Sisphiwe Tshabalala scored a superb goal 10 minutes into the second half to bring pandemonium to Soccer City but South Africa could not hang on to the lead, as Rafael Marquez, the Mexico captain, equalised with 11 minutes to go.
Substitute Bernard Parker hit the foot of the post in stoppage time as South Africa came desperately close to snatching an opening win but will now have to beat either France or Uruguay to qualify.
In the shebeens across the country they will be agonising over the victory that got away but really South Africa did well to come away from this game with a draw.
After all the febrile build-up, Bafana Bafana were caught cold by an impressive Mexican opening. The World Cup hosts were unbeaten in 12 games before this and had danced down the tunnel as they came out to warm-up, the picture of confidence. In retrospect it must have been their way of trying to mask their nerves.
Just as England found out in their pre-tournament friendly Mexico are an awkward skilful opponent and South Africa struggled to deal with the rapid interchange of personnel in Mexico’s fluid 4-3-3 formation. Capitalising on the hosts’ shaky start Mexico pressed remorselessly, with both full-backs, Carlos Salcido on the left and Paul Aguilar on the right playing like wingers.
Just a couple of minutes in and Itemeleng Khune, the South Africa goalkeeper, spilled an Aguilar cross and Aaron Mokoena had to react quickly to block Guillermo Franco’s shot.
South Africa’s left-back, Lucas Thwala was being given a desperate time by the over-lapping Aguilar, although to be fair to him, the player that was supposed to protect him, Tshabalala had no idea who he was supposed to be tracking.
How Mexico did not score in the first half was baffling. Franco twice headed excellent Giovani dos Santos crosses over and when Carlos Vela played a clevber reverse pass to the West Ham striker he could not squeeze the ball past Khune.
Dos Santos was superb, bursting past tacklers effortlessly. As a teenager at Barcelona he was spoken of as the heir to Ronaldinho but having struggled desperately in his two years at Tottenham he was written off as another failed prodigy. What a time to start proving everyone wrong.
He almost scored with 20 minutes gone, robbing the sloppy Teko Modise of the ball before burst past Mokoena and shooting powerfully but with just too much fade on the ball. Dos Santos did get the ball in the net seven minutes before half-time after Rafael Marquez had flicked on Gerardo Torrado’s corner. Steven Pienaar was on the line buy fortunately for South Africa, Khune had come flying off his line and beyond Dos Santos.
South Africa, who had barely worked Oscar Perez in the Mexico goal in the first half, came out with much more conviction in the second. Carlos Alberto Parreira, the coach, ruthlessly replaced Thwala with Tsepo Masilela and obviously got into his team-mates.
After 10 minutes they were ahead. Mexico had confidently left acres of space in behind them and Parreira’s team pounced on the counter, Modise sending a perfectly judged pass ahead of Tshabalala, who struck an absolutely perfect precise finish across Perez and into the top corner.
Mexico kept pushing – Dos Santos had a shot turned round the near post by Khune – but South Africa were far more confident. Modise twice had chances to extend he lead. The first was a poor miss but for the second it looked like he was being fouled – in the area – by Francisco Rodriguez.
Just as it looked like Bafana Bafana were going to do it, the Mexicans equalised with 11 minutes to go. They made a complete hash of a short corner but South Africa failed to press it properly and then left Marquez free at the far post. Andres Guardado’s excellent cross was just too high for Mokoena and Marquez trapped expertly before coolly sliding past Khune.
South Africa ranks 83rd in the world, and the Bafana Bafana face an uphill task if they are to avoid becoming the first host country to be eliminated in the first round. This is the first World cup on African soil and the expectation of the fans is high.
No host team has ever gone out in the first round. Telegraph