The events of Friday 11 June in Johannesburg are set to write a new chapter in football history, in the shape of South Africa versus Mexico: the Opening Match of the first ever FIFA World Cup™ finals to be held on African soil and the 19th overall.
Ahead of the big kick-off, set for 16.00 local time, both of the host country’s national anthems - Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika and Die Stem Van Suid Afrika – will be played in front of some 90,000 fans packing the Soccer City Stadium and millions watching across the globe. What is more, as the atmosphere buzzes and anticipation levels reach fever pitch, it will surely cross the minds of those looking on just how much South Africa has changed over the past two decades. Indeed, it was only in February 1990 that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, while it was in June of the following year that Frederik de Klerk’s government abolished Apartheid. The 'Rainbow Nation' had finally returned the world fold.
Yet Bafana Bafana must put all this symbolism and emotion aside and focus purely on the job at hand if they wish to make a positive start to a tough-looking Group A. South Africa have never previously reached the knockout stages at the global showpiece, whereas opening rivals Mexico are taking part in their 14th finals. The other match in the section is equally decisive, with Germany 2006 runners-up France, less than convincing in qualification, taking on a Uruguay side whose last three finals berths have all been sealed via a play-off.
South Africa - Mexico, Group A, Johannesburg, 16.00 (local time)
Uruguay - France, Group A, Cape Town, 20.30 (local time)
The big game
South Africa – Mexico
As the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup, South Africa will be determined not to go down in history as the first host nation to exit after the first round. Though their fortunes have dipped since winning the CAF African Cup of Nations in 1996, Bafana Bafana’s displays at last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup proved they do have the talent and wherewithal to make an impact.
And though captain and defensive rock Aaron Mokoena has endured a tough season at Premier League strugglers Portsmouth, where he was often deployed in an unfamiliar holding midfield role, midfield dynamo Steven Pienaar has gone from strength to strength at Everton. Under experienced Brazilian boss Carlos Alberto Parreira, the South Africans have grown in stature during recent series of friendlies, including a notable 1-0 win over Denmark, and will be keen to keep that momentum going against Mexico.
El Tri, for their part, have been rejuvenated since Javier Aguirre retook the helm with his country struggling to stay afloat in the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone. Now boasting a blend of top-class veterans such as Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez and youngsters like Carlos Vela and Giovanni Dos Santos, part of the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Cup-winning ‘Golden Generation’, Mexico have looked an extremely quick and dangerous proposition in recent friendlies against England, the Netherlands and Italy.
Ignacio Gonzalez (URU) - Franck Ribery (FRA)
Two-time world champions Uruguay and 1998 winners France are familiar foes at the FIFA World Cup, with matches between the pair generally tight and closely contested. That being the case, the creative talents of Ignacio Gonzalez and Franck Ribery could prove key in tipping the balance.
Uruguayan playmaker Gonzalez has emerged as a vital player due to his experience, vision and decision-making. Ribery, for his part, has developed into a driving force for France and club side Bayern Munich since starring at Germany 2006. Both he and Lodeiro are capable of going for goal themselves or supplying such lethal strikers as Nicolas Anelka and Andre-Pierre Gignac, for France, and Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez for Uruguay.
What they said
“Given we’re the host nation, it’s important that we try and win every game we play. We need to take nine points from nine in the first phase. We’ll be fortunate enough to have the fans behind us, but our opponents won’t make it easy for us,” South Africa keeper Itumeleng Khune.
Uruguay and France have been in this situation before, having shared a group with Mexico and the host nation at England 1966. La Celeste sank Les Bleus 2-1 and qualified from the section in second spot, before going down 4-0 in the quarter-finals against eventual runners-up West Germany. France, meanwhile, ended up bottom of the group with just one point to their name. More recently, at Korea/Japan 2002, the two teams shared a 0-0 draw in Busan in their second Group A encounter, with neither side able to progress to the knockout stages.
Did you know?
In another historical side note for Group A, the first ever goal at a FIFA World Cup finals was scored by France’s Lucien Laurent in a 4-1 win over Mexico on 13 July 1930 in Uruguay.
Come Friday’s Opening Match, 67-year-old Bafana Bafana supremo Parreira will have coached at six editions of the FIFA World Cup. Aside from guiding Brazil to victory at USA 1994, Parreira led Kuwait at Spain 1982, the United Arab Emirates at Italy 1990, Saudi Arabia at France 1998 and A Seleção once more at Germany 2006. He will also equal the achievements of fellow globe-trotting strategist Bora Milutinovic, who coached Mexico at the 1986 finals, Costa Rica in 1990, the USA in 1994, Nigeria in 1998 and China PR in 2002: a remarkable five different countries at five different final tournaments.