has forged a reputation as a utility man during his time in England with Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth, will line up in defence, where his experience, leadership and tough tackling will be an invaluable asset to the coach.
But the undoubted talisman of the team is creative midfielder Steven Pienaar, who has developed into one of Everton’s most dangerous players over the last two seasons. Despite pre-tournament claims to the contrary, Parreira is likely to employ a pressing game of limited expanse, pack the midfield and start with a lone striker, and he will grant Pienaar a licence to roam and provide the spark of flair that could turn any of the three group stage games in South Africa’s favour.
Pienaar’s effectiveness in this World Cup will surely be a deciding factor in his country’s fortunes, but after months of planning and toil his coach is confident that the team’s cohesion and spirit can give the country something to shout about.
“We respect everyone but fear nobody,” Parreira told the press after the victory against Denmark last weekend.
“If you’d have asked me five months ago if we were ready I’d have said ‘no’. But I am happy with our progress. We now have our own identity, our own style.”
It was the need to get off to a fast start that was foremost in Pienaar’s mind in the run-up to the big kick-off, in order to build confidence both within the camp and amongst the millions of expectant supporters across South Africa.
“People always say the local team invariably does well but I can tell you we’re focusing only on the game against Mexico,” he said.
“If we can get a good result we can set the tournament alight. We need to show as much mental strength as we can – that’s the key to us having a good run.”
In contrast to their opponents, Mexico have a long World Cup history: the 14-times finalists are frequent visitors to the knockout stages and have twice reached the quarter-finals, albeit both times on home soil in 1970 and 1986.
Their squad features a more balanced blend of home and foreign-based players than South Africa’s, and a cluster of them have been touted as the finest generation of youngsters in the national team’s recent history.
Much is therefore expected of the likes of forwards Carlos Vela (Arsenal) and Javier Hernandez (recently signed by Manchester United), right-back Efrain Juarez (Pumas) and attacking midfielder Giovani Dos Santos, who spent the second half of the 2009/10 season on loan to Galatasaray from Tottenham.
Factor in the experience and class of defenders Rafael Marquez (Barcelona) and Carlos Salcido (PSV), winger Andres Guardado (Deportivo La Coruna) and veteran striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Veracruz), and it becomes clear that coach Javier Aguirre has a talented mixture of youthful and established players to choose from as he looks to navigate his way out of Group A. The 51 year-old returned to the national team post last year after a seven-year spell in Spain. A previous term in charge of his country produced a run to the knockout stages of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Aguirre also appeared as a player in the 1986 World Cup, a tournament that ended in frustration for him after he was sent off in the quarter-final defeat to West Germany. He is likely to stay faithful to his customary 4-2-3-1 formation and to his long-established style of technical, quick-tempo possession football that’s easy on the eye.
Mexico can be exhilarating at times but can also suffer from the bouts of inconsistency that often plagues teams with an emphasis on youth. They have been busy since the turn of the year, contesting 12 matches and winning eight – a run that has included victories over Chile and, most recently, Italy, and defeats to Holland and England.
The 3-1 defeat at Wembley last month embodied much of what Mexico are about: they dominated possession and made England look ordinary for long spells, but at times also displayed defensive and mental fragility. With the exception of the captain Marquez – a Champions League winner – the opening game of the World Cup will arguably be the biggest match of the Mexican players’ lives. How they react to the pressure, which includes the tag of being favourites, will be a big factor in the outcome of this game.
“I think the most important thing for us is to not let nerves and pressure get the better of us,” Vela said on the eve of the game.
“That way we can perform to the best of our ability. Playing in the first game is a great opportunity, but at the same time facing the hosts is a tough challenge. The whole world is looking forward to this game and that’s something we’re very aware of.”
South Africa (confirmed): Khune; Gaxa, Khumalo, Mokoena (c), Thwala; Pienaar, Letsholonyane, Dikgacoi, Modise, Tshabalala; Mphela
Mexico (probable): Ochoa; Juarez, Marquez (c), Osorio, Salcido; Torrado, Castro; Dos Santos, Vela, Guardado; Hernandez
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
By Mark Robinson
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