The World Cup Calendar, June 11th. Tshabalala’s Sensational Strike

Ever heard a mosquito buzzing around your ear? It’s annoying, right? Now imagine a couple more. Now imagine a whole swarm of mosquitoes, all buzzing loudly, so intrusive and incessant that it slowly drives you mad. Yup, that level of annoying. That was the soundtrack to every moment of World Cup 2010, the first World Cup to ever be held on African soil. World Cup 2010 was far from my favourite tournament, I felt there were far too many boring games with negative football; teams who were more scared to lose than they were excited to win. But even through the endless, soul-numbing buzz of those vuvuzelas, there were a number of genuinely good games. The downside being, years on, the highlights can only be enjoyed with the sound muted!

The nation of South Africa had come a long way over the past twenty years. While racial tensions are still apparent in some areas of the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation”, the country had become much more stable. The football team, Bafana Bafana, were not nearly
as successful as their rugby counterparts, having missed out on the 2006 World Cup. By being hosts, they qualified automatically for 2010, and therefore had not even played a competitive game for over two years.

The sun was shining on the players of South Africa and Mexico as they exited the tunnel to the sound of thousands of vuvuzelas, and walked out onto the field of the newly renovated Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg. It was a tough game to call from the outset. South Africa should have had the backing of the 94000 capacity stadium, but due to the extortionate ticket prices, many locals simply couldn’t afford the cost of attending the games. For the opening game, there were more 10000 empty seats. Mexico had some
excellent players, Carlos Vela of Arsenal, Tottenham’s Giovani Dos Santos and Barcelona stalwart Rafael Marquez. It turned out to be an extremely competitive match!

Mexico had the best of the early stages of the game, Carlos Vela and Guillermo Franco linking up to force South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune into an unconventional save, throwing his arms and legs wildly to block Franco’s chested down volley.

A little later into the first half and Mexico took the lead, or so they thought… Captain Gerardo Torrado swung in a corner, saw it flicked down to the back post by Dos Santos into the path of a completely unmarked Carlos Vela to tap it in. Khune had come to claim the
corner, missing the ball completely due to Dos Santos’ header. It was Khune’s over commitment to coming for the corner that ultimately saved South Africa. By coming so far to claim the cross, he ended up being ahead of Carlos Vela, thus playing him offside. Vela and his teammates were furious, but it was the right decision by the middle eastern refereeing teams.

Despite having less possession and less clinical shots, it was South Africa who took the lead ten minutes after halftime. Some clever link up play in midfield saw Fulham midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi play a perfectly timed through ball to winger Siphiwe Tshabalala.
Tshabalala outpaced the trailing defender Ricardo Osorio and took three touches. One to control the fast ball into the box, one to steady it, and a final one, left footed, to blast it over Mexico’s Homer Simpson lookalike goalkeeper Oscar Perez.

Tshabalala ran to the adoring fans, his arms aloft, basking in their cheers. Himself, fellow midfielders Reneilwe Letsholonyane and Teko Modise and striker Katlego Mphela began to perform a celebration which appeared to have been more well drilled than any of their set piece plays. Arms in, arms out, twists and turns and then a whole lot of hugging. It was utterly bizarre and quite wonderful.

Mexico were desperate to grab a goal, and Khune’s gloves were stung by a powerful blast from Dos Santos, who had cut in from the wing to unleash his crack at goal. Khune saved it, beating it out for a corner. This may have been a sensible decision, as Mexico had recently brought on the clinical Javier Hernandez. If he had pushed the ball back into play, there was always the chance that Hernandez would have been about to hit it home.

As glorious as South Africa’s goal celebration was, if they had spent a little less time practising that, and a little more time on defending set pieces, Bafana Bafana may have been able to see out their lead. A short corner eventually found substitute Andres Guardado 25 yards from goal. He looked up and fired the ball into the box, towards the back post. It was met by a totally unmarked Marquez, who controlled it with his shin before firing the ball past Khune and into the back of the net. It was the defenders second World Cup in which he found the score sheet.

With the game deep into stoppage time, a long ball over the Mexican defence found Mphela free. He latched onto the ball and appeared to snatch at it a little, not getting the connection he would have hoped for. The ball bounced off the outside of the post and out for a goal kick. Game over, 1-1.

The first World Cup game on African turf may not have been a goal fest, but it was certainly entertaining. Tshabalala’s strike would go down in history as one of the better opening World Cup goals, and Marquez provided Mexico with the goal which gained them a point,
the very least that they deserved. The only downside to this exciting game was those ear-bleeding, monotonous vuvu-flaming-zelas!

Tomorrow’s game: June 12th. France v South Africa. 1998.