SA falls in love with Bafana
Bafana Fan (Gallo)
Johannesburg - South Africa has fallen in love with Bafana Bafana again and that could spell trouble for World Cup rivals Mexico, Uruguay and France next month.
A couple of years ago, national football association officials never even considered Johannesburg when it came to allocating venues for competitive or friendly fixtures.
The economic capital of the country had divorced Bafana - Boys in isiZulu - after the gradual decline of the national team from African champions to also rans who failed to even qualify for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.
Had the South African Football Association dare chosen a Johannesburg venue they knew the consequences - a couple of thousand die-hard fans dotted around a large stadium and a morgue-like atmosphere.
Fast forward to Thursday night and a sell-out 75,000 crowd at a rebuilt Soccer City stadium roared Bafana to a lucky but timely 2-1 victory over Colombia in the latest World Cup warm-up.
A lot of the football was mediocre, some ugly, all three goals came from controversy-shrouded penalties, and nervous Bafana were hanging on at the end with substitute goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs producing several fine saves.
It did not matter. South Africa had won. The football fever level had risen another few notches and even traffic chaos around the venue that will stage the June 11 opening match and July 11 final could not dampen spirits.
The chilly pre-winter air that gives South African dress sense a Siberian touch was getting no one down - Bafana were winning and the World Cup could not come fast enough.
But are South African followers getting ahead of themselves? Is the euphoria based on hope or reality? Will it all end in tears when the real action begins with South Africa and much more experienced Mexico raising the curtain?
A 10-match unbeaten warm-up run since Brazil World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira returned last November for a second spell in charge seems impressive after Bafana had lost eight of the nine previous games.
But take note of the opponents - Japan, Jamaica (twice), Zimbabwe, Namibia, Paraguay, North Korea, Thailand, Bulgaria, Colombia - and seven of the matches were staged in South Africa.
Only Japan and Paraguay have qualified for the World Cup, Paraguay were the highest ranked at 31, and North Korea, Thailand, Namibia and Zimbabwe do not even crack the top 100 in the monthly FIFA order of merit.
Is this the right preparation for France midfielder Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich, Uruguay striker Diego Forlan from Atletico Madrid and Manchester United-bound Mexico striker Javier Hernandez?
Parreira points to record five-time world champions Brazil, who have opted for Zimbabwe on June 2 in Harare and fellow African middleweights Tanzania on June 7 in Dar es Salaam as pre-tournament opponents.
Central Americans minnows Guatemala next Monday in Polokwane and World Cup qualifiers Denmark on June 5 in Pretoria complete the warm-up schedule and then come street-wise Mexico, second-round qualifiers in the last four tournaments.
While friendly victories are good for morale, they can be deceptive, and there is a sense that wily old fox Parreira is holding a little back as he gives his foreign-based contingent limited game time.
Central defence is problematic with captain Aaron Mokoena often the culprit, who is deployed in midfield with talisman Steven Pienaar remains uncertain, and oh how Bafana could do with a Forlan up front.
But although natural bookmakers' outsiders in the company of top-20 rivals France, Mexico and Uruguay, many South African doubters now believe a second-round place is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
The hosts may be short of high-profile footballers, but the effect of some inspirational words from former president Nelson Mandela and 90,000 supporters blowing plastic vuvuzela trumpets could make a world of difference.