The world's eyes descend on South Africa as the dry-run for the World Cup next year kicks off in Johannesburg today.
Hearts and minds are at stake
JOHANNESBURG // South Africa's ability to stage a successful World Cup in 2010 will be under intense scrutiny as the Confederations Cup kicks off in Johannesburg today, but so too will the potential and character of the country's football team. Issues of security and transport are likely to be top of the agenda for investigative journalists sent to ascertain whether Africa's first World Cup is likely to be a landmark triumph or an organisational disaster. But the performance of Bafana Bafana, who begin their campaign against Iraq today, and the inevitable circus surrounding the team may yet turn out to be a big part of the story.
The question is whether the players can cope with the pressure and expectation of a fanatical support that will turn home matches into a carnival occasion. There is little doubt that Joel Santana's side would have struggled to reach the finals had they been required to qualify, but recent victories over Poland and Norway have come as a welcome pre-tournament boost and given rise to greater expectation.
With players such as captain Aaron Mokoena, Steven Pienaar, Macbeth Sibaya and Elrio van Heerden - who all ply their trade abroad - the talent pool is deep enough to give the host nation hope but, as so often with the South African side, internal politics could also play a part. There is controversy over the omission of talisman striker Benni McCarthy for disciplinary issues and even more consternation that key centre-back Nasief Morris, who has been playing on loan at Recreativo in Spain's La Liga and is the team's best defender, was left out for similar reasons.
The build-up to the Confederations Cup has also been affected by a simmering row over bonus payments, with players being described as "greedy" after demanding Rand180,000 (Dh82,420) for beating Iraq today and R250,000 just for being selected for the tournament. The same happened on the eve of the 1998 World Cup finals in France, at the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan and even in 2004 and 2006 during the African Nations finals in Tunisia and Egypt. This time, the players appear to have backed off and Everton's Pienaar, South Africa's most dangerous player - although also look out for improving midfielder Teko Modise - is adamant Bafana Bafana will be ready for Iraq. "It will probably be one of the toughest games of the tournament for us," he said. "The expectations are high in South Africa and we cannot afford to let our people down. We are anxious and there are some nerves because it's a big event and many of our guys are not used to playing in such an event.
"But I'm excited because I haven't experienced playing for Bafana in front of a full house. Last year, the national team did not enjoy big crowds at the stadiums - I don't know why, but our supporters prefer getting behind Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates (South African club sides) than Bafana. But now I expect it to be full and exciting. "We do not know much about Iraq, but in a way it is an advantage that they are a closed book - it will help us to play even harder, as if we are playing against one of the superpowers of world football.
"The plan is to do well in the opening two games against Iraq and New Zealand and go into the last group stage fixture against Spain having qualified for the semi-finals. But we are thinking way beyond the group stages. We want do well in the Confederations Cup so that the whole of South Africa can believe in us ahead of the 2010 World Cup." firstname.lastname@example.org