Do it for South Africa

2009-06-20 00:00

THE Free State Stadium, tonight’s venue of Bafana Bafana’s crucial 2009 Confederations Cup Group A game against Spain, stood tall, stately and deserted last night in Bloemfontein’s winter air, like an old lady with new trimmings waiting for history to come and swoop her up.

Fully lit, not a soul stirred inside in the eerie silence. She seemed alive, and to be aware of the magnitude of the occasion that was to fill her fully refurbished, super-modern bowels.

This afternoon a crowd will begin to descend on the stadium, South Africans hopeful of being a part of a moment that could be among the finest in their country’s fascinating, often frustrating football tale.

They will know there’s a chance of being disappointed, but they will take that in their stride. They always have.

Even after Bafana were handed an easy draw for the Confed Cup, South Africans were aware, given the team’s first declining then painfully slow, stuttering improving form in recent years, this was no guarantee of reaching the semi-finals.

But tonight, in front of a full house of the country’s best supporters, the team have a very real chance of recapturing the spirit of the African Nations Cup-winning team of 1996 a year ahead of the hosting of the 2010 World Cup.

After the slow decline of the successful team of the mid to late 1990s, this completely new generation has struggled to spread its wings. But the current side have already eclipsed their predecessors in this tournament — their passionate 2-0 win over New Zealand that resurrected their semi-final chances after a discouraging 0-0 opening draw against Iraq was South Africa’s first victory at a Confed Cup.

The permutations for Bafana to reach the semi-finals are quite complicated. If South Africa draw tonight they are through, and if they win they will be unlikely top finishers in Group A.

If Iraq, on one point, lose or draw against New Zealand in Rustenburg, South Africa’s result against Spain does not matter and the hosts will be in the semis. The same applies if Iraq win 1-0 and South Africa lose 1-0.

If Iraq win 2-0 and Bafana lose 1-0, with goal difference and goals scored nullified, lots will be drawn to decide which of the two progress. If Iraq win 3-0 and South Africa lose 1-0, Iraq are through.

Clearly for Bafana, the best option is to not leave anything to chance and win or draw, which is easier said than done against the world’s number one-ranked team.

Spain were rampant in their 5-0 opener against New Zealand, with Fernando Torres scoring a hat-trick in 17 minutes. La Roja were less impressive in a 1-0 victory over spoiling Iraq, but they are the world’s most irresistible team at present and capable of beating any side.

Coach Vicente Del Bosque said after the Iraq victory that, with Spain already qualified, he expects to rest players tonight, and the Spanish press have speculated there could be as many as six or seven. This will come as only scant comfort to Bafana because, apart from the Spaniards’ depth, they are still sure to go for victory — a win tonight would set a new world record for the European champions of 15 international victories and 35 matches unbeaten.

Bafana coach Joel Santana abandoned the negative tactics that probably cost his team victory in the opener to good effect against New Zealand. But tonight’s opponents present an altogether different prospect. The coach’s choice of gameplan could be crucial.

If Bafana are to win or draw the game it will be in the midfield, where Teko Modise, Steven Pienaar and Macbeth Sibaya have been outstanding. But the defence will have a far greater role to play than in the previous two games, where they were largely untested.

The South Africans stand so close to destiny, and a huge morale boost for 2010 that it would be an almost unbearable blow to not reach the semi-finals. The country will watch and will with all its might to see the team achieve its goal.

Group A

Tonight: South Africa v Spain (Free State Stadium, 8.30 pm), New Zealand v Iraq (Royal Bafokeng Stadium, 8.30 pm) — both live on SABC1 and SuperSport 3

STANDINGS

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