Katlego Mphela, the lanky South African striker who will spearhead the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ host’s attack against Uruguay on Wednesday is a self-confessed flirt. After narrowly failing to lift his team to victory against Mexico last Friday, Mphela is aiming to orchestrate the downfall of Uruguay in Pretoria in a match that may well shape South Africa’s campaign.
Against Mexico, all he did was flirt without ever acting on his intentions. But this time will be different, the forward says. As South Africa search for a morale-boosting victory, Mphela has been quietly going about his drills at Bafana Bafana’s training sessions. "There is no doubt about it, we have to win this game and we have to do it for all the people who have supported us. I have to make sure that I take my chances," he said.
When Benni McCarthy, the country’s top goalscorer was axed by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira before the FIFA World Cup, the whole nation went into shock, but in Mphela the Brazilian coach knew he had a man capable of filling the West Ham United striker’s sizeable boots. It is a challenge Mphela has welcomed. "I can never be Benni. He has achieved so much, he has won the Champions League, and for a while, he was one of the best strikers in England. Of course I have learned a lot from him, but I want to establish myself in this national team and this World Cup is a perfect opportunity for me," Mphela told FIFA.
Mphela has vivid memories of the day he transformed from an average striker to a top-notch poacher. It was 28 June 2009, a sunny July afternoon in Rustenburg and South Africa were facing European Champions Spain in the third-place match of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup at the Royal Bafokeng. Mphela, then a third-choice striker, had been introduced for just the final 13 minutes by then-coach Joel Santana.
Three minutes after coming on, he received a ball from the left, controlled and fired past iconic Spain keeper Iker Casillas. However, it was his second strike that turned him into an instant hero in his homeland when, starring into the jaws of defeat in the dying stages of the game, South Africa was given a free-kick 25 yards from goal. A brief impromptu on-field conference on who should take it ensued, but eventually Mphela raised his hand and struck a stunning thunderbolt that sent the game to extra time. The rest is history.
"I will never forget that day," he reflected. "It was like it was yesterday. Before that game, I was a nobody, people were even questioning why I was in the team. Those weeks were tough for me, and I knew that it would take a special moment to revive my confidence and that moment happened in Rustenburg."
That is all in the past now, however, as there are more battles to be fought and wars to be won in the FIFA World Cup as South Africa look to make their mark here on home soil. "Of course there is pressure, but we know that all we have to do is to win one game, just one game and our confidence will go through the roof. We have to beat Uruguay."