Believe in your team

2009-12-12 00:00

THERE’S no doubt Bafana Bafana have been handed a very tough draw for the 2010 World Cup. It would be unrealistic and dangerous to not acknowledge that and plan accordingly, which is what Carlos Alberto Parreira and his coaching staff have been doing. The mere fact that all three Group A teams are ranked in the top 20, and France seventh, is an indication of the mammoth task that awaits the South Africans. Uruguay and Mexico have pedigree and experience. But anyone who thinks Bafana will become the first host nation to exit a World Cup in the first round has been smoking their tequila, not drinking it.

It’s worth having a look at the recent records of Mexico, Uruguay and France. Mexico, ranked 15th, are perennial qualifiers for the World Cup from the relatively weak Concacaf region in central and north America. Latterly only the USA have provided any stiff resistance in the region. Mexico’s growing success on the world stage in the 1990s was largely due to lucrative TV deals for its domestic league, which is one of the richest outside Europe. The Mexicans sacked Sven-Goran Eriksson as coach after coming through the first round of World Cup qualifiers on goal difference from Jamaica. Under Javier Aguirre Mexico have won 11 out of 16 games.

Mexico have not just qualified for the last four World Cups, but been very competitive in them. After being banned from Italia 90 for age-cheating, Mexico won the “Group of Death” at USA 94 comprising Italy, Ireland and Norway before losing on penalties to semi-finalists Bulgaria in the second round. At France 98 Mexico beat South Korea and drew against Belgium and the Netherlands, before losing 2-1 in the last-16 to Germany. In 2002 in Korea and Japan, Mexico beat Croatia and Ecuador and drew against Italy to again reach the second round, where they were again knocked out, this time 2-0 by arch-rivals the USA. In the last World Cup in Germany the Mexicans reached a remarkable fourth last-16 place in succession from a weak group that included Iran and Angola, and again were eliminated there, 2-1 by Argentina.

Uruguay are potentially the weakest team on paper in Group A after Bafana. They do have the pedigree of being one of only seven nations to have won a World Cup, but both those titles came in the heyday of Uruguayan football in the first half of the last century, in the first World Cup in 1930 and again in 1950. In the 1990s and current decade the Uruguayans qualified for as many World Cups as South Africa — two, in 1990 where they reached the second round, and 2002, where they were eliminated in the group stages. Uruguay squeezed into next year’s World Cup, finishing fifth in the South American qualifying group and beating Costa Rica from the Concacaf region in a playoff with a 1-0 away victory and 1-1 draw at home. Their recent record suggests Uruguay’s No. 19 ranking is somewhat flattering.

France … everyone knows France, and Thierry Henry, and his handball. Henry is one of the few survivors, with Nicolas Anelka, of the golden generation of the World champions of 1998 and 2000 European champions. The others have largely passed on, including Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Lillian Thuram, Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and, of course, Zinedine Zidane. Henry is sure to retire after 2010, having been the link to a new generation that continues to be churned out from the country’s football academy at Clairefontaine. These include Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, Chelsea winger Florent Malouda, Arsenal defenders Bacary Sagna and William Gallas, and Eric Abidal of Barcelona. The French are still ranked in the top 10 and on paper very much a top 10 country.

In Raymond Domenech, France have an unpopular coach, even in their own country. And now, thanks to Henry, the French themselves are unpopular. It would be the fairytale the world would want to see if 86th-ranked Bafana could beat France in 2010. Possible? In football anything is possible. Far from likely though, and a fairytale is likely to be what it remains. South Africa will hope to have wrapped up their qualification before meeting the French.

It is in South Africa’s favour that the more difficult of their two matches they will want to try and win is in the opener against Mexico at Soccer City on June 11. Matthew Booth’s statement that he doesn’t envy the Mexicans facing 95 000 vuvuzelas in the opener might have been partly motivated by a show of bravado for the audience at the final draw. But there is merit in the defender’s thinking.

Bafana will hold two months of training camps in Germany and Brazil early in the coming year, which admittedly the European-based players are likely to be absent from. But there is a month from the end of the European seasons to the World Cup during which the European-based players can be integrated. Bafana were super-fit after a three-week training camp for the Confederations Cup, and will be in even better condition for 2010. South Africa will need to play better than they did in the Confed to get past Group A. In the Confed Bafana grew with each game. In 2010 they must hit the ground running. With a better coach and a better preparation, and in a supercharged atmosphere that will follow the landing of spaceship 2010 on South Africa, that should happen.

I too, don’t envy Mexico, and if Bafana can beat them, then it is just a matter of not letting that victory go to their heads when they face Uruguay in Tshwane on June 16.

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