Something in the air
© AFP

Carlos Alberto Parreira rates as one of the most experienced and well-travelled coaches at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The Brazilian boss has tasted global glory before, he led his home country to the Trophy at USA 1994, but his current job at the host nation’s helm is arguably his most intriguing and demanding to date.

"After I returned to the job, I recall people coming up to me on the street and saying: ‘Coach, make us proud, please make us proud’. What they didn’t say was, ‘Please win us the World Cup'. They just want something to be proud of,” the Bafana Bafana boss recently revealed in a FIFA.com exclusive interview.

Frequently enough, the hosts have not only made their people proud, but also delivered them the famous Trophy – on six occasions, to be precise. Moreover, no host nation has ever failed to qualify for the knockout stages. A wave of elation would surely wash over South Africa in the event Parreira’s troops defy the odds and achieve something similar at the first FIFA World Cup in Africa. A host of pundits believe this could be the moment when an African team makes the semi-finals for the first time, and why should it not be Parreira and his men?

Steven Pienaar and Co need look no further than Korea Republic for inspiration. The joint hosts with Japan in 2002 started the finals as underdogs, but the frenetic support of millions of passionate home fans carried them to a hugely creditable fourth spot. Chile’s third place in 1962 and Sweden’s achievement in finishing runners-up four years earlier rate as equally stunning outcomes.

"The teams are very evenly-matched at this World Cup,” former Germany boss Jurgen Klinsmann told FIFA.com. That must be good news for Bafana Bafana, as they entertain valid hopes of performing far better than their 81st spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking might suggest.

I recall people coming up to me on the street and saying: ‘Coach, make us proud.'
Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Africa coach.

Of course, Klinsmann knows all about the added boost of a team playing in front of partisan home crowds. Roared on by their fans, the Germans escaped the shackles of generations of results-oriented play to turn in some fine attacking football four years ago. The summer of 2006 is already the stuff of legend in Germany, and the unfancied team’s third place was greeted as if the hosts had won the FIFA World Cup itself. "We were swept along on a tidal wave of emotion,” then keeper Jens Lehmann happily recalled.

Former South Africa coach Clive Barker thinks a similar phenomenon could occur this time around. "The biggest challenge facing the team is reaching the semi-finals. If they get that far, South Africa will become the most dangerous team at the tournament from a psychological point of view,” said Barker, who guided South Africa to their solitary major title to date: the 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.

Naturally, actually winning the FIFA World Cup is a huge achievement for any team, and a multitude of nations rank ahead of the hosts in the list of favourites. But the history of the game shows it never hurts to aim high. France were the last FIFA World Cup hosts to be crowned champions, with Zinedine Zidane spearheading Les Bleus’ charge to their solitary world crown to date. The other hosts to claim the prize were Argentina (1978), West Germany (1974), England (1966), Italy (1934) and Uruguay (1930).

Hosting the FIFA World Cup does very special things to a nation. The players uncover hidden depths of pride and passion, and the fans become the legendary Twelfth Man. Bafana Bafana is omnipresent in South Africa at the moment, and the people have taken their team to their hearts. The form book may well be proved wrong this time, and it would certainly be foolish to underestimate the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosts.