World Cup review, Part II: The trials of group A and Bafana’s lasting legacy

This is part two of our series looking back at the 2010 World Cup. To read part one, click here.

What is the legacy of Bafana Bafana at the 2010 World Cup? It’s not an easy question to answer.

On one hand, we endured the shame of becoming the first host nation to be knocked out at the group stages — you have to go back to US ’94 for the last time the semifinals didn’t feature a home team. It was a brutal disappointment for a country as desperate to succeed on the pitch as it was off of it.

Yet, on the other, there’s no escaping the reality that the group draw had placed a mountain in our way from the get-go. Group A was possibly the hardest of any that year; it was certainly the one most packed with intrigue and subplot.

There was plucky South Africa, buoyed by enthusiasm and ambition. France arrived accompanied by nagging question marks, but still enjoyed the lustre of being perennial favourites in the 21st century. Mexico could call on a party of exciting baby-faced attackers — Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernández — and were anchored by the stern Barcelona veteran Rafael Márquez, El Káiser. Then there was Uruguay. The South Americans wielded a trident that was a mythical object for fantasy football fans everywhere: Diego Forlán, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez.

Before the games could get under way, there was a small clash of ideology between South Africa’s Brazillian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and the South African Football Association (Safa) management. Safa wanted the squad to greet fans at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, not far from their hotel. Parreira, who had won the World Cup with his home nation in 1994, believed such frivolities should be reserved to celebrate achievement.

“Carlos Parreira was against it; he was so against it,” says Aaron Mokoena, Bafana captain at the time. “So I had a one on one with him after he called me to his room. He told me his concerns and why he feels we shouldn’t go and greet the fans. Basically, he was saying that from his experience you do the parade after you’ve won something. His concern was that if we go out there and start losing focus then it’s going to hurt us badly.

“I told him that I understand his point of view, but it was all about getting out for five or 10 minutes and appreciating the support; not really celebrating anything, but appreciating the support that we have.”

Parreira would begrudgingly acquiesce and the players rode an open-top bus down Rivonia Road to greet an excited public.

Fervent support

For Mokoena, who also played in the 2002 World Cup, the experience would set 2010 apart from anything else he has experienced in his career. It would continue long into the group-stage run as well.

“It was amazing, absolutely amazing,” he says. “When people say ‘rainbow nation’, this is what they mean,” he says.

“Just leaving the hotel to get to the stadium was absolute chaos. You could see how united South Africans were and how the country was buzzing. As we entered the stadium, the appreciation that we got from the stands was just unbelievable,” Mokoena recalls. “We sang from the hotel to the stadium until the first whistle”

After the promising yet anticlimactic opener against Mexico, Bafana squared up to the Uruguayans. If there were a low point in the tournament, it was this.

Forlán would take the chance to kick off a frightening vein of form that would lead him straight to the Golden Ball for best player at the World Cup. By the 25th minute, he picked up the ball, drove at the timid defence, and unleashed a destructive strike that left Itumeleng Khune stranded and flummoxed. It would become worse towards the end for the popular keeper as he clipped the boot of Suárez after being let through. Khune was red carded, Forlán dispatched the penalty and Bafana slunk away as 3-0 losers.

“Uruguay made it so difficult for us,” Mokoena recalls. “The problem that we had was that South American style and African style are similar. We were actually toe-to-toe until they showed their experience.”

In the other game of the round, the creaking French trawler was about to implode. Those of us fortunate enough to witness it first hand also discovered the relentless fervour of the travelling Mexican support. Sombrero-clad, beer-drinking revellers sang for 90 continuous minutes and a good chunk of time before and after too, all the while wielding wooden ratchets with the stubbornness of a bored toddler.

After Hernández announced himself to the world by rounding a hapless Hugo Lloris, those previously treasured beers were flung into the air, creating a downpour of cheap American brew. Most cups had barely been replenished when the second, conclusive strike went in to signal the process be repeated.

Unbeknownst to us in the stands was that at half time a characteristically sullen Nicolas Anelka had told coach Raymond Domenech to “go fuck yourself, you son of a whore”. Still, his teammates took exception when he was sent packing and staged a revolt — refusing to train before Patrice Evra famously said there was a “traitor” in the group for leaking all this in the first place. Domenech would call them all “imbeciles” in a later memoir.

By the time Les Bleus arrived in Bloemfontein to face South Africa, the French were on life support, more a case of seeing out the formalities than anything resembling a team. Before the 40th minute could tick by, they had a player sent off, Bongani Khumalo had towered in a header, and Katlego Mphela had scrambled a second in to end the game as a contest. When the referee officially ended it, Domenech would refuse Parreira’s hand to add one more exclamation mark point to the shameful chapter of French football.

Despite having the pleasure of euthanising one of the giants of the global game, Bafana were themselves eliminated from the competition. Mexico lost their final match, but had done enough to ensure they maintained a superior goal difference.

It was a disappointing way to exit. It may be a footballer’s myth that four points is routinely good enough at the World Cup, but in such a tight group it was reasonable to expect that they just might have been. The performance arguably warranted a spot in the knockouts too. It wasn’t impeccable, but to offer up what we did against such high-calibre opposition is nothing to be ashamed about.

If there is a major fault to find, it came after the tournament. South Africa failed to qualify for the next two World Cup and a further two Africa Cup of Nations — and they haven’t been able to get past the quarterfinal stage in those they did take part in. Looking through the rhapsodic lens of 2010, there’s no denying we have not taken the steps we had hoped for.

“I honestly thought that afterwards the 2010 legacy would make a big difference in a positive way for South African football,” says Mokoena. “But now it looks as though we didn’t have a succession plan. It could have been better after the 2010 World Cup, but a lot of wrong things happened. Right now we’re in a position where we’re sitting with loads of problems, financial issues. There’s loads of things that went wrong and I felt that hosting such a massive event, we should have done better.”

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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