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South Africa's day of destiny

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Simon Austin | 16:37 UK time, Thursday, 10 June 2010

After more than six years of fevered anticipation, South Africa is just hours away from the biggest match in its footballing history.

At 1600 local time on Friday, South Africa and Mexico will kick off the 2010 World Cup in front of 94,700 fans at Soccer City, Johannesburg, and a global television audience of more than one billion.

With the game now so tantalisingly close, Matthew Booth, Bafana Bafana's towering central defender and talisman, admits to experiencing mixed emotions.

Speaking from the team's hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg, he told me: "Part of me wants to get the build up over with and just play football, but another part wants to keep soaking up the excitement and atmosphere."

The players are in no doubt that this will be the most important game of their lives, says Booth, and he believes a good start is crucial to his side's hopes for the tournament.

Booth believes South Africa will confound their doubters at the World Cup

"The Mexico game is vital for gathering momentum," he explains. "If we get out of this group, the euphoria and pandemonium in the streets will carry us through and anything could be possible."

The game will be the first competitive international at Soccer City, the awesome stadium built on the site of Nelson Mandela's homecoming to Soweto in 1990, following 27 years in prison.

Fittingly, the 91-year-old former president will be in the stands on Friday, for the first 15 minutes of the match at least, which will ratchet the emotion up another notch.

The level of excitement in the country already seems to have reached bursting point.
Ten players took part in an open-top bus ride through Sandton, the posh business district of Johannesburg, on Wednesday and 250,000 ecstatic fans turned out to cheer them.

"The whole populus seems to be going crazy for the World Cup," Booth says. "Going to training in our bus has been a fantastic experience, with everyone hooting and waving and willing us on."

The big worry is that the scale of the occasion could get to the players on Friday and they freeze. With Bafana Bafana ranked 86th in the world and their opponents 17th, the match is going to be tough enough anyway.

This is where South Africa's coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, will be so crucial, according to Booth. The Brazilian is the most experienced World Cup coach in history and knows what it's like to win the tournament, having triumphed with his home country in America in 1994.

"I'm sure a lot of the players will be nervous, so to have him at the helm is a very good thing for us," Booth says. "He is extremely calm and collected."

Parreira took over the reins from compatriot Joel Santana in October last year, when Bafana were in the doldrums following a run of eight defeats in nine matches.

Now they're full of confidence and optimism, having won five of their last six games, while going 12 without defeat.

How has Parreira effected such a turnaround?

"He installed immediate confidence in the players, because of his pedigree and motivational skills," Booth explains. "That really was most of his job done.

"He's also tried to bring an element of Brazilianess to the team and we are playing some fantastic football, carpet football, which is a joy to watch."

Every previous World Cup host has progressed to at least to the second round of the tournament and after being drawn with France, Mexico and Uruguay in Group A, the odds are against South Africa maintaining the record.

Yet Booth insists: "I've got total confidence we can progress, because we've turned things around. "If you'd asked me if we could get out of the group two years ago, I would probably have said no in all honesty.

"Now things have changed and I can't wait to prove everyone wrong, not just as a team but as a nation."

Booth promises to be one of the most compelling characters of this World Cup. The 6ft 6in defender is articulate, charismatic and unafraid to voice controversial opinions.parreira595.jpg
Parreira has transformed South Africa's fortunes since taking over last October

He has already spoken out about the lack of funding in South Africa for football, a predominantly black sport, compared to the traditionally white sports of rugby and cricket.

So the 33-year-old, who was born in the white, middle-class suburb of Fish Hoek, on the outskirts of Cape Town, has become a hero of the townships.

Booth, who is married to the Soweto-born supermodel Sonnia Bonneventia, has become one of the figureheads of this World Cup, taking part in the draw in Cape Town last December and doing numerous interviews with broadcasters from around the world.

It's a potentially wonderful World Cup story but for one, rather large problem - Booth isn't actually in the team at the moment.

Parreira has preferred Aaron Mokoena and Bongani Khumalo in central defence in Bafana's last few matches and is understandably reluctant to change a winning team.

"It doesn't look good for me," Booth admitted, "but I'm not putting my head down, I'm continuing to fight at training and show Mr Parreira that I want a place in the team.

"Who knows what will happen? I've just got to make sure I'm ready for any eventuality."
Booth is desperate to sample the atmosphere of Soccer City again, after getting a taster in the 2-1 win over Colombia in May.

"We were playing in front of 80,000 fans and the atmosphere was electric," he remembers.
"In my opinion it's the world's greatest stadium - it's brand spanking new, is a brilliant design and the atmosphere generated in that melting pot, the calabash, is awesome.

"You've just got to be there to witness it for yourself and I hope a lot of visiting fans get to do just that."

The stadium drips with symbolism. It's situated on the edge of Africa's most famous township, Soweto, and is built on the site of the old FNB Stadium, where Mandela made his homecoming speech in 1990,

The shape and panelled exterior of the stadium is designed to resemble a calabash, a traditional African cooking bowl, the pitch sinks into the ground, apparently evoking an open cast mine, and the players' tunnel is a replica of one of the mine shafts that used to dot this area of Johannesburg.

Booth is convinced Bafana have stars worthy of this historic stadium.

"Everyone knows about Steven Pienaar and I'm sure he can carry his Premier League form into the game and the tournament," he says.

"Then there's Teko Modise, our talented playmaker, who is looking very dangerous, and our keeper, Itumeleng Khune, who is in great form."

Now South Africa is just hoping the players can live up to the scale of the occasion come kick off on Friday.

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