Santana's stars' semi dilemma
The road to the semi-finals has been safely negotiated, albeit with a couple of bumps and near misses en route. Now South Africa face a quandary. Do they head into the last four relaxed, determined to enjoy the occasion, or demand of themselves a place in the final? Savour the making of history or strive for a place in folklore? Essentially, it is a question of ambition; of mentality.
Nor is the choice as straightforward as it might seem. After all, every one of Joel Santana's players would love nothing more than to reach South Africa 2009's showpiece. Some, however, would prefer to enter the last four unburdened by pressure, having already met expectations, while others see an inherent danger in declaring ‘mission accomplished' after surviving the group stage. Captain Aaron Mokoena leads this latter group.
Asked by FIFA.com whether Bafana Bafana could now relax and enjoy the remainder of the tournament, the Portsmouth star's response was immediate. "Definitely not," he replied. "There's a long way to go in this competition and we will be going all out to reach the final, there's no question about that. It's going to be tough and we know that no-one will expect us to do it, but we're the hosts and this is a unique opportunity for us. This tournament means a lot to this country and to us as players, and we cannot afford to think our job has been done. We must not be satisfied at reaching the semi-finals."
As someone who has spent the bulk of his club career scrapping for points against stronger, more star-studded sides, Mokoena knows better than most the kind of mindset South Africa will need to punch above their weight in the last four. Yet there are others in the squad, among them Matthew Booth, who are equally convinced that a lessening of tension can only be beneficial.
"I think we can relax to a certain extent now," the cult hero told FIFA.com. "Psychologically, I think there will be a weight lifted and that can only help us. So, yeah, the pressure's off because getting to the semi-finals is an achievement in itself. But South Africans love winners and I'm sure the pressure will be right back on once the semi comes around."
They may differ on the most advantageous approach, but this Bafana Bafana duo were in agreement on one thing: the pressing need to recharge their batteries ahead of facing Brazil, Egypt or Italy. All involved last night left the Free State Stadium exhausted, not only from the physical exertions of chasing Spanish shadows, but from the mental ordeal of standing helplessly on the pitch, huddled together, waiting on news from Johannesburg."That was torture," admitted Mokoena. "The main emotion when we got the news was relief, but it was a strange feeling to celebrate after losing - even if we were up against the best team in the world."
This admiration for their Spanish conquerors permeated the entire South Africa squad, with Booth admitting that, even at 32, he learned a harsh lesson from attempting to shackle Messrs Villa and Torres.
"I've never faced a partnership as good as that in my entire career," said the veteran centre-half. "And I actually thought that, as a defence, we did quite a good job on them. But with players like that, you know that all they need is a half-chance - and we were punished for giving one to Villa. At this level, one lapse in concentration can kill you and that's a lesson we need to learn for the semi-finals and going forward to the World Cup."