Generally regarded as the favourites for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Spain’s first appearance in this year’s tournament is Wednesday’s major highlight. Up against Switzerland, an opponent they have yet to lose to in 15 outings, La Selección will be keen to get their campaign off to a flying start.
After triumphing in style at UEFA EURO 2008, the Iberians will be looking to finally make an impression at FIFA’s flagship tournament, where their best result remains a fourth-place finish back in 1950. The other match in Group H will also exhibit a strong Spanish accent, as Chile, second only to Brazil in South American qualifying, confront CONCACAF side Honduras, competing at this level for the first time since 1982.
The final encounter of the day sees host nation South Africa take on Uruguay in what promises to be an incredible atmosphere at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria. With all four teams in Group A deadlocked on a single point, the match is crucial for both sides. Fervently backed by an expectant nation, Bafana Bafana will need to keep their heads and concentrate on the task before them, in a game where the slightest error could prove crucial.
Honduras-Chile, Group H, Nelspruit, 13.30 (local time)
Spain-Switzerland, Group H, Durban, 16.00 (local time)
South Africa-Uruguay, Group A, Tshwane/Pretoria, 20.30 (local time)
The big game
Have Spain ever been on better form? And has a previous Spanish side ever seen so many talented footballers blossom at the same time, and in every position? After winning EURO 2008, former coach Luis Aragones gave way to Vicente del Bosque, but the change at the helm had no negative impact on the team’s performances. Far from it – Spain won all ten of their qualifying matches, advancing to South Africa 2010 with relative ease. But the European champions do not simply secure victories; they do it in style, with a flowing, one-touch football not dissimilar to that of Barcelona, provider of eight members of the Spanish squad, including new recruit, David Villa. In their final friendly match before the tournament, Spain put on a masterclass of attacking football, beating Poland 6-0.
In the opposing dugout, Ottmar Hitzfeld will be counting on a blend of youth, such as Eren Derdiyok, Tranquillo Barnetta and goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, and experience, like talisman Alexander Frei and veteran forward Blaise N'Kufo. To have any chance in the match, the Swiss will need to rediscover their qualifying form, rather than the disappointing level they attained during their warm-up games.
Aaron Mokoena (RSA) v Diego Forlan (URU)
The key to the potentially decisive match between South Africa and Uruguay could lie in the duel between the Bafana Bafana defender and La Celeste’s star striker. The youngest international in his country’s history, Mokoena is also its most-capped, having donned the yellow jersey on 102 occasions. Dealing with the enormous pressures that come with captaining the host nation is something that ‘Mbazo’ accomplishes with an air of great calmness. In the opposing camp, Forlan has constituted Uruguay’s greatest attacking threat for several years now. With 24 goals in 63 international appearances, his skills are as sharp as they ever were, as evidenced by his Budweiser Man of the Match award against France.
What they said
“Our main attribute, and it’s verging on a genetic thing, is our speed. Whereas Honduras are a very compact team it’s tricky to get in behind them, especially on the edge of their box. I can’t reveal anything specific, but we’ve been working with our coach on a way to find a way through the defensive barricade that they tend to put up,” Humberto Suazo, Chile forward.
Did you know?
Long shot: The Honduran defender Maynor Figueroa possesses one of the most powerful shots in world football. The 27-year-old Wigan Athletic player’s 55-metre strike against Stoke City was the longest-range goal in the Premier League last season.
From Salas to Suazo: Chile’s Humberto Suazo, 29, may not be the most imposing figure ever to have played the game, but rival defences in Group H would be foolish to take his threat lightly. Leading scorer of the South American qualifying phase with ten goals, including two against Brazil, he is the natural successor to legendary Chilean forwards such as Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano. ‘Chupete’ set an astonishing record back in the 2006/07 season, finding the net 51 times for his club, Colo Colo.
Penchant for play-offs: Constantly striving to replicate past glories, Uruguay have made a habit of finishing fifth in the South American Zone over the last twelve years, forcing La Celeste to contest a two-legged play-off on each occasion. In 2002, the Uruguayans progressed without much fuss, and at Australia’s expense (3-1 on aggregate). Four years later, they found themselves up against the Socceroos again, but this time did not enjoy the same success, losing out on penalty kicks. And last November, the two-time world champions were involved in yet another nail-biting play-off tie, putting paid to Costa Rica’s global aspirations 2-1 over two legs. Uruguay’s battle-weary supporters would certainly be forgiven for hoping that their team can qualify automatically when Brazil 2014 comes around.