SA on voyage of discovery
Johannesburg - South Africa embark on a voyage of discovery Friday when they confront Mexico at Soccer City in the opening 2010 Soccer World Cup match.
The hosts and outsiders in a group completed by France and Uruguay have not played competitively for a year and while a 12-match unbeaten run sounds intimidating, many opponents were international featherweights.
As Bafana Bafana (isiZulu for The Boys) were outclassing lowly Thailand and Guatemala, Mexico tackled much stiffer warm-up opposition in the shape of England, Netherlands and World Cup defending champions Italy.
Avoiding defeat since Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira returned for a second spell in charge last November is obviously good for morale and there is a genuine sense that squad spirits have gone into orbit.
When critics point to the weak opposition Bafana faced, Parreira counters by saying record five-time champions Brazil took on modest African opponents Zimbabwe and Tanzania in their final tune-ups.
Parreria will create history Friday by becoming the first man to coach at six World Cup tournaments and he oozes confidence ahead of the fourth meeting of the countries with Mexico winning two and losing the other.
He insists at every news conference in a swanky northern suburbs hotel and after many training sessions at a ground on the fringe of the less palatial Johannesburg central business district that Bafana are ready.
The coach also seems to be clear as to who will carry the hopes of a nation that has appeared at two previous tournaments with just a narrow victory over Slovenia in South Korea to celebrate.
Itumeleng Khune, fully recovered from an injury sustained in a brusing win over Colombia, will be the goalkeeper behind a back four of Siboniso Gaxa, captain Aaron Mokoena, Bongani Khumalo and Tsepo Masilela.
Parreira is sure to stick with five midfielders and Teko Modise, Reneilwe Letsholonyane, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Steven Pienaar are certain starters while Kagisho Dikgacoi and Thanduyise Khuboni jostle for the other spot.
Katlego Mphela will be the lone striker, an unaccustomed role for a South African-based footballer but one he is adapting to judged by six goals in five World Cup warm-ups.
The biggest fears concern central defence where Mokoena from relegated English Premiership outfit Portsmouth is prone to conceding free kicks and Colombia exposed shortcomings in pace and positional sense.
And two goals against Colombia - both from penalties - and one each against Bulgaria and fellow qualifiers Bulgaria deomonstrates that clearcut scoring opportunities are not in abundance.
Mexico have reached the last-16 at the last four World Cup tournaments and coach Javier Aguirre has set a second-round place as the minimum requirement for his squad of 14 local-based stars and nine from around Europe.
Guillermo Ochoa appears the likely goalkeeper with Efrain Juarez, Ricardo Osorio, captain Rafael Marquez and and Carlos Salcido a possible 'El Tri' back four.
Aguirre, who salvaged a qualification campaign on the verge of derailment under the stewardship of Sweden-born former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, also prefers a 4-5-1 system.
And the Mexican midfielders in what could be a densely populated area of the Soccer City pitch may be Giovani dos Santos, Israel Castro, Guillermo Franco, Gerardo Torrado and Andres Guardado.
Manchester United-bound Javier Hernandez looks a strong candidate for the lone-striker role in a team packed with talented individuals who do not always sing from the same sheet.
Key to Match
Itumeleng Khune (RSA) v Guillermo Ochoa (MEX)
The opening World Cup match is often a tight affair offering few scoring opportunities to ultra-cautious rivals. Khune is set to become a goalkeeping giant, but wears a work-in-progress tag. Despite an imposing physique, the South African can struggle with crosses. A strength is his shot-stopping ability. Although Ocha ranks among the leading goalkeepers in the Americas, he struggled at times during an intense warm-up schedule.