Cape Town – Its national team may have slipped to sixth in
the current world rankings, but Brazil nevertheless remains indisputably the
sexiest name in world football.
The South American country stages its second World Cup and
first in 64 years in 2014 – it is hard to believe we are almost two years on now
from South Africa 2010 – and Bafana Bafana will be as keen as any other nation
(even if “capable” remains subject to infinitely more doubt) to be part of the heady,
carnival cocktail of samba, beach sand and the biggest soccer show on earth.
Afforded the luxury of automatic qualification as hosts in
2010, it is back to the reality of a gruelling and sometimes unglamorous
qualifying process for South Africa: their nervous first step on the road to
Brazil is taken at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg on Sunday (15:00) when
they play Ethiopia in African second-round qualifying Group A.
Ten groups of four teams are involved in this process, with
the top finishers in each moving to a third round, to be confirmed after this
one is completed.
Five slots will be available for African teams in Brazil -- with
South Africa, of course, far from shoe-ins as 13 continental rivals lie ahead
of them as things stand on the FIFA pecking order.
Still, Bafana are the relative “giants” of their own group,
one which sees them lock horns, home and away, with each of Botswana, Central
African Republic and the Ethiopians, until the group fate is decided by early
September next year as they round off at home once more, against Botswana.
South Africa are seeking to make the cut for what would be
their fourth World Cup, since making their debut in the post-isolation
afterglow at France ’98.
Pitso Mosimane’s charges certainly start, on paper at any
rate, with the easiest fixture of the six: entertaining an Ethiopian side 71
places below their own ho-hum current global ranking of 67th.
And while you might argue that Bafana should duly triumph in
this one in the manner you would expect the Springboks to against, say, Canada
or the Proteas in a one-dayer against Ireland, national soccer sentiment
remains fragile enough – considering the team’s backward lurch since the
promise of World Cup 2010 – not to take anything for granted.
Ethiopia are placed 138th on the planet –
sandwiched between Kazakhstan and Puerto Rico, for the record -- and are the
one side in the group to have come out of a minnow-based first round of
qualifying, where they saw off Somalia 5-0 over two legs.
Their players are overwhelmingly home- or at the very least
Africa-based, one exception being the striker Fikru-Tefera Lemessa, who has had
a stint with SuperSport United and currently earns his bread and butter for
Thanh Hoa in Vietnam’s not hugely illustrious V-League.
So if South Africa somehow slip and fall in this one, it
will have been off a banana peel of some magnitude.
Botswana and Central African Republic, who also earned
automatic qualification for the second round, ought to be slightly tougher nuts
to crack – especially away – but at 106th and 123rd
respectively on the rankings, should also be seen off by a Bafana side at least
boasting some representatives of bigger-fish clubs like Tottenham, Everton and
Ajax Amsterdam as well as many more from the domestic elite of Kaizer Chiefs,
Orlando Pirates and others.
Travelling to Botswana, especially, partly bordered as it is
by South Africa, will be a pretty straightforward exercise for Bafana when they
tackle the Zebras in Gaborone on June 9 in their first away assignment, although
the fixture against the “Wild Beasts” of Central African Republic in their
Bangui stronghold almost exactly a year on shapes up as one of those uniquely
testing, virgin experiences in the sweltering equatorial regions of the
South Africa will probably hope to have built a fair old
head of steam in the group by then ...
This is Bafana’s
Group A programme:
June 3: Ethiopia (home)
June 9: Botswana (away)
March 22, 2013: Central African Republic (home)
June 7, 2013: Central African Republic (away)
June 14, 2013: Ethiopia (away)
September 6, 2013: Botswana (home).
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