While Spain’s 1-0 loss to Switzerland was the first upset of World Cup 2010, the only surprise in South Africa’s 0-3 defeat at the hands of Uruguay was the score-line — and the fact that Diego Forlan managed to keep his shirt on after scoring (he’s lately had a bad habit of earning mandatory yellow cards by whipping it off to celebrate important goals). To be sure, FIFA, organizers of the quadrennial tournament saw it coming three years ago. That was when the international body gave South Africa some $10 million to hire a top-level coach capable of knocking a team poorly endowed with international-level talent into a team capable of at least making it through the group stage. No host nation has ever failed to make the knockout stage of the tournament, and FIFA feared that a failure by South Africa to do so would dramatically dampen local enthusiasm for the World Cup, resulting in a poor atmosphere for the final stages — and that fear appeared to materialize on Wednesday, as thousands of demoralized home fans streamed out of the exits after Uruguay’s second goal in the 70th minute — a Forlan penalty after South African ‘keeper Itumuleng Khune had gotten himself sent off by fouling a Uruguayan striker clean through on goal. By the time the Uruguayans scored their third, in injury time, the stadium was only half full.
But the writing was on the wall long before the tournament kicked off: South Africa had failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations earlier this year, which brings together the continent’s top 16 teams. That qualification tournament also doubled as the qualifying tournament for World Cup 2010. South Africa, as host, was automatically entered — but the Cup of Nations failure exposed the brutal reality that if South Africa had been required to qualify like the other 31 teams at World Cup 2010, it would not be even playing in the tournament it is hosting.
Most analysts predicted that South Africa would have a very tough time going through to the second round from a tough group, and in the showdown with Uruguay, they never looked like presenting a serious challenge. The limitations of Bafana Bafana’s players were cruelly exposed by a Uruguayan unit that attacked with verve and skill, Forlan dropping deep behind Suarez and Cavani to receive the ball and orchestrate matters from behind the strikers. The South African defense and midfield couldn’t cope with his game, and he ran riot — opening the scoring with a deflected strike from distance after 24 minutes, and appearing to have the freedom of the final third of the pitch in front of South Africa’s goal. A well organized Uruguayan defense was never seriously tested by the South Africans, whose forwards and advanced midfielders offered little threat.
FIFA had the forethought to ensure that South Africa hired a decent coach, but it couldn’t do much about the quality of players available for him to work with. Of the team that started against Uruguay, only midfielder Steven Pienaar is a sought-after player in the English premiership. Mokoena and Kagiso Dikgacoi are squad players at Portsmouth and Fulham respectively. The rest are home based. And they simply could not match the skills, organization and experience of the likes of Forlan (Athletico Madrid), Suarez (Ajax) and Maxi Perrera (Benfica). The Uruguayan defenders, all based in Europe, are accustomed on a weekly basis to facing players with far greater skill, guile and game than South Africa’s attackers – Mphela (Mamelodi Soundowns), Modise (Orlando Pirates) and Tshabalala (Kaizer Chiefs) all of whom play in their country’s domestic league.
The contrast even with the other African teams at the tournament is stark: Almost all of the players who turn out for Algeria, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria are based at European clubs. Those clubs are constantly looking for new talent in Africa; the fact that they’re recruiting very few players from South Africa reflects the fact that the grassroots youth soccer system in South Africa is simply not producing the same level of skilled and dedicated youngsters as many other African countries do. While Parreira was hired to prevent humiliation, FIFA could do a lot more for South African soccer by investing in youth development programs to harness the country’s abundance of raw talent, which is not being forged into competitive professional material at a nearly sufficient rate.
Sure, Bafana Bafana could see a miraculous, adrenalin-driven victory over the French to scrape through if the other results go our way, and what a magnificent cinderella story that would be. But fixing South African soccer is a long-term project at a grassroots level — a project that the World Cup hasn’t necessarily helped, and which will have to begin in earnest only after it is over, hopefully fueled by the inspiration of African teams who manage to do better than South Africa.
And therein lies the rub: All is not lost, FIFA, because South Africa is an African country, after all, and the cacophony of vuvuzelas that greeted the sight of Didier Drogba warming up against Portugal on Tuesday was a reminder that we are happy to get behind Cote D’Ivoire, or Ghana, or anyone else that carries Africa’s hopes into the next round. Even if South Africa’s challenge falters, as now seems likely, Africa’s World Cup is far from over.