South Africans must take heart from opener
World Cup 2010: Soccer City, Johannesburg.
After a day of carnival celebrations in Johannesburg, South Africa's players left the field looking downbeat and demoralised after a late double blow in their World Cup opener against Mexico.
Not only had Rafael Marquez's party-pooping 78th-minute goal cancelled out Siphiwe Tshabalala's wondrous opener, but with seconds left star striker Katlego Mhpela saw his shot almost unbearably strike the post.
As keeper Itumeleng Khune knelt prone on the floor and his team-mates collectively trudged off the pitch, they had the look of a side whose World Cup dream was already over.
But they needn't be dejected for long. After being taught a footballing lesson for the best part of an hour by Mexico, Bafana Bafana proved they have the heart for the battle that lies ahead by fighting back to earn a crucial point, a fact manager Carlos Alberto Parreira - in his record sixth World Cup campaign as a coach - understands only too well.
"As the game progressed, the players became more relaxed and I think they have broken the ice in terms of playing in a competition like this," said the 67-year-old Parreira. "I believe in the next match we will be even more confident."
The wily Brazilian knows that few teams can have played under such intense pressure in the first game of a World Cup, especially when you consider they are a country that has never qualified from the group stages before.
The disappointed South African players applaud the fans at Soccer City
South Africa, it is worth remembering among all the hype, had only been present at two World Cups prior to Friday, with a grand total of one win, three draws and two defeats on their resume.
They may well have gone into the game on the back of an unbeaten 12-match run, but the weight of history was bearing down on them whichever way they turned. Ask any South African and they will be able to tell you that no World Cup host nation has lost their opening game or failed to get out of the group stage. They've been told often enough.
Factor in an open-top bus parade through Johannesburg on Wednesday before their campaign had even started, and a visit from president Jacob Zuma - who asked them if they could win the trophy - on the same day, and you can understand why the players may have felt some anxiety.
"That was a lot of pressure for my team out there," added Parreira. "It is really hard to play well in front of around 90,000 with so much expectation upon you."
If they had seen the Bafana Bafana supporters outside Soccer City after the game, the players would have had plenty of reason to feel proud of their efforts and confident that there are still many opportunities to make heroes of themselves.
Scores of fans lingered until well after the final whistle and the vuvuzela-led celebrations were by no means muted. As a nation South Africans take every available chance to party and Marquez's late intervention was not enough to dampen either their spirits or their enthusiasm.
"We'll beat Uruguay on Wednesday, no problem," one confident South African told me after posing for photos with a group of Mexicans wearing enormous sombreros. "And if we don't beat them, we'll just have to beat France."
Having supported England and Nottingham Forest all my life, I find such unwavering optimism ever so slightly unnerving. But I wouldn't bet against them pulling it off.
After all, they just don't do negative, these people and even when they get knocked out - whenever that may be - the World Cup will be a better place for their very exuberant presence.