South Africa opens the soccer World Cup against Mexico today on a 12-match unbeaten streak that has raised local expectations ahead of a tournament that already pulled thousands of fans into the streets of Johannesburg.
Bafana Bafana, which means “our boys” in Zulu, enter the monthlong event as the second-lowest ranked team in the 32-nation championship and rated by bookmakers as an outsider to make it out of their four-team group. No host nation has failed to reach the second round in the World Cup’s 80-year history.
The prospect of breaking that run hasn’t deterred South African fans, who two days ago took to the streets of Johannesburg’s Sandton business district in their tens of thousands to fete the team on an open-top bus parade.
“We have to understand the feeling of the people,” South African coach Carlos Alberto Parreira told reporters yesterday at the Soccer City stadium that will host today’s opening match. “There is a ray of hope because of the good performance of the team and the good preparation.”
Parreira, who won the 1994 title with Brazil, said he will start with the same players from the 1-0 victory over Denmark six days ago, the squad’s final tune-up for the tournament.
A win today “will change the climate” of South Africa, he said. “This country’s sport is football,” Parreira said. “We hope the World Cup will leave a legacy and this country can become No. 1 in Africa.”
South Africa, the first nation on the continent to host the tournament, is ranked 83rd in the world by FIFA, soccer’s governing body. Only North Korea, at 105th, is taking part in the competition with a lower rating. Brazil tops the rankings, ahead of Spain and Portugal.
Former national team captain Lucas Radebe said hosting the world’s most-watched sports event had put “great expectation” on the squad from the South African public. Defeat today may not just spell the end of its 12-game unbeaten run, he said.
“It might take the wind out of the support,” Radebe said in an interview. “The first game is very important, it’s like the final. If you start negatively, there’s going to be a lot of disappointed fans out there and the players as well and I think that can actually affect their morale.”
Mexico has won two of the three previous encounters between the teams and coach Javier Aguirre said the squad “feels very confident” about starting its campaign with a victory in the opening Group A game.
“The players are relaxed, strong,” Aguirre said. “My greatest wish is that we rise to the challenge.”
Uruguay and 1998 world champion France, the two other teams in the pool, play in today’s second match in Cape Town.