South Africa have opened their 2010 FIFA World Cup with a Group A point against Mexico as the sides drew 1-1 after Tshabalala raised the roof in Football City by taking the lead for the host nation.
The match kicked off four or five minutes late after some emotional speeches – particularly regarding Nelson Mandela who sadly lost his great-granddaughter (aged 13) in a car accident yesterday – and the national anthems.
Following a colourful and enjoyable opening ceremony which celebrated the whole continent of Africa, this World Cup kicked off to the deafening sound of ubiquitous “vuvuzela” trumpets.
Colour was the order of the day, it would seem, as several players on either side sported bright orange boots.
Mexico almost immediately spoiled the party as they broke through in only the second minute and almost scored, and would have, but for a last ditch tackle.
Giovani looked lively in the opening exchanges as Mexico looked keen to get a foot on the ball early, and the Mexican forward worked some half chances showing great pace and dribbling ability.
South Africa seemed a little overawed in the first fifteen minutes, and it was Mexico who settled best and retained much of the early possession, though they failed to add any clear cut chances to that which they had squandered in the first three minutes.
Referee Ravshan Irmatov, of Uzbekistan, was calling the fouls correctly, but seemed reluctant to produce a card when a high tackle could have warranted one. This is perhaps no bad thing: World Cups often produce extremely strict refereeing, though there was no evidence of this in the first half, perhaps understandably as there were few tackles with anything more malicious than the purely accidental.
That being said, the volume was raised in the 17th minute when South Africa produced their first real move of the match and won a free kick on around 25 metres, which Pienaar lined up. The first direct free kick shot with this new “Jabulani” ball. It sailed high and wide rather inauspiciously.
The first yellow card would soon follow however, as Juarez of Mexico handled accidentally, but refused to retreat to allow the quick free kick. Correct decision, and one which saw another South African opportunity to mount an attack with a ball into the box.
It was easily cleared, however, and, from the resulting long ball, Giovani was put through on- on-one with the South African goalkeeper with a chance to cause a dramatic turnaround. His shot blazed well over the net from the edge of the area on 19 minutes.
Mphela had a chance to deliver a telling cross when he found himself clean through at the edge of the Mexico area, but he drove his cross from the by-line straight at goalkeeper Perez on 23 minutes.
The chance for South Africa fell as Mexico followed their usual pattern of committing many men to an attacking move. Counter attacks looked likely to bring the hosts joy at some point in this match, as Mexico are never too cautious in their approach to the game.
After 26 minutes Dikcagoi picked up a yellow card for the hosts for a professional foul on Giovani who had worked himself into a dangerous position 28 metres out.
The free kick was struck by Marquez with the same result as the one Pienaar had taken at the other end: high and wide.
After half an hour there had still to be a shot on target from either side – save the blocked shot in the opening 120 seconds – though South Africa had been gradually imposing themselves after an understandably cagey start.
However, Mexico worked the first save when Franco, their number 9, was put through with a delightful chipped pass, which he controlled and hit goal-wards. Khune in the South Africa goal produced a fine save having narrowed the angle well.
This warning shot for the hosts was soon followed when Vela got himself into the South African box and hit a cross-shot that could have resulted in a goal with a touch, though it eluded all, including Khune’s dive to go out for a goal kick.
Mexico were here to break up this party, it was clear.
In the 37th minute, Mexico collected in midfield when South Africa dwelt in possession, and Vela passed to Franco in the box, who quickly moved the ball to Giovani, whose shot was blocked.
Mexico put the ball in the net from the corner, but the linesman had spotted an offside, correctly, as the ball was knocked back across to Vela, who banged home from just a yard. The ball was flicked to him from the head of Marquez, while goalkeeper Khune had come and failed to gather, the last man on the line was the effective “goalkeeper” for the offside decision. Vela was hugely disappointed, but the replay clearly backed up the brave decision from the referee’s assistant.
South Africa did not respond particularly well to this let-off, however, as Mexico continued to raise the pressure with a free kick to the head of Franco in the box. The centre forward headed over when he should have scored.
The hosts must have been hoping for the half time whistle to regroup, though there were still five minutes to wait for that, and Gaxa up the right flank showed why it would not be one-way traffic for the whole period as he won South Africa a corner when bursting into the Mexico box and slipping at a vital moment when he could have produced a telling cross.
They could have taken the lead two minutes later as a similar move up the left flank saw the ball flash mere inches from the head of the South African forward who would have scored with a contact.
From the second resulting corner, Dikgacoi saw a firm header loop just over the Mexican bar, before Mexico regained their composure and retained the possession to see out the first half which had been more exciting in the last five minutes than the first forty.
An absorbing encounter went into the break with the score at 0-0, despite the ball having finished in the South African net, and Mexico having outplayed the host nation for large spells. South Africa had shown, particularly in the last five minutes of the half, that they had plenty of threat of their own in attack, particularly given Mexico’s propensity to wander forwards during attacks, with little regard for defensive safety.
Goals in the second half seemed likely at half time, but only if one of Mexico’s inconsistent strike force could get hold of this new ball during one of their many attacking forays, or if South Africa could burst up the flanks on a counter attack and produce a slightly better final ball than they managed in the first half.
Mexico seemed the most likely to succeed, though, on the evidence of the first half, even if they were to score one, or even two, South Africa had the guns to peg them back.
All of which meant the second half would provide more great entertainment either way, and all of it would be played out to the endless hornets’ buzz of the vuvuzela which, for sure, is to mark this world’s biggest tournament for the duration.
Masilela came on at left-back for South Africa to replace Thwala before South Africa kicked off the second half.
South Africa worked the first opening after three minutes of the second half as Tshabalala, up the left of midfield, produced a dangerous looking cross that was, in the end, well dealt with by the last Mexican defender.
South Africa lifted the roof as Tshabalala went one better on 55 minutes. The player banged the ball home into the top right corner of the goal from the edge of the area after an excellent defence-splitting pass put him clean through.
Tshabalala’s shot was beautifully struck into the top corner from a difficult angle – surely a goal that will see a lot of air time in the days, weeks, months and even years to come.
South Africa roared as one, and the noise in the stadium increased all the more.
The team in green and gold had a swagger in their step now, and Mexican alarm bells must have been sounding as their campaign looked like it might get off to the worst possible start. Mexican captain Torrado picked up a yellow card soon after for a body check with which he worked out the frustration of going a goal behind on the world’s biggest stage.
Mexico had an opportunity to get the ball in the box from a free kick on 59 minutes, though the ball was struck straight to Khune’s grateful hands. The South African stopper was called into acrobatic action immediately after as he dived to save a powerful shot which was bound for the top corner from the angle of the area.
After the initial shell-shock of conceding, Mexico gradually regained their composure and began moving the ball around well and retaining possession once more, though their early penetration seemed more difficult for them to recreate.
However, as they went forward hunting the goal they required, South Africa would see more opportunities. An offside flag saved their blushes on 67 minutes as they worked a clear opening on the counter.
Mexico replaced the unlucky Vela with 37 year old attacking talisman Blanco.
Modise had a chance to wrap things up in the 70th minute as he was put through one-on-one. Modise took a little too long to produce his shot, allowing the keeper to close the angle and make a reasonable save with his feet.
Hernandez, the new Manchester United forward, entered the pitch soon after with his nation needing a goal from somewhere.
With fifteen minutes remaining, Mexico looked to move forward to grab the goal, though South Africa appeared to be dealing better with the goal threat of Giovani. The hosts also seemed the most likely to score as Mexico committed more men forward.
A 79th minute set piece saw the hosts undone, however, as a short corner was then crossed in with three unmarked Mexico players in position to take the ball after a South African defender walked under the ball. It was Marquez who touched the ball down before hammering home from six metres out.
South Africa looked a little naïve in defence for the goal as they raced clear without tracking their men when the ball was played short from the corner. Marquez’ first touch was fantastic, however, and the Mexico side arguably deserved a goal for their first half endeavour, if not the saves they had forced from Khune already.
With the additional attackers now on the pitch, and all three substitutions made, it now seemed Mexico were the most likely to lift this topsy turvy opening match.
In the 85th minute, Mexico produced a half chance as they looked to finish their first match with a win now that they had knocked the wind out of South African sails.
At 1-1, the closing few minutes had a nervous feel, and it looked like we might be heading for a draw until Mphela found himself racing towards the Mexico goal with the ball bouncing kindly from his head. One-on-one, he took a good looking shot with his left foot, which the home fans saw rebound from the base of the post. The clock ticked past 90 minutes soon after.
The final whistle blew after three minutes of stoppage time with the scores at 1-1 after a thoroughly enjoyable match. South Africa were easily the best side in the second half, and perhaps edged the match, though Mexico deserved their share of the points after a first half which they dominated, and working the South African goalkeeper on more than one occasion.
As a first match for the World Cup, this was as good as fans of the beautiful game could have asked for – the hosts took the lead with an exquisite finish, while Mexico played their part in an absorbing and entertaining game of football.
South Africa will be pleased with how well their team responded to a lacklustre first half, though Mexico will be upset that they failed to convert first half superiority into three points.
South Africa have continued the tradition of host nations avoiding defeat in opening games of World Cups, and, against a tricky Mexico outfit, that is surely a good result for them.
Both sides still have a chance to qualify in second place from this group, though both South Africa and Mexico will have to outweigh their apparent defensive frailties with far better shooting if they are to do so.
Group A, and the 2010 World Cup, begins with an entertaining draw. South African honour is retained, while both teams have shown enough to suggest they could be a threat to the other two teams in their group.
Whoever wins later this evening between France and Uruguay will surely take a big step towards the knock-out phase.
The competition has definitely begun.