A friendly game that means a lot

2010-05-15 00:00

BAFANA Bafana’s friendly tomorrow against Thailand in the opening game of a new World Cup venue, the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, marks the beginning of the very last phase in their six-year preparations for next month’s tournament.

While certainly it has been six years that could have been handled a thousand times better by the SA Football Association, it is too late for such ruminations, and the team’s focus will be solely on the tournament that kicks off with Bafana’s game against Mexico at Soccer City on June 11.

Ranked 105th in the world, Thailand are easily the weakest of the teams South Africa will face in their World Cup warm-ups. On May 24, the 2010 hosts meet Bulgaria at Soccer City, on May 27 Columbia at the Cape Town Stadium, then Denmark on June 5, also at Soccer City.

With many of the foreign-based stars still arriving back in South Africa, tomorrow’s team will be mostly locally based. And there is plenty to play for.

The current 30-man squad still must be cut to 23 by the June 1 deadline and for coach Carlos Alberto Parreira there are still tough decisions to be made. For the players there are places in the final 23 to play for, and for some the battle to have their names down in the starting XI for that moment in history when the first African World Cup kicks off against Mexico.

It is significant that the 30 000 tickets for the game sold out within days. The atmosphere for 2010 is now palpable, and it’s only going to get bigger.

After two training camps away from the media and public glare in Brazil and Germany, tomorrow the Bafana players start to get their first taste of the tsunami of support that is about to wash over this country … and the first experience of the weight of expectation that will be on their shoulders.

Following games played in cold German stadiums in front of a few hundred people against North Korea (0-0) and Jamaica (Bafana won 2-0), tomorrow marks the beginning of the team’s final and highly scrutinised preparations.

The result is not overly important, but Parreira will be hoping the atmosphere can galvanise his team into clicking into the pattern the coach has attempted to instill in the camps in Brazil and Germany, of keeping the ball and playing to the South Africans’ strength of skill and passing. And the coach would be more than pleased with a convincing victory, and for the goal-shy South Africans to bang in one or two.

Winger Siphiwe Tshabalala was South Africa’s in-form player in Brazil and Germany, including a screaming long-range equaliser in a 1-1 draw against Paraguay in Asuncion. The Kaizer Chiefs player admitted the pressure will be cranked up on the South Africans in the coming weeks.

“The pressure is always there when you play for the national team and there is a certain expectation for all the players,” Tshabalala said.

“I am very happy about the way I performed in Brazil. I think I set the standard very high for myself. I hope to keep playing well and do the nation proud.”

Right-back Siboniso Gaxa is one of the players whose starting place is under threat, from Greece-based Bryce Moon and Belgian-based Anele Ngcongca.

“This is the first game of our last stage of preparation. Thailand are ranked quite low, but they are a side who will try to reach the next World Cup in 2014,” Gaxa said.

“It will be a tough game for us. We need to start off well and play some good football.

“We want to score goals and boost our confidence. It is important that we grow psychologically and mentally. We have to win this game.”

Benni McCarthy has joined the squad and South Africans could get some indication of the West Ham striker’s level of fitness if he is given a run.


Tomorrow: South Africa v Thailand, Mbombela Stadium, 3 pm — live on SABC1.


Mbombela pitch under scrutiny, page 39.

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