SOUTH AFRICA’S extraordinary 1-0 pre-World Cup triumph over Denmark, ranked nearly 50 places above them in the latest FIFA rankings, has got the football-speaking world buzzing.
Katlego Mphela’s solitary goal in the 75th minute didn’t really do his side justice. The South Africans, ranked a hopeless 83rd, were growing stronger and stronger as the 40,000 yellow-clad fans were eased gently towards gleeful hysteria.
It wasn’t Everton’s player of the year Steven Pienaar who spurred the nation to yet another pre-World Cup triumph, nor should we focus too heavily on the other Premier League stars, Kagiso Dikgacoi of Fulham and Portsmouth’s Aaron Mokoena. It was the bit part players. The ones we English hacks have never heard of.
In goal, Itumeleng Khune was faultless apart from a single cross. His late save denied the Danes an undeserved leveller and his distribution is both fast and innovative. At centre-back, Bongani Khumalo continues to impress next to Mokoena, winning his 101st cap, and out wide , Teko Modise deserves to be made a post-World Cup millionaire by the Premier League scouts.
In midfield, man of the match Reneilwe Letsholonyane and his Kaizer Chiefs team-mate Siphiwe Tshabalala were monumental. From the first minute to the last, the dreadlocked midfielders were prompting, passing, perspiring in the Highveld winter sun. And the great Danes, ranked 36 in the world, simply couldn’t cope. And among their number were Liverpool’s Daniel Agger, Christian Poulsen of Juventus and veteran Feyenoord front-man Jon Dahl Tomasson
Sure, they’ll have Nicklas Bendtner fit to play in their opening Group E clash against Holland Soccer City on June 14.
But even the towering 6ft 4in Arsenal striker would have struggled for a glimpse of goal on the day South Africa came of age on the international stage – at just the right time, given their tough Group A opening game against Mexico on June 11.
The key is not difficult to discern. Here it is, remember it well. Back in 2002, Dutch genius Guus Hiddink decided his South Korean side, mostly locally based, could only thrive if they were supremely fit. A bunch of journeymen who can run forever will punch way above their weight. Hiddink was so nearly proven right. The Taeguk Warriors reached the semi-finals on home soil and the nation rejoiced at their unexpected success.
For Hiddink, read Bafana Bafana’s Brazilian World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. Since he returned to the hottest seat in football last November, South Africa have gone 12 matches unbeaten, leaving teams like Bulgaria and Colombia in their growing wake.
Three months ago, Parreira embarked on a camp to Brazil, promising to up the fitness levels. Unbeaten in their coach’s back yard, the uncelebrated members of the South Africa squad went off to Germany for further preparation. And then they returned to be joined by the stars who earn their keep overseas.
Some of the locally-based players have lost 2st in the process. They are, to coin a British phrase, “as fit as a robber’s dog”, capable of running forever, at altitude. It’s no wonder there was no room in the final 23 for West Ham’s less-than-svelte Benni McCarthy.
Perhaps Parreira should consider an Olympic role next. These guys look capable of serious middle-distance mayhem, Fulham’s Dikgacoi looked like a lumbering heavyweight by comparison.
When Mphela, latching on to a through ball from the eagle-eyed Letsholonyane, slipped his Danish defender to fire into the far corner with a quarter of an hour to play, it was a victory for blood, sweat and tears, not to mention a growing confidence, an ability to keep possession and an increasingly deft touch on the ball from players who ply their trade in a very average South African Premier League.
Parreira won the little golden trophy which means so much in 1994, surely he can’t do it again? He grins: “I am very proud. We want to keep making South Africa proud of us. I am not saying Bafana are going to win the World Cup but we need to get as far as possible. Once we get to the second round when it becomes a knockout tournament, anything can happen and I am happy to take my chances then.
“The players have shown fantastic commitment by buying into playing the ball on the ground, keeping possession and most of all getting 100% match fit. We are fighting fit and that has been the difference. Fitness played a key role in the training camps and we are getting the benefit of that. We are much more organised now.”
A seriously pleased Parreira, who has worked his men for up to six hours a day over the last three months, added: “We are now ready for the World Cup. It is not going to be an easy tournament for us because we are in a very tough Group A with Mexico, Uruguay and France.
“But this win and the way the players have played in all the recent warm-up matches has shown the world we can look forward with confidence to playing Mexico.”
Amid a chaotic press conference next to the perfect Atteridgeville pitch, Parreira told us in several different languages: “This was a tough, tough game for us. We played against a highly experienced and professional team. Make no mistake the Danes were good but we were a little better on the day and this rounds off my World Cup preparation beautifully.”
Captain Mokoena said: “Denmark are credible opposition. It was a brilliant win for us, they fought for every inch. The fact we have now gone 12 games unbeaten under this coach has give us massive motivation for the opening World Cup game against Mexico. We are good to go.”
They sure are. The World Cup hosts nearly doubled their lead in the 90th minute, but Surprise Moriri's shot was deflected for a corner. A second goal would have been about right after a dominant display for short-passing possession football. And most spectacular of all, the way the South Africans tracked back when they lost possession.
Elsewhere, on the day Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel was ruled out of the World Cup, Holland’s Aarjen Robben suffered a suspected hamstring strain in the 6-1 win over Hungary while Australia were humbled 3-1 by the USA at Ruimsig near Johannesburg.
But forget all that. Look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAZhxAVIwLU and see what kind of day I had. Just being there was a joy. From the smiling policemen before the match to the welcome at the local shebeen afterwards, you could not ask for a better atmosphere.
As I said to the British audience on talkSPORT radio afterwards, if you weren’t planning to come out, reconsider. I got my wife a flight two days ago, for £800 on South African Airways. The hotels still have rooms. There are still tickets and if you miss out on those, free fanzones in every city. This will be a fascinating, unpredictable World Cup, colourful and passionate. Don’t miss it. Please don’t let it pass you by.
Neal Collins is in South Africa promoting his first novel, A GAME APART, which is currently the 25th best-selling African book on Amazon. For more details, see www.nealcollins.co.uk