1 down, 63 more to go! The opening ceremony was average, there was tragically noÂ Nelson MandelaÂ in attendance, but the first game of theÂ 2010 World CupÂ in South Africa was certainly a resounding success.
The hosts were just over 10 minutes away from completing a dream start to their own tournament at Soccer City, Johannesburg, after taking the lead in the second half throughÂ Siphiwe Tshabalala’s top corner cracker, but Rafael Marquez earned a share of the spoils for El Tri(Mexico) with a 79th minute equaliser.
As the world cup kicked off to the excitable sound of the vuvuzelas brought to the game by a colourful capacity crowd atÂ Soccer CityÂ in Johannesburg, the opening minutes belonged to the men from South America. In the first quarter of an hour Mexico were almost untouchable in possession with their Barcelona-esque pass-and-move football. With Giovani sitting in the hole behind Carlos Vela and Guillermo Franco, the Mexicans had weapons Bafana Bafana simply could not handle – and the movement of the front three quickly began to cause the hosts all kinds of havoc.
Soon, the hosts were carved open as the adventurous Mexicans forced their way into the South Africa box and when keeper Itumeleng Khune spilt a cross, Giovani dos Santos was superbly blocked by South African captain Aaron MokoenaÂ as he looked set to tap into the empty net.
The first booking of the World Cup came when Mexico’s Efrain Juarez was penalised for handball and then failed to retreat when referee Ravshan IrmatovÂ attempted to allow the home side to take the set piece. But within seconds Mexico were back on the attack and Giovani unleashed a fantastic left-footed shot which just cleared the bar with South Africa keeper Khune scrambling across.
As Mexico dominated possession, patient build-up play led toÂ Carlos Vela chipping in a neat pass to Franco, who held off his marker and got a shot in on goal, but Khune’s strong right hand just managed to keep the ball out.
El Tri continued to press, and Bongani Khumalo was just about able to block a Giovani shot over the bar to concede a corner from which the game’s first big talking point emanated.
A dangerous corner was swung in, and with keeper Khune coming into no-man’s land, the ball was flicked on to Vela at the back post, but his tap-in was fruitless as the offside flag was up due to the goalkeeper’s advanced position beyond the Mexico striker.
South African striker Mpehla had been forced to feed off scraps until he was inches away from heading in Tshabalala’s cross just before the break, but soon after the interval the world had the goal for which it had been waiting.
Tshabalala, a 25-year-old Soweto-born left winger for Kaizer Chiefs, wrote his name down in football folklore with a strike of such pure quality it almost took a second for him to realise what he had done. The winger strode onto a pass from South Africa’s icon Steven Pienaar with real purpose on the left and unleashed a magnificent left-footed strike into the top right hand corner of the goal to send the home crowd into raptures.
Suddenly there was more belief about South Africa’s play, but also more purpose on display from the Mexicans, and it was they who could easily have struck the next goal as Giovani Dos Santos whipped in a fierce left foot shot which was sensationally tipped over the bar by keeper Khune.
Mexico coach Javier AguirreÂ introduced national legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco for Vela as he looked to provide his team with a greater threat close to goal. Even with South Africans in the lead, it was Mexico who continued to boss possession while South Africa looked dangerous while counter-attacking.
On 79 minutes, Mexico hit a deserved equaliser when a cross from the left was floated in and Mokoena kept three forwards onside, allowingÂ Rafael Marquez time and space to fire a shot between the near post and goalkeeper Khune.
The goal seemed to take the sting out of the hosts as they looked to hold on the 1-1 scoreline while the Mexicans pressed for the winner.
Even then, South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira saw his team almost snatch it in the dying moments asÂ Katlego MphelaÂ broke through, but he couldn’t quite get the ball under control and his left-foot shot came cannoning back off the foot of the near post with Mexico keeper Perez beaten.
There are positives and negatives to take forÂ South AfricaÂ and Mexico. The former will be buoyed by their tactical performance after the break — for which coachÂ Carlos Alberto ParreiraÂ deserves a great deal of credit — as they caused numerous problems on the counter attack and only conceded due to a lack of concentration on a cross. There will, naturally, still be some concerns whether personnel-wise they can really mix it with the very best.
As for the latter, Mexico looked a class act when they were at their free flowing best in the first period. However, there are question marks over both their decisiveness in front of goal — with too many situations squandered — their mental strength as heads dropped after South Africa broke the deadlock, and the naivety in defending with such a high line considering Mphela’s pace on the counter. Make no mistake about it, though, Mexico are a rough diamond who can make an impact if they polish their rough edges.
One final point to be made is on the pitch. It had been predicted for a number of years now that South Africa’s surfaces may not be up to standard, butÂ Soccer City’s today played out as impressively as the football. Welcome toÂ South Africa 2010! Waka Waka!!
source: First hand coverage. Excerpts aggregated from football websites like Goal.com and Fifa.com
Anand Prakash is a Special Sports Correspondent for Youth Ki Awaaz and is bringing the latest scoop from the FIFA 2010.