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Monday, April 12, 2010
South Africa faces tough group

By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com

It's hardly a secret that the World Cup host team usually meets, and commonly exceeds, expectations. The home team has emerged victorious in six World Cups -- England and France won their only titles at home -- so you don't have to be a statistician to realize the advantage of literally playing on home soil.

As tournament privileges have spread geographically in recent years, though, more countries not among the traditional contenders have been given the chance to host. On the field, those nations have focused on getting out of the group stage. The United States in 1994 and co-hosts Japan and South Korea in 2002 all passed that basic test, and avoided the ignominy of becoming the first home nation to miss the knockout rounds.

Which brings us to 2010. If the South Africans are to keep that streak intact, they'll have to overcome the most daunting obstacles yet to face a host nation. For each challenge in their path, though, Bafana Bafana just might have an answer that could see them through to a surprise berth in the knockout rounds.

Obstacle No. 1: Bad timing and poor play

South Africa has some proud soccer history. They won the 1996 African Nations Cup, and the 2002 team, considered by some the best in Africa that year, was unlucky not to make the knockout rounds in Korea and Japan. More recently, however, South Africa failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and made it this year only by virtue of hosting.

Reminiscing over past glory rather than focusing on this year's squad may seem a digression, but South Africans can be forgiven for wishing their chance to host had coincided with a better vintage of their team. Unfortunately, this version of Bafana Bafana is just not that good. By most accounts, they are among the worst teams in the field. According to FIFA, South Africa is currently only the 20th best team -- in Africa.

The South Africans won only five of 18 matches last year, failing to even make the final qualifying round for the 2010 Nations Cup (which doubled as the World Cup qualifying tournament for the continent, meaning the South Africans wouldn't have made the World Cup on their soccer merits).

Supporters may mention the fourth-place showing at the Confederations Cup last year, but in five games in that tournament, at home no less, the South Africans managed only a victory over New Zealand and a tie against Iraq, to go with three losses. Even if those losses included a pair of well-contested matches with Brazil and Spain, those are not the type of results that will get South Africa past the group stage in June.

Potential remedy No. 1: Aces up their sleeves

Pienaar
Everton winger Steven Pienaar brings world-class talent to the South Africa squad.

The South Africans may not be a world-class team, but they do have a couple of tricks up their sleeve. The first is Everton's Steven Pienaar, who has been playing at a very high level in the English Premier League. With Pienaar at the helm in midfield, Bafana Bafana will have one of the cleverest and most creative players in their group -- one who scores regularly on free kicks in the bargain.

They'll need goals from wherever they can get them, since actually putting the ball in the net has been a huge problem. Current West Ham striker Benni McCarthy has been in and out of the national team, but the veteran of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups looks set to play a role for new coach Carlos Alberto Parreira despite a nagging knee injury and an ongoing lack of playing time at the club level. Along with Bernard Parker of FC Twente in Holland, McCarthy will have to supply the crucial finishing touch if South Africa is to have a chance of pulling some surprises.

The South Africans also have a handful of other players plying their trade at various levels in Europe, many of whom have not been with the national team regularly of late due to club commitments. With those inclusions, the squad that turns up at Soccer City for the opening match could be much more competitive than recent history would suggest.

Obstacle No. 2: Limited World Cup experience

After an apartheid-related ban from international competition ended in 1992, South Africa made the World Cup in 1998, putting on a decent showing with two ties in France, before returning even stronger in 2002.

That track record is nothing to disparage, but compared to the decades-long World Cup pedigrees of the three teams the South Africans will face in the group stage, their soccer history is extremely limited. Mexico, Uruguay and France are all seasoned participants in recent and long-past World Cups. Whatever is to be said for having been there before, the South Africans are looking at an experience deficit, as well.

Potential remedy No. 2: Experienced coaching

The poor run of form to close out 2009 meant the end of patience with Joel Santana and the reintroduction of fellow Brazilian Parreira, who had preceded Santana as coach of Bafana Bafana. You may remember Parreira from USA '94, when he led his native country to victory -- even if it was not Brazil's most memorable title.

The coach will be among the most experienced of the lot at this year's World Cup, having overseen 21 games across five tournaments since 1982. If Parreira can call on that experience, coaching acumen could help make the difference that puts South Africa into the knockout stage.

Obstacle No. 3: An imposing draw

World Cup hosts can normally expect a relatively accessible draw, if for no other reason than their status as a seed guarantees avoiding the best teams during the group phase. But perhaps surprisingly, FIFA didn't do the home team any favors this time around.

The hosts could have drawn a group, for example, of Slovakia, North Korea and Chile, but instead drew a fearsome threesome from the remaining pots. They won't be favored against Mexico, Uruguay or France -- indeed, the defending World Cup runners-up French were the last team left out of the seeded pot, and the Mexicans were a group head four years ago.

Projecting how the locals will come up with the four or five points they need from this group requires a heaping dose of optimism, or some serious stretching of the imagination.

Potential remedy No. 3: Intangibles

What optimistic South Africans are imagining is this: Hordes of dancing, screaming fans ready with their makarapas and vuvuzelas to urge on their team as long as they last in the tournament. It may sound redundant when discussing the chances of the locals, but the South Africans will enjoy a singular home-field advantage. Bafana Bafana fans have been waiting a lifetime for this moment, and they'll be ready for Mexico on June 11.

But perhaps the biggest factor of all in this equation is another intangible: Bafana Bafana can expect some -- how shall we put this tactfully -- "luck." In sports in general, the ball tends to bounce the way of the home team, but seldom more so than in a World Cup. That includes potentially game-altering refereeing decisions which can have a substantial impact on the outcome of a close match.

Are the potential positives enough to outweigh the steep challenges South Africa faces in making it to the second round? Probably not. Bafana Bafana would need an extraordinary amount of good fortune -- and some quality, timely finishing that doesn't appear to be in the cards -- to get past this tough a group.

So the chances are higher than ever this year that for the first time the home team won't make it past the group stage. But a first-round exit for South Africa would hardly be disastrous for the tournament.

As much as South Africans would love to see their team excel, most are just as anxious to witness the best soccer in the world in their backyard. An early exit for the hosts would be sad, but the party will go on, perhaps with more successful African teams adopted as the new darlings of the home fans.

This is, after all, Africa's World Cup. It just might not be the host's year on the field.

Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.