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South Africa Goes on Undefeated Run as Its World Cup Approaches

South Africa, picked by bookmakers to be the first soccer World Cup host not to advance to the knockout round, is on an 11-match unbeaten run going into the event.

The team, known as Bafana Bafana, or ‘Our Boys’, will play Denmark tomorrow in its final tune-up before the world’s most- watched sporting event kicks off next week. Odds given online by Ladbrokes Plc, William Hill Plc, Coral Group Trading Ltd. and suggest the team won’t win a single game against its group adversaries: France, Mexico and Uruguay.

South Africa on May 31 routed Guatemala 5-0, its biggest-ever victory. That’s helped convince the nation it may overcome a poor World Cup record and decades of underinvestment in the sport. The country wasn’t able to compete internationally during the apartheid era.

“They are the best outsider in the World Cup, no doubt,” former coach Clive Barker said in an interview. “They have had good preparations for the tournament and certainly will be hugely competitive,” said Barker, who trained the team to clinch the 1996 African Cup and reach the No. 16 ranking.

Africa’s first country to host the World Cup is ranked 83rd in the world by FIFA, soccer’s governing body. Only North Korea, at 105th, is at the tournament with a lower rating.

Under white minority rule, rugby and cricket were sports preferred by whites, benefitting from youth development schemes and funding. Since the end of apartheid in 1994 and with it international sporting isolation, the Springboks rugby team has won world cups in 1995 and 2007. Its Proteas cricket team is ranked second in the world for Test matches. India is first.

Majority’s Sport

Soccer, which was mainly played by the black majority, enjoyed little of the funding. Bafana won the African Cup of Nations in 1996 and a single World Cup match against Slovenia. The best African performance at the tournament was when Cameroon reached the quarter-finals in 1990.

Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who won the 1994 trophy with Brazil, “has got tactics sorted out,” Barker said.

Many of the 49.3 million South Africans increasingly believe their team will defy the odds in only its third run at the World Cup. The vuvuzela, a yard-long plastic horn, which thousands of supporters blare to fill stadiums with noise, will power the home support they are relying on.

“We will encourage Bafana with our vuvuzelas,” 29-year-old construction worker Xolisa Mboniso said. “The enemy will be scared. We will blow them away. I think we can get to the semi-finals.”

Vuvuzelas’s Roar

“The support that we’ve been getting is crazy,” said midfielder Teko Modise. “It’s something that we never imagined. When those guys hear the vuvuzelas, they can’t even hear themselves. It’s so noisy. It gives us an extra boost,” he said in a May 29 interview in Johannesburg.

Using a mathematical model based on factors like a country’s income level and population size, home advantage and its soccer strength, Danske Bank A/S predicted South Africa will be eliminated by Argentina in the first knock-out stage. Bafana will be second in its group after Mexico, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Global Economist Jim O’Neill said in a May 7 report.

What worries fans is that none of South Africa’s recent opponents are ranked in the top 30, while Mexico, the lowest-ranked team it faces in its group, is no. 17.

“We’re doing well now,” Sam Fredericks, a 27-year-old IT worker draped in his national flag, said after watching South Africa beat Colombia. “But these teams aren’t playing in the World Cup. It’ll be a different caliber.”

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