Seldom has a friendly international meant so much to 2010 Soccer World Cup hosts South Africa as that against Paraguay on Wednesday.
Underperforming Bafana Bafana need a win to silence a growing band of critics, led by Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile, Parliament sports committee chairperson Butana Komphela and several top first-division coaches.
And victory at Super Stadium would be the first over South American rivals after four draws and four losses since 1995, including a 2-2 deadlock with Paraguay in a World Cup thriller six years ago.
As disappointing results heighten fears that South Africa will become the first hosts not to progress beyond the first round, World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has rounded on the critics.
”No country had a team ready two years before the World Cup. It just does not work like that. People are looking for short cuts, but there are none in football,” the Brazilian stressed in an interview.
”I did not invent this fall from the golden days of 1996 when South Africa were African champions; it is what I found when taking over last year. We have reached rock bottom.”
Critics have made much of South Africa being ranked 71 in the world, which is partly due to Parreira insisting on quality opponents rather than the former practice of comfortable friendly fixtures against weak neighbours.
Paraguay certainly fit the quality bill as they are ranked 27 by world football governing body Fifa and top the 2010 World Cup qualifying competition standings in South America with 10 points from four outings.
After a goalless draw in Peru and a lone-goal victory over Uruguay in Asuncion, a team coached by Argentine Gerardo Martino went on the rampage to overwhelm Ecuador 5-1 at home and Chile 3-0 away.
The best known Paraguayan footballer is Roque Santa Cruz, a 26-year-old striker with film star looks who will probably be policed by Blackburn Rovers teammate and South Africa skipper Aaron Mokoena.
Santa Cruz has overshadowed another South African, striker Benni McCarthy, at the English Premiership club this season, triggering speculation that the star of the 1998 African Nations Cup may be leaving Ewood Park.
McCarthy returns after an unexplained absence from the 2008 Nations Cup in Ghana, where his scoring potential was sorely missed as Bafana made a timid early exit after losing to Tunisia and drawing with Angola and Senegal.
South Africa had a full strength squad until the withdrawal of flu victim Steven Pienaar, the Everton midfielder who has never managed to recapture his Goodison Park form when on national duty.
Bafana are a work-in-progress team with Mokoena and Greece-based Nasief Morris often exposed in central defence behind a midfield that lacks steel and an attack that struggles to create openings under a one-striker system.
The World Cup hosts failed to score against South American visitors Bolivia (0-1) and Uruguay (0-0) in Johannesburg last year and Paraguay have named a powerful squad skippered by Argentina-based defender Julio Caceres. — AFP