This summer the eyes of the footballing world will focus on South Africa for the Confederations Cup. The tournament acts as a scaled-down, test run for the following year’s World Cup, and with question marks still hanging over the host’s preparation for the event, those eyes will be prying. Privately, if not publicly, a number of FIFA executives have expressed concerns about the planning, organisation and pace of South Africa’s World Cup preparations. Still doubts remain as to whether every stadium will be ready for June 2010, whilst also issues of security, transport and accommodation are yet to be resolved. The Confederations Cup will be a test of that infrastructure which FIFA will expect it to pass.
With so much attention being directed towards the hosting of the event, the fortunes of the hosts have somewhat slipped under the radar. If staging the event is shrouded in confusion, the fare of the national team is nothing short of calamitous. Brazilian Coach Joel Santana is the sixth occupant of the post since South Africa was given the World Cup in 2004, after previous incumbent Carlos Alberto Parreira – World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994 – had walked out in April 2008 citing the disconcertingly vague “personal reasons” for his departure, and a catalogue of other coaches have also come and gone. Had the World Cup been staged elsewhere, with South Africa not afforded a spot as hosts, it is unlikely the Bafana Bafana would have been participating, and barring a sharp upturn in their fortunes it may well be the team, and not the facilities, which prove the biggest disappointment to the South African people.
Santana is known as ‘The Fireman’ in his native Brazil – a name formed from a reputation of saving teams from relegation. However, the inferno engulfing South African football is one that has been spreading for some time. Back in 1996 the country hosted and won the African Cup of Nations, this was followed by consecutive World Cup appearances in 1998 and 2002, and although the team failed to get out of the first round on both occasions, qualification reflected progress after decades in the international wilderness due to apartheid.
Post 2002, and that progress is receding fast. The team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and the African Cup of Nations the same year was a complete disaster as the team returned home having failed to even score a goal. The 2008 Cup of Nations proved little better as they were knocked out in the first round, and to complete the woe, they failed to qualify for the 2010 event. The FIFA world rankings currently has South Africa way down in 79th place – not only does that leave them trailing way behind African powerhouses Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, but it also puts them behind the likes of Gabon, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Uganda. This is a side scheduled to be taking on the world’s top 31 other footballing countries in a little over twelve months from now, whom currently find themselves sandwiched in-between such international minnows of Uzbekistan and New Zealand in the world rankings.
The failings at international level are all the more galling given that the domestic Premier Soccer League is by far the most organised and wealthiest on the continent, yet little of this structure is being reaped by the national side. The majority of the players in the current squad derive from domestic clubs such as the instantly recognisable Kaizer Chiefs, the Orlando Pirates and defending champions, Supersport United. Whilst Cameroon boast Samuel Eto’o, Ghana has Michael Essien and Didier Drogba leads the Ivory Coast, South Africa cannot claim to possess one player of true world class calibre. Aaron Mokoena, Portsmouth’s new recruit from Blackburn, and Everton’s Steven Pienaar are the most familiar faces to British audiences, with a handful of other players plying their trade in Belgium, Israel, Greece, Spain and Serbia respectively. Individually as well as collectively the Bafana Bafana fall behind their continental rivals, much to the disappointment of the nation’s football fanatics.
But all is not lost. Comparisons can be drawn with the South Korea side of 2002 World Cup, who, despite only being armed with a modest squad, made the semi-finals of that competition held on home soil. Indeed South Africa can look back at a proud recent tradition of delivering the goods when competitions are held in their back garden. The Springbok Rugby Union team succeeded at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, as did the football team a year later when the African Nations were held there. With momentum and belief, the partisan home crowd at stadiums such as the 94 000 capacity Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg could prove an invaluable factor in producing a few surprises come 2010.
That momentum and belief must start at this summer’s Confederations Cup. South Africa has been dealt a favourable hand in the group draws being placed with Spain, New Zealand and Iraq in Group A, with Italy, Brazil, USA and Egypt making up Group B. Spain would be expected to canter through, while New Zealand and Iraq should both be negotiable hurdles. Expectations won’t be high, but they will be expected to get through the group, as a poor showing here could critically jeopardise Santana’s position and all but extinguish the hopes of the nation.
Much of that hope will fall on the shoulders of Mokoena – the country’s most capped player, and Pienaar, who have both enjoyed steady if unspectacular form over the last few seasons in the English Premier League. Aside these two, Michael Modubi and Elrio van Heerden are midfielders playing in Belgium for Westerlo and Brugge respectively, and Bernard Parker is a goalscoring midfielder from Red Star Belgrade. There is also clamour for the magnificently named Kermit Romeo Erasmus to be selected. As yet uncapped, the 18-year-old has recently made his debut for Feyenoord and is seen to be by far the most promising of South Africa’s next generation. One man they will have to do without is Blackburn’s Benni McCarthy, the chief attacking threat and national idol whom appears to have fallen into the Coach’s bad books. With a dearth of talent elsewhere, it remains to be seen whether the parties kiss and make up prior to the World Cup for the benefit of all.
Much of the global focus of the Confederations Cup will fall on how smoothly the tournament runs, yet the most faltering aspect of South Africa’s bid could still be the side that takes the field. If there are any issues, on and off field, time is ticking, with only a year left to complete building the stadiums, and to re-build a team.
Italy at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup
June 6, 2009 – 19:50 – Arena Garibaldi, Pisa
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland – Rossi 19, Foggia 52, Pellissier 73
June 10, 2009 – 19:50 – Super Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 4-3 New Zealand – Gilardino 33, 48, Iaquinta 68, 73; Smeltz 13, Killen 42, pen 57
June 15, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. USA
June 18, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Italy vs. Egypt
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. Brazil
June 24-25, 2009 – both 20:30 – Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein & Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
June 28, 2009 – 15:00 – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
Third place play-off
June 28, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg