Mphela out to end goal drought
Johannesburg - Katlego Mphela hopes to get back on the goal trail when hosts South Africa launch their World Cup countdown Sunday against lowly Thailand at tournament venue Nelspruit.
Lucky to win a place in the Confederations Cup squad last June, the Mamelodi Sundowns star made his first appearance as a substitute against Spain in the third-place play-off and scored twice.
Although Spain snatched an extra-time victory, Mphela had the consolation of scoring the goal of the tournament off a long-range free kick that proved too hot even for world-class goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
More goals followed in friendlies against Serbia and Madagascar and South African supporters dreamt that a successor to problematic Benni McCarthy had been unearthed.
But a long-standing South African inability to score heightened with just seven goals in as many friendlies against largely modest opponents since Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira took charge last November.
And Birmingham City-linked Mphela lost his predatory touch, managing to put the ball in the net just once to salvage a 1-1 draw at home against southern Africa neighbours Namibia.
The powerfully built 25-year-old, who is expected to make the starting line-up when South Africa tackle Mexico in the June 11 World Cup opener, believes the drought can end against the Asians.
"Thailand are not that strong and this game offers a good chance for me to start scoring again," he said ahead of a warm-up to be watched by a sell-out 30,000 crowd at Mbombela Stadium.
Anxious after the World Cup first-round draw pitted Bafana Bafana against former champions France and Uruguay and street-wise Mexico, home supporters hope Mphela can deliver after so many false promises from the side.
Thailand may be ranked only 105 in the world, but that is one place higher than World Cup qualifiers North Korea, who forced a 0-0 draw against South Africa in Germany last month without great difficulty.
Parreira claims he will field most of the starting line-up from a 2-0 win over ill-prepared Jamaica in another Germany friendly, meaning no place for McCarthy, whose 32 international goals is a South African record.
A hot-and-cold relationship with officials has seen the player in and out of the national team and he ended an injury-marred season at English Premiership clubs Blackburn and West Ham overweight and unfit.
"Benni has not had much game time since joining West Ham last January owing to injuries and is not ready. I am prepared to get him fit by June 11, but he also has to show the desire to get into shape," stressed Parreira.
Thailand are coached by former Manchester United and England midfield ace Bryan Robson, who is trying to stem a flow of defeats having fallen at home against Poland and Denmark and in Iran since mid-January.
Tranquil Nelspruit near the world famous Kruger National Park was in danger of being scratched from the nine-city World Cup venue list as it battled to create a pitch befitting the most watched global sport event.
But Republic of Ireland-born expert Richard Hayden was hired and transformed a lunar-like surface into a green 'jewel' he predicts will be among the best in the world when the carnival arrives on June 16 with Chile playing Honduras.