Dream start falls short for hosts
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency
South Africa's Siphiwe Tshabalala celebrates his goal against Mexico during the 2010 World Cup opening match at Soccer City stadium. (REUTERS/Henry Romero)
JOHANNESBURG – In so many ways, this was a World Cup built on dreams.
Dreams that a nation fraught with problems would be able to stage one of the biggest events in the world. Dreams that a successful tournament would advance the sport on one of the world's biggest continents.
And, perhaps, the biggest dream of all – that the home nation could avoid embarrassment and stun the world with a victory in their moment on the world's stage.
Two months ago, that dream seemed as unreachable as the moon. Friday, that dream came within 11 minutes of reality.
Friday, South Africa and Mexico tied 1-1 in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup at the Soccer City stadium.
It would have been a dream result after Bafana Bafana looked woefully inadequate and incapable in their long run up to the World Cup.
But when you reach for the moon and almost make it, the feeling of being that close and failing is crushing.
South Africa led the favoured Mexicans 1-0 with 11 minutes to go. It had taken the lead in the 55th minute on a goal by Siphiwe Tshabalala.
But a breakdown in the South African defence allowed Rafael Marquez to tie it.
With time running out, Katlego Mphela had a chance to complete the journey for his team but his shot skittered off the outside of the post.
The collective groan was like a shock wave, rolling outwards from Soccer City through the nation.
It brought the country to its knees. But only momentarily because so far, this is a nation that has proved it can get up again.
South Africa weathered some early-game jitters to come back and play a strong second half. They played with growing confidence and a belief they could win.
Yes, a shocking win would have been a tremendous culmination to a week that has seen anticipation and hope grow.
But when the disappointment dulls, the South Africans will be able to revel in winning a key point.
In truth, the revelry has already begun.
The streets of Johannesburg were warming up quickly after the game. Large groups of fans were blowing horns and waving flags.
It was a continuation of the spectacular atmosphere in a spectacular stadium.
It would be difficult to name a noisier setting than what the teams faced when they stepped onto the field. South Africa was greeted with deafening cheers.
The stands were a sea of gold and green. Mexico had its own huge contingent in attendance.
The only lull came during the first half, when South Africa appeared to be feeling the heat of the national spotlight and the speed of the Mexican players.
But when Tshabalala rocketed the ball into the top corner of the net, the stadium shook with the vibration of the chanting, horn-blowing and dancing.
"It was a great goal, very special for me. It was something of a present because I was celebrating my 50th appearance (for South Africa)," said Tshabalala.
It was a special present for a nation.
The pressure-cooker atmosphere grew in intensity as the Mexicans, desperate for a tie, pushed forward. The South Africans staged counterattack after counterattack.
What was a disjointed, uneven game in the first half morphed into an enjoyable, edge-of-the-seat thriller in the second.
When Mphela hit the post late in the game, more than a few neutral hearts were disappointed that the team facing long odds was robbed of the full three points.
"I believe the ice has been broken," said Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. "The first game is always a lot of pressure for both teams.
"Most of our team (is) a home-based team, players who are not used to this big environment and we tried hard to adapt to this ambience but after 15 minutes we started playing our game, putting the ball on the ground."
South Africa against Mexico is hardly a marquee game.
But the home team made a lot of fans in their opener, fans who couldn't have cared less two hours earlier what the outcome would be.
It was proof yet again of the power of this sport. One can't help but share in the emotion that is generated when a nation comes together to follow a dream.