South Africa v Mexico
Venue: Soccer City, Johannesburg
Date: Friday, 11 June
Time: 15.00 BST (16.00 local)
The hosts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup enter the tournament’s opening fixture buoyed by recent performances and by the unbridled devotion offered to them by the South African public. Hoping to upset the party will be Javier Aguirre’s Mexico, a side with a strong recent World Cup history and players of genuine pedigree.
When the draw for the World Cup was made the instant reaction was that South Africa would become the first World Cup hosts to fail to progress from the Group Stage. Placed in Group A alongside France (winners of the 1998 World Cup), Uruguay (winners in 1930 and 1950) and tomorrow’s opponents Mexico, many believed that South Africa would struggle to muster even a single point.
That belief, potentially a correct one, still exists in some quarters. However, Bafana Bafana, guided by former World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira come into Friday’s game unbeaten in twelve fixtures, a run stretching back to October 2009. The same pessimism greeted South Africa’s participation in the last summer’s Confederations Cup where they narrowly missed out on Third Place. If South Africa are to enjoy another successful international tournament then achieving a result against a talented Mexican side is an essential prerequisite.
Mexico should prove to be a formidable opposition for the hosts. So adept at controlling possession and tempo, El Tri would
usually look to release their pacy wingers Andrés Guardado and Giovanni dos Santos in a bid to terrorise the South African full-backs. However, Javier Aguirre has surprised many with his selections in recent international friendlies. He has left out Guardado of Deportivo la Coruña, wily veteran Cuauhtémoc Blanco and coveted goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa with varying consequences. The uncertainty surrounding the lineup perhaps revealing that Aguirre is not entirely convinced that El Tri can win games at the World Cup in their conventional 4-4-2/4-3-3 setup.
For all of their skill and competence with the football, Mexico must improve their cutting edge. Against England, they dominated a potential World Cup winning side but were unable to capitalise, losing 3-1. In qualifying, six players were equal top scorers with three goals each.
South Africa have suffered problems with strikers as well. The omission of West Ham United’s Benni McCarthy was not a popular decision. Without a recognisable goal scorer, South Africa will struggle to win the one game that is usually required to qualify for the Round of 16. Step forward, Katlego Mphela. Four goals in three games for the Mamelodi Sundowns striker including goals against strong Columbia and Denmark sides has relaxed criticism of the ponderous decision to leave McCarthy out.
Despite this, Mexico are still favourites for this opening encounter. Under normal circumstances, Mexico should and probably would win this match. These are not normal circumstances. Bafana Bafana have united the Rainbow Nation. When the two teams emerge from the tunnel at Soccer City they will be met with one of the most impassioned crowds yet witnessed at a World Cup. Vuvuzelas, hard-hats, altitude and up to 90,000 fans combined will make any fixture against Parreira’s side a challenge even before kick-off.
This match will tell us a lot about the balance of power in Group A. Should Mexico overwhelm South Africa en route to a comfortable victory then they will be favourites for a place in the Round of 16. If they are stifled by the raucous atmosphere and the combative nature of captain Aaron Mokoena and his side and draw then all attention will refocus on Mexico v Uruguay. If, however, South Africa are able to pull off an upset and win, then there is a genuine opportunity for the host nation to avoid breaking precedent and progress to the next round.
That is the aim of Carlos Alberto Parreira, who informed the media that people must fear his side.
“Everybody has to respect us. We are ready to fight. We respect everybody, but they must also respect us. We will take every game as a final. We will fight in every game.”
Prediction – South Africa 1-2 Mexico