Siphiwe Tshabalala, born in Soweto 25 years ago, sent his nation into ecstacy in the township of his birth yesterday with a crashing 54th minute goal against highly-fancied Mexico in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup.
For weeks, months, years, the Rainbow Nation waited to show their true colours to the world. And when Africa’s first World Cup welcomed its first goal – an absolute cracker into the far top corner from the dreadlocked Kaizer Chiefs midfielder – the noise was deafening as 96,000 at the magnificent Soccer City Stadium on the outskirts of Soweto blew their Vuvuzelas.
Their hysteria was turned down a notch by Mexican defender Rafael Marquez, who levelled unmarked in the 79th minute, but a point against the Mexicans – ranked 17 in the world – is not a bad effort from team ranked 83rd, the weakest host nation of all time.
In truth, South Africa could easily have been out of it by half-time. Mexico started like an express train, with West Ham striker Guillermo Franco missing two clear headers and having a third effort saved by Itumeleng Khune.
With sub-standard left back Lucas Thwala tormented by Tottenham’s Giovanni Dos Santos and Arsenal’s Carlos Vela, it looked like it might be a rout. After half-an-hour, the visitors had enjoyed 61 percent of the possession and while Khune was constantly engaged, while Oscar Perez at the other end – becoming Mexico’s oldest player – was left to study this fascinating gathering.
Thwala was duly put out of his misery at half-time and South Africa, fitter, leaner, meaner, began to punch above their weight.
All week long the hype has swept around Bafana Bafana after an unexpected unbeaten run of 12 games since the return of 1994 Brazilian World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira last November.
On Wednesday, 180,000 turned out in Sandton to catch a glimpse of their heroes on the team bus. Their is a golden South Africa shirt on every citizen, a flag for sale on every street corner. Parreira said then the whole thing was getting out of hand, but a kick-off concert at the nearby Super Stadium went without a hitch last night and the opening ceremony was as good as anything I’ve seen – right up there with my favourites, Sydney 2000 and France 1998.
Even the absence of former president Nelson Mandela, the 91-year-old who took the nation to freedom (and the 1995 rugby World Cup), failed to overshadow the enthusiasm. Mandela’s great-grand-daughter Zenani was killed in a car crash after last night’s concert.
But still they came, still they paid tribute to the great Madiba, father of the nation. And to his footballers. In the end, it was South Africa who might have snatched it. The pace of Mphela put him clear in the final minute, but he struck the post as the Vuvuzelas went into full air-raid mode.