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June 19, 2009

History lesson for Bafana Bafana

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Photo courtesy Chris Kirchhoff

When the ball shot off Siyabonga Nomvete’s buttocks in the fourth minute of the game and nestled in Slovenian goalkeeper Marko Simeunovic’s net during a Group B encounter of the 2002 FIFA World Cup held in Korea and Japan between South Africa and Slovenia, the football-watching public of South Africa went ballistic.

A nervy 86 minutes later and South Africa had won their first World Cup game and put themselves in a position to make the second round of the prestigious tournament for the first time, causing Bafana Bafana fans to spill out onto the streets and revel in South Africa’s footballing prowess.

Only one team stood in the way of South Africa and history ... Spain.

Fast forward seven years and South Africa are celebrating their first Confederations Cup win.

Much like seven years ago a much-needed win, this time against New Zealand, has followed a draw; both in 2002 and in 2009 South Africa drew their opening games. (A hard-fought, come-from-behind draw against Paraguay in 2002, an uninspiring 0-0 draw against Iraq in the opening game of the Confederations Cup in 2009).

And now, in 2009, as in 2002 only one teams stands in South Africa’s way ... Spain.

In 2002 and in 2009 the maths was and is simple. A draw against Spain means South Africa goes through to the knockout stages of the tournament – and this is where South Africa need to learn from the past and tread carefully.

Seven years ago South Africa stepped on to the pitch at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium and faced, on paper, one of the most talented and deadly teams in the world.

A huge blunder by then South African goalkeeper Andre Arendse, who placed the ball at the feet of Spain’s highest-ever goal-scorer Raul Gonzalez, gave Spain the opener just before the four-minute mark, and put the pressure firmly on the South African team.

South Africa fought back and Benni McCarthy put Bafana Bafana level, before a Gaizka Mendieta freekick put the Spanish back in front, a header by South African captain Lucas Radebe put South Africa level once again, only for South African hearts to be broken minutes later when Gonzalez netted his second.

Bafana Bafana were out after Paraguay came from behind to trounce Slovenia 3-1, meaning South Africa lost out on advancing to the second round due to goal-difference.

Back to 2009 and the Confederations Cup, and Bafana Bafana need to remember the lesson so cruelly dished out to them by the footballing matadors of Spain.

As Group A of the Confederations Cup plays their fixtures on Saturday, June 20, South Africa face Spain (kickoff at 18:30GMT) at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, while Iraq take on New Zealand (also 18:30GMT) at Ellis Park.

With New Zealand’s defence looking more like a shooting gallery than a back four, having shipped seven goals in two games, and nothing to play for, the chances of Iraq winning their remaining fixture is good – especially as, from the Iraqi perspective, there’s everything to play for.

On top of that, Iraq came away from their encounter with Spain relatively unscathed – conceding just one goal against the European Champions. All this means that South Africa must either lose to Spain by less than Iraq, i.e. not lose at all, or Iraq must beat New Zealand by less than a two-goal margin.

The Spain side of 2002 were brilliant on paper, but perennial underachievers, but this year’s Spanish squad are brilliant on paper and on the pitch.

It’s time for South Africa to learn from the past and dig deep for what is a must-draw-at-the-very-least encounter.

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