Who’s the Key Man in SA vs. Mexico?

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The key man in Friday’s World Cup opener, which pits hosts South Africa against Mexico, could be Steven Pienaar, or Geovanni Dos Santos or Carlos Vela. But it could just as easily be Ravhan Irmatov. No, he’s not same late addition to the squad of either Bafana Bafana or El Tri; Irmatov is the 32-year-old Uzbek referee officiating in what will be his first World Cup tournament. And the opening match promises to be a very physical encounter, in which the ref could easily find himself called upon to make decisions that determine the course of the match amid the din of tens of thousands of baying vuvuzelas and a home crowd that won’t take kindly to disappointment.

He comes across as fairly reassuring in this Spanish language video clip (his interview is in English), in which the show’s Mexican host does little to disguise his anxiety over Irmatov’s appointment.

Mexican fans fear that an inexperienced ref could be intimidated by a home town crowd. And the reason that’s cause for concern is that they can certainly expect a physical game from the South Africans, in a manner typical of teams facing more talented opponents where the best chance of winning lies in preventing those opponents from playing their own natural game.

Bafana Bafana can count on the fever of the home fans in Soweto, the citadel of the South African game. And the team has raised expectations by putting together an unbeaten run of 13 games since last November — most recently last weekend’s 1-0 victory over Denmark. But that run may be misleading. They have only occasionally looked convincing, and these matches were all non-competitive friendlies. They’re certainly unlikely to get as much help from Irmatov as they did from the ref in their narrow 2-1 victory over Colombia two weeks ago (see the clip below, particularly the twice-taken penalty).

Bafana Bafana remains a very limited side, as their current FIFA world ranking at number 83 suggests. (Mexico are ranked 17.) The only player of truly international class in the South African squad is Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, and the failure of 32-year-old Benni McCarthy to make the cut due to his lack of fitness leaves the team worryingly bereft of firepower upfront, where Kathlego Mphela of local side Mamelodi Sundowns is expected to lead the line, with his alternate being Bernard Parker, a second-string player at Holland’s FC Twente.

The man tasked with anchoring the midfield will probably be Fulham’s Kagiso Dikgacoi, who is struggling for form (so much so that he could be replaced by Thanduyise Khuboni), although the player alongside him, Kaizer Chiefs man Reneilwe Letsholonyane, is currently turning in man-of-the-match performances as the playmaker. That puts Teko Modise further forward, while Pienaar and Siphiwe Tshabalala do the running from the flanks. The fact that you haven’t heard of most of these guys isn’t surprising; all but three of them play in South Africa’s domestic league — and that in itself is a comment on the more limited talent pool available to coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. (By comparison, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire will field teams entirely based of players long ago recruited by teams in Europe’s elite leagues.)

So Bafana Bafana will rely heavily on the ability of Dikgacoi or Khuboni, Letsholonyane and captain Aaron “The Axe” Mokoena to rattle the opposition with their bone-crunching tackles. South Africa’s defensive players will certainly have their hands full containing Mexico’s young flyers. Their tactically fluid 3-4-3
system
gives free rein to the fleet-footed youngsters Carlos Vela (Arsenal) and Geovanni Dos Santos (Spurs, currently on loan at Galatasary) to use their pace to get behind opposing defenses, as they buzz around central striker Guillermo Franco — or, if injury keeps Franco out, the young, Manchester United-bound Javier Hernandez. Their speed and movement caused major problems for the Dutch and English defenses a couple of weeks ago — despite losing against Holland and England, El Tri bossed long stretches of both games. And then, last week, they beat defending champions Italy 2-1 in their final warmup game.

Mexico’s forwards are supported by the dangerous midfielder Efrain Juarez, and they have plenty of options for varying their attack, using Andres Guardado instead of either Vela or Dos Santos, or bringing on the aging Cuahtemoc Blanco to add some experience, guile and finishing ability up front. (Blanco may have only 30 minutes or so per game in him, but South Africa may yet rue their decision not to use Benni McCarthy in the same way.)

Their defense, marshaled by Barcelona’s Rafa Marquez, is solid, and while their strikers are inexperienced, South Africa’s defense are not exactly veterans of competitive international football. One other advantage the home team has over most opponents in Johannesburg is 5,500 feet above sea level, and the air is thinner than at the coast. But Mexico City is more than 7,300 feet above sea level, so bang goes that advantage.

Still, there is the home crowd, and the infernal din of the vuvuzelas. And the ability of the South Africans to physically impose themselves — their own nerves potentially rattled by the expectations of the fans. That’s a dimension where the game could yet be settled by Mr. Irmatov.