SA comes face to face with an inconvenient truth
JOHANNESBURG — A few days before the 2010 World Cup kicked off, South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira was asked about his team’s chances on home soil.
“The vuvuzela is our extra player,” the Brazilian enthused in belaboured English.
At that time the mood was right and indeed the vuvuzela looked like it was going to be the potent extra player for Bafana Bafana.
But as temperatures dropped below freezing point at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld stadium on Wednesday night, the vuvuleza didn’t seem so effective as South Africa were thrashed by Uruguay.
For the first time in the 2010 World Cup, the vuvuzela stopped bellowing.
It took a stupendous strike from Atletico Madrid hitman Diego Forlan in the 24th minute to silence the drone of the “instrument” that some want banned from football stadiums.
After that momentary silence the vuvuzela did however resume its roar until disaster struck again in the 76th minute when keeper Itumeleng Khune was sent off for clipping the leg of Luis Suarez as the Ajax striker tried to round him.
Forlan buried the resultant penalty four minutes later.
The little hope left in the vuvuleza-blowing and the makarapa-donning Bafana fans suddenly gave way to disbelief and anger.
Bafana Bafana had crumbled on the night they thought they would overcome the team they deemed the weakest in Group A.
As soon as Uruguay made it 2-0, hordes of Bafana Bafana fans started streaming out of Loftus Versfeld.
The sight of their national team losing was probably too hard to bear.
If they had stayed a little longer they could have witnessed Alvaro Pereira add to Bafana Bafana’s misery with the third goal in injury time.
Outside the stadium the streets of Pretoria were quiet.
The country had been stunned.
It seemed for the first time South Africans were beginning to accept that their boys were not going anywhere in this World Cup no matter how loud they blew the vuvuzelas to cheer them.
When Uruguay scored their second goal Ntando Khumalo who was watching the game on TV at Bulldogs club in Rosebank asked the waiter for his bill.
“I knew it was done,” he told the Sunday Express as he recalled the moment. “I paid my bill and I left.”
Four days on, the post-mortem continues in bars, the media and at social gatherings as South Africans try to understand Bafana Bafana’s calamity on that chilly Wednesday night in Pretoria.
Parreira’s capabilities have come under scrutiny, never mind he led his native Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title.
Some point to technical issues while others heap the blame on the quality of players in the squad.
Others are just mean.
“Teko Modise should play for McDonalds, that’s what he is good for . . . TV adverts,” said one angry South African in a comment posted on the IOL website.
“If you don’t plan, you plan to fail,” said a football commentator on Ukwezi FM, a popular radio station, soon after the game.
“Our boys have become too commercial,” said Peter Diedericks, a reserve goalkeeper for Moroka Swallows and Hellenics in the 1970s who now works as a driver in Johannesburg.
“They lack the passion. These days they just play for money,” he added. “When big time came to them on Wednesday they failed to rise to the occasion.”
Bafana Bafana captain Aaron Mokoena’s assessment was more sobering.
A tearful Mokoena told the media after the match that this was “the most difficult game I have ever played in my career”.
“We walked into a trap,” the Portsmouth defender said.
The loss to Uruguay, it appeared, was a timely reality check for Bafana Bafana who probably had been carried away by the one-all draw against Mexico in the tournament’s opening match.
No one could have said it better than Matsehlane Mamabolo, the editor of Shoot 2010, a special football publication for The Star and its sister papers.
If the truth be told, Mamabolo told the Sunday Express, the discussions should not be about how the team lost but how South Africans disillusioned themselves into believing that their team even stood a chance in this World Cup.
“We were never good enough,” he said with a sarcastic smile.
Mamabolo has covered South African football for 14 years and was there with Bafana Bafana when they crashed out of the 1998 World Cup in France without a win.
He was with them in 2002 in South Korea/Japan when they managed only one win although they were still dumped out in the first round.
“We South Africans like to celebrate mediocrity. We are a country of low standards,” he said in rare sincerity. “We raise our hopes unnecessarily.”
And South Africans are a spoilt lot, he added.
Yet Mamabolo does not deny that the South African media helped pump up the bubble of “false hope”.
He defended the media’s stance “because it’s difficult to write a critical story about the team at this time without being accused of being unpatriotic”.
It’s not hard to understand why the euphoria around the team reached such melodramatic levels.
One, this is the World Cup, the biggest football event on earth, and South Africa is hosting it.
That alone is exhilarating enough.
But then there is the other reason.
Since 2004 when Fifa awarded South Africa the right host the 2010 World Cup, Bafana Bafana struggled.
They could not make it beyond the first round stage of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004, 2006 and 2008.
Bafana Bafana could not even make it to this year’s edition in Angola.
So as the World Cup inched closer, South Africans were desperate for a glimmer of hope that the team would not embarrass the nation by getting dumped in the first round.
That hope started taking shape in the form of victories in friendly matches against football minnows.
Before they met Mexico in the World Cup’s opening match, Bafana Bafana had not lost in 12 matches.
But then the question of who those victories had been against was never asked.
They had thrashed Guatemala 5-0, dispatched Colombia 1-0 and drew one-all against Bulgaria.
By the time they beat Denmark 1-0 six days before the World Cup kick-off the euphoria had reached fever-pitch.
Even Parreira himself was smitten.
“I’m proud,” he said after the Denmark match.
Mamabolo believes this is where South Africans got it wrong.
“We had won against small teams but everyone was going crazy. Nobody looked at the quality of our opponents,” he said.
“When we drew against Mexico it was as if we had won the World Cup. We forgot that Uruguay were waiting.”
Yet South Africa should have little excuses for their failure on the pitch.
With a population of nearly 50 million, the country is big enough to have a large pool of talent to draw from.
In 2007, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League became arguably the richest in Africa after inking a television deal with SuperSport worth R1.6 billion for five seasons.
In the same year, banking giant Absa also signed a R500 million, five-year sponsorship deal with the top-flight league, making it the seventh richest professional league in the world.
Players at South Africa’s top clubs earn an average of R14 000 a month, something that lures players from all over Africa and from countries as far as Brazil.
Most of the teams in South Africa have well-resourced football academies, something that most teams in the rest of Africa can only dream of.
However, all these resources have meant little success for South Africa on the international arena.
Since Orlando Pirates won the African Champions League in 1995, South African teams have struggled in continental competitions.
Yet Dynamos of Zimbabwe, where footballers get miserable rewards for their efforts, have done well in Africa’s premier club competition over the years.
The inadequacies of South African football were highlighted when Bafana Bafana failed to qualify for this year’s African Cup of Nations in Angola.
Poorer nations like Malawi and Mozambique were there yet their national teams are fed by poorly financed leagues compared to South Africa’s.
This is what frustrates the South African football fan.
And when they thought their boys were coming of age after an outstanding performance against Mexico in their opening World Cup match, the ugly reality has emerged again.
On Wednesday, Uruguay did not just win but also reminded South Africans that their football was still light years behind.
It might now only need divine intervention for South Africans to believe again if they are to trounce France and hope the other match between Uruguay and Mexico go their way.
South Africa made history by becoming the first African country to host the World Cup.
Now they are on the verge of making history again: becoming the first host nation to go out of the tournament in the first round. It’s a painful reality for a country that has done so much.
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