South Africa 1-1 Mexico

June 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

That’s how you begin a tournament.

With a strike of exceptional purity, and power, and precision, and other words beginning with ‘p’, South Africa’s Siphiwe Tshabalala wrote himself indelibly into the history of the World Cup. Like all wonderful footballing moments, it combined technical excellence with a larger context – that was the moment the first African World Cup truly began – and I don’t think it would be excessive to describe it as one of the most popular goals in the history of the World Cup. If you weren’t Mexican, you were grinning like an idiot.

It almost seems churlish to note that it came largely against the run of play. Mexico, with their neat possession football, had dictated the play for most of the opening period. Indeed, had Guillermo Franco been a little more assertive in the air; had South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune not made a world-class save from the same man; had Aaron Mokoena not blocked bravely in the first five minutes, the entertaining opening ceremony might have been the high point for the hosts.

As it was, Mexico lived up to their billing of dangerous-but-toothless, and their excellent build-up – former-Barcelona-and-Ipswich livewire Giovani dos Santos in particular – went unrewarded for the first half. The one time they did get the ball into the South African net, Carlos Vela’s poached effort was ruled offside; while South Africa did have a man on the line, Khune was absent, having charged into the melee at the edge of the six-yard-box. An excellent decision by the linesman, and a black mark for many a confused commentator around the world. (Khune will no doubt claim he was pushing up.) Nevertheless, it was advantage Mexico at the break, and South Africa trooped off in no small danger of becoming the first host nation to lose the opening game.

Fortunately, South Africa have a canny and experienced coach, and Carlos Alberto Parreira – coach of World Cup-winning Brazil in 1994 – took advantage of the half-time oranges to tweak the South African set-up. The hosts began toassert their physical advantage, seeking to impose themselves on the Mexican ball-players whenever they approached the edge of the South African penalty area. This change in approach was vindicated when, in the 55th minute, a loose Mexican pass was pounced upon, then transferred quickly to Fulham’s Kagisho Dikgacoi. He, in turn, slid a delicious through-ball to Tshabalala, whose sixty-yard dash ended in that thumping left-foot drive, ensuring that he’ll never again need to pay for a drink anywhere in Africa. The stadium exploded, and your correspondent spilled his tea.

Mexico, to their credit, refused to buckle, introducing the quicksilver Andrés Guardado and nearly equalising immediately though the irrepressible Giovani, who was denied by another fine Khune save at his near post. South Africa switched to a policy of contain-and-break, nearly sealing the game when Teko Modise, through on Oscar Perez in the Mexican goal, shot weakly under pressure. For a while it seemed that South Africa would hold firm – even Mexico’s semi-legendary semi-mobile veteran Cuauhtémoc Blanco had been frustrated since coming on – until they were undone by a lapse in concentration. In the 78th minute, Guardado’s chipped cross saw all the South Africans push out, except Mokoena, who was left alone marking three men; Rafael Marquez’s sliced shot beat the despairing Khune.

The last ten minutes were relatively circumspect; Mexico’s Blanco-inspired probing being rebuffed by a South African team looking for the quick counter. And they were so close to stealing it, when Khune’s long pass/hoofed clearance fell for Katlego Mphune. The lone striker seemed heavy-legged after ninety minutes of thankless running, but as Perez charged off his line, the vuvuzelas fell silent. A nation held its breath, but his stabbed shot rebounded from the foot of the post.

In truth, a draw was a fair result, though there was no consoling the distraught Khune. Mexico had enough possession and verve to earn a share of the points, though the manner of the equaliser will frustrate Parreira. But the risible non-performances of France and Uruguay later in the evening will give both teams encouragement. No host nation has ever failed to qualify for the second round; South Africa will be hoping that they can ride the wave of national fervour at least that far, if not beyond.

MotM: Siphiwe Tshabalala. Not only for the goal – though that would be plenty – but for an overall performance of commitment, skill, and power. You could hear Sam Allardyce cracking his knuckles.

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