Training camps in Brazil, Germany and South Africa under Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira have reaped reward as the previously underperforming side have gone 12 matches unbeaten. We are ready, says the 67-year-old of a team built around Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar and containing more local-based footballers than originally expected with unfit West Ham striker Benni McCarthy among the casualties.
Mexico look stronger and are more experienced than Bafana Bafana (The Boys) with a potentially potent cocktail of youth and experience captained by occasional Barcelona first-team utility player Rafael Marquez. It adds up to an intriguing opening match at the first FIFA World Cup in Africa with international political icon Nelson Mandela expected to be among a sell-out 90,000 crowd at Soccer City stadium in Soweto.
Parreira, a FIFA World Cup-winning coach with Brazil 16 years ago, needs to get a monkey off his back by winning a match at the tournament with a country other than his own. He took Middle East nations Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to the tournament between 1982 and 1998 without managing to celebrate even one victory.
No host nation has failed to reach the second round since the FIFA World Cup began 80 years ago and three points for Bafana would set them up for a top-two finish and a place among the 16 survivors. After being told for eight months by South Africans to make them proud, Parreira believes he can deliver a second-round place although other group rivals France and Uruguay are also ranked among the leading 20 nations.
"I believe if you want to qualify for the second round you have to do something special and for us that would mean in the technical and skills aspects of the game," says Parreira. "We cannot beat France, Mexico or Uruguay in a physical struggle. My boys have to play well against them with the ball on the ground. This is our big strength. That is what I want the South African team to believe in."
Bafana demonstrated in a draw with Bulgaria last month they can retain the ball while a victory over Colombia suggested the stars can handle the pressure of playing before a huge crowd. Mandela, plastic vuvuzela trumpets, and a knowledge within the team that an often divided sporting nation has united behind Bafana, may inspire Aaron Mokoena and his team to success.
Mexico had an impressive build-up to the tournament that culminated in a 2-1 Brussels triumph over 2006 FIFA World Cup winners Italy via goals from Arsenal striker Carlos Vela, and midfielder Alberto Medina. Like Parreira, coach Javier Aguirre is a wily old fox when it comes to the big time and at least the 1,800-metre Johannesburg altitude will pose no problems for footballers used to performing at such stamina-draining heights.
He is expected to combine young stars like Manchester United-bound striker Javier Hernandez with veterans like recent West Ham United discard Guillermo Franco. "Mexico have been eliminated in the round of 16 at the last four FIFA World Cup tournaments so we want to make history in South Africa by improving as much as possible."
Aguirre was recalled when a Sven Goran Eriksson-led qualifying campaign came off the rails and boasts that youngsters like Vela and Giovani dos Santos of Galatasaray represent the "best generation in Mexican football history".