Published June 10, 2010
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The buildup is over. Africa's first World Cup arrives to the buzz of vuvuzelas, with the hope that Nelson Mandela will attend the opening ceremony and, oh yes, with some soccer.
Few nations face a bigger challenge than the host. Not only will South Africa try to keep up with all previous home teams and advance out of the first round, but it will attempt to raise the profile of soccer in this country.
Mexico will want to spoil the party when the teams meet Friday in the World Cup opener at Soccer City.
In a nation where most international team sports success has been in rugby union and cricket, South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is out to lift the image of the sport played by the vast majority of the population.
South Africa is on a 12-game unbeaten run in friendlies under the 1994 World Cup-winning coach for Brazil. He said Thursday his goal is to bring integrity to a team that lost eight out of nine games before he returned to the job a year ago; he was hired the first time in January 2007 and was in charge for 21 games until April 2008 before leaving because his wife was ill.
"We want to make this country proud and we are going to give hell to any team we play," Parreira said. "In this country, football has been sleeping for many years. Then suddenly there was a ray of hope with the good performance of the team, the good preparation, the World Cup coming here for the first time.
"If I am to do something for the team, it is to give them identity, a belief that South Africa plays with technique and skill. The players are encouraged to play and have fun, to do a few tricks and enjoy themselves, like we did with Brazil."
Parreira described the attack-minded Mexicans as "the most daring team at the World Cup," but he and captain Aaron Mokoena believe the hosts can win before taking on former champions Uruguay and France in other Group A games.
"We very badly need to win the game. The moment of truth has arrived," Mokoena said. "There's been a lot of talking. Now it's about getting on the field and making our country proud. That's what we are up for."
Parreira selected the same starting lineup that beat World Cup qualifier Denmark 1-0 in its last warmup game on Saturday.
"Tomorrow, as much as the pressure is big, it's a World Cup game — it's sort of a war," Parreira said. "Opening game is always a difficult game. There is a lot of pressure, the whole country is involved and you are playing under the eyes of millions of people around the world.
"I know it's not easy to enjoy the game when you play a team as good as Mexico. They are the most daring team in this World Cup, the way they approach the game."
The Mexicans are likely to field three forwards, including Carlos Vela and Guillermo Franco, who has recovered from a right foot injury. But Javier Hernandez, who has joined Manchester United, could be on the bench even though he has scored three times in four warmup games.
"We have spent 60 days together. We have our players from Europe come to the team now and we feel very confident that tomorrow is going to be a great day for Mexico," coach Javier Aguirre said. "I think it's going to be a beautiful game and a beautiful party."
Mexico has won eight of its last 12 games, losing twice, and Aguirre has lifted the confidence of a team that appeared demoralized under former coach Sven-Goran Eriksson amid fears it might not qualify.
"I don't know what Eriksson did, but what I do know was that the team was unmotivated," Aguirre said. "They lost their energy. There was a lot of quarreling in the Mexican nation and the leadership issue was hindering their play."
Mexico has only two quarterfinal appearances to show for 13 previous appearances, both as host.
"Now I see hunger," Aguirre said. "They want to write a chapter in history, right from the first day."