Johannesburg: South Africa and Mexico drew 1-1 in an outstanding opening match as Africa’s first World Cup began on an unforgettable day of passion, emotion and drama in front of almost 85,000 fans at Soccer City on Friday.
The hugely entertaining Group A spectacle featured an outstanding opening goal from South Africa midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala, which will surely be among the best goals of the tournament no matter what else happens in the next month.
It ended all-square when Mexico’s 31-year-old Rafael Marquez showed his younger colleagues how it should be done when he punished some poor defending 11 minutes from time.
“The draw was a fair result. I think this group is very tough. The team that gets four points will qualify,” said South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. “I praised my team. We could have won the game but the result was fair.
Mexico coach Javier Aguirre added: “Their goal changed the match a lot. I wouldnt say we got nervous but a little bit anxious. We tried to change our play and we managed to draw but it wasnt enough. We have to praise our opponents.”
Despite the hosts failing to win, the whole occasion, which began with a lively opening ceremony, lifted the spirits for millions, saddened by the death of 13-year-old Zenani Mandela, the great grand-daughter of former president Nelson Mandela who was killed in a car crash on Thursday night.
Mandela, 91, cancelled plans to attend the match which began after opening addresses from FIFA president Sepp Blatter and South Africa president Jacob Zuma who declared the finals open.
South Africa’s players, though, were clearly struck by stage-fright which was hardly surprising given the emotional build-up to the match and the expectations of the crowd.
They created so much noise with their vuvuzela trumpets that they almost drowned out the sound of engines from the flypast made by South African Air Force jets before the kickoff.
Within two minutes of kickoff, Mexico began to assert their authority when South Africa keeper Itumeleng Khune spilt a cross into the path of Giovani dos Santos, whose shot was deflected away for a corner by home captain Aaron Mokoena.
Mexico maintained control for much of the first half with the lively Dos Santos running the midfield and setting up chances for himself, Guillermo Franco and Carlos Vela as South Africa were forced onto the back foot.
While Franco and Vela saw shots go over the bar, Mexico did have the ball in the net after 37 minutes but Vela was ruled narrowly offside after pouncing on a header from Franco and forcing the ball over the line.
That incident, though, seemed to settle the Bafana Bafana’s nerves.
South Africa, who had begun to find some rhythm late in the first half when a cross from Tshabalala narrowly eluded Katlego Mphela and they came out for the second having remembered they had gone 12 matches without defeat under Parreira.
With Steven Pienaar exerting more influence in midfield and Mexico unable to retain control, there were no arguments about South Africa taking the lead with Tshabalala’s stunning left-foot shot flying past Oscar Perez high into the Mexico net.
Five minutes later Khune denied Dos Santos with a superb save at the other end but just when it seemed South Africa had done enough to gain a valuable victory, Marquez punished some poor defending with the equaliser.
Mphela nearly won the game for South Africa a minute from time when his low angled shot hit the outside of the post but ultimately the first drawn World Cup opener since 1986 was, as both coaches later agreed, a fair result.