Carlos Alberto Parreira knows more than most that a lot can happen over 90 minutes on a football pitch. It took just eleven minutes, however, for the 'unthinkable' to actualise in Cape Town, where Zambia ran out 3-1 winners in their CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. Ultimately, though, the Bafana Bafana did manage to achieve what they set out to when their campaign began one year ago: secure their place at Ghana 2008.
A quick-fire hat-trick by the visitors' skipper Chris Katongo rocked the hosts, his goals in the ninth, 18th and 20th minutes enabling Zambia to qualify for next year's continental finals as group winners. Fortunately for South Africa, they battled on bravely and, aided by a second half strike from Benni McCarthy, they did enough to guarantee their place among the elite in January as one of the best second-placed teams.
It was not the script Parreira had envisaged for his team, who had gone into their concluding qualifier high on confidence after a campaign in which they had gone unbeaten in their five group games, scoring nine goals and conceding just one. What could go wrong, though, did for Parreira's charges, who found themselves with a mountain to climb with a mere half-hour on the clock.
"The unthinkable happened out there. We lost focus and had no concentration for the first 25 minutes and found ourselves three goals down," Parreira moaned. "In fact we made Zambia's life very easy and gifted them the goals. When you play for your country these things should not happen - you must start the game with full focus."
The Bafana Bafana failed to do this, Katongo's three-goal avalanche putting Zambia firmly in the ascendancy. Last season, the Brondby striker terrorised South African defenders when playing for Jomo Cosmos in the Castle Premier League, scoring 15 goals in just 11 games before being snapped up by the Danish side. Despite not playing for half the season, he still ended up as the division's leading marksman.
And over the weekend, Katongo did to Bafana's top international defenders exactly what he had done to them in their domestic league. Parreira's team were made to pay by the lethal Katongo, who took just nine minutes to break the deadlock. Thereafter, he side-footed home number two and within minutes his textbook header past keeper Rowen Fernandez had opened up a three-goal cushion to the delight of the vastly-outnumbered traveling supporters.
Indeed, an expectant Cape Town crowd had come in large numbers for the international return of hometown hero Benni McCarthy. The in-form Blackburn Rovers striker had last played for his country at the Africa Cup of Nations 2006. Although there was no fairy tale return, McCarthy will have taken consolation from scoring his team's solitary goal in the second half, which allowed him to equal former Charlton Athletic striker Shaun Bartlett's record of 29 goals for his country.
Crucially, though, the goal helped Bafana Bafana sneak into the Ghana 2008 field. In successfully guiding the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ hosts into Africa's showpiece event, Parreira had realised his pre-qualifying tournament objective.
The result, although undesired, will have also served as a wake-up call to the South African players. They will not have to wait long to get their crack at redemption. On Wednesday, Uruguay visit Johannesburg's Ellis Park for a meeting with Parreira's troops.
A positive result against the likes of Diego Forlan, Alvaro Recoba and Co. is sure to restore Bafana pride, and underline the Bafana Bafana's status as genuine pretenders to the continental throne Egypt assumed in 2006.