No home team have ever failed to advance through the first three group games of the World Cup but South Africa go into next month’s tournament as the second-lowest ranked side in the 32-team field and are given little chance of being in the knockout phase after the first two weeks of competition.
Two years of indifferent results have seen the side plunge to 90th in the world standings. Only 106th-ranked North Korea are worst placed of the finalists.
Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has pointedly avoided making any predictions about his side’s World Cup chances after four wins in their last 17 games.
Instead, Parreira has spoken of the importance of finishing in the top two in Group A, where South Africa play Mexico, Uruguay and France.
His players have regularly said the same in interviews but none has been prepared to make any bold assertions about the prospects of the team, who qualified automatically as hosts.
There is hope that the mounting local World Cup fever will rub off on the players and that enthusiastic crowd support, including the disturbing cacophony of noise made by the much-favoured plastic vuvuzela trumpets, will help to galvanise them.
South Africa did reach the last four of last June’s warm-up tournament, the Confederations Cup, losing in the last minute of their semi-final to eventual winners Brazil.
The tournament, though, exposed their weakness in front of goal and, with all-time leading scorer Benni McCarthy not selected for the side, Bafana Bafana scored only twice.
McCarthy, who has long had a difficult relationship with the national side, has been recalled for the World Cup and will carry local hopes even though he has spent months on the reserves’ bench at his English club West Ham.
Steven Pienaar has enjoyed a much better season in England, for Everton, and should inspire South Africa’s midfield.
A win in the opening match against Mexico on June 11 would seem essential to any chance South Africa will have of exceeding expectations. Reuters