What’s the recipe for a thriller? Different people have different ideas. All of them would agree that a group’s concluding contest at a tournament, in which one team had already banked top spot and the other was effectively out, are definitively not the ingredients.
They were the ones in the pan 15 years ago to this day, at the FIFA Confederations Cup Saudi Arabia 1997. Heading into the final Group B game, Uruguay had already guaranteed themselves a first-place finish and, consequently, a semi-final with Australia, while opponents South Africa had to beat the two-time world champions by six clear goals in order to join them in the last four – in other words, they were realistically out.
Underlining the fact that the outcome meant nothing to the Uruguayans was the fact that Victor Pua made every possible change to his starting XI, with defender Diego Lopez the only man retaining his place simply because nations only had 20-man squads back then. But although Nicolas Olivera and Marcelo Zalayeta, who had terrorised defences earlier that year at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, were merely spectators, their understudies quickly demonstrated their own class. Indeed, Alvaro Recoba executed a sublime nutmeg before thumping a shot narrowly wide from distance, and Dario Silva turned masterfully and tested the hands of Brian Baloyi.
It didn’t take long for deadlock to break, but surprisingly South Africa were responsible. Helman Mkhalele fizzed in a corner and, from 11 yards out, captain Lucas Radebe looped a header into a seemingly non-existent gap in the top corner.
From kick-off, Uruguay craftily passed their way into their adversaries’ final third and delivered a left-wing cross towards Silva. The 25-year-old Cagliari striker faked the volley, controlled the ball, and dinked it over Baloyi to equalise.
The game swung from end to end as the half continued, but the sides looked like heading in for the break at parity until the scoreboard flashed once again on 42 minutes. Nimble footwork and a fine pass from Fabian Coelho set Recoba through on goal. The latter’s initial shot was repelled by Baloyi, but the 21-year-old Inter Milan attacker fired the rebound between the posts and although the sliding Radebe hooked it clear, the ball had already crossed the line.
Bafana Bafana began the second half on the front foot, but it was La Celeste who got the contest’s fourth goal, Silva pouncing on a deflected Recoba shot to make it 3-1 on 66 minutes.
Rather than cower, South Africa roared. Swiftly, John Moshoeu’s canny dink forward found Mkhalele, who, from just inside the box, produced a breathtaking volley with the outside of his boot to reduce the deficit.
Then, on 77 minutes, Clive Barker’s men got back on level terms. Phil Masinga held off his marker, turned, and sent a superb reverse pass into the path of Pollen Ndlanya, whose hypnotic hip-swerve left Uruguay No1 Carlos Nicola on the floor and allowed the South Africa substitute to round him and tap the ball into the empty net.
The pulsating match had one final twist to it, but it wouldn’t be one that would complete a heroic comeback and send the African champions home on a high. In stoppage time, the ball found Christian Callejas, left-lying and 25 yards from goal. Without hesitation, the Danubio midfielder rolled it into his path and sent a gorgeous curler into the top corner to snatch Uruguay a 4-3 victory. Another brilliant goal had settled a truly enthralling game.