JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa will be trying to raise the profile of soccer at home while Mexico will want to spoil the party when the teams meet today in the World Cup’s opening game (CBC, 7:45 a.m.).
In a nation where most of its international sports’ success has been at rugby union and cricket, South Africa coach Carlo Alberto Parreira is out to lift the image of the sport played by the vast majority of the population.
South Africa is on a 12-game unbeaten run in friendlies under the 1994 World Cup-winning coach for Brazil. He said Thursday his goal is to bring integrity to a team which had lost eight out of nine games before he returned to the job a year ago.
“We want to make this country proud and we are going to give hell to any team we play,” Parreira said. “In this country, football has been sleeping for many years. Then suddenly there was a ray of hope with the good performance of the team, the good preparation, the World Cup coming here for the first time.
“If I am to do something for the team, it is to give them identity, a belief that South Africa plays with technique and skill. The players are encouraged to play and have fun, to do a few tricks and enjoy themselves, like we did with Brazil.”
Parreira described the attack-minded Mexicans as “the most daring team at the World Cup,” but he and captain Aaron Mokoena believe they can win before taking on former champions Uruguay and France in other Group A games.
“We very badly need to win the game. The moment of truth has arrived,” Mokoena said. “There’s been a lot of talking. Now it about getting on the field and making our country proud. That’s what we are up for.”
Parreira selected the same starting lineup that beat World Cup qualifier Denmark 1-0 in its last warmup game on Saturday.
“Tomorrow, as much as the pressure is big, it’s a World Cup game — it’s sort of a war,” Parreira said. “Opening game is are always a difficult game. There is a lot of pressure, the whole country is involved and you are playing under the eyes of millions of people around the world. I know it’s not easy to enjoy the game when you play a team as good as Mexico. They are the most daring team in this World Cup, the way they approach the game.”
South Africa is set to field Katlego Mphela as its lone striker supported by Steven Pienaar in a five-man midfield, while the Mexicans are likely to field three forwards,
That should include Carlos Vela and Guillermo Franco, who has recovered from a right foot injury. But Javier Hernandez, who has joined Manchester United, may be on the bench even though he has scored three times in four warmup games.
“We have spent 60 days together. We have our players from Europe come to the team now and we feel very confident that tomorrow is going to be a great day for Mexico,” coach Javier Aguirre said. “I think it’s going to be a beautiful game and a beautiful party.”
Mexico has won eight of its last 12 games, losing twice, and Aguirre has lifted the confidence of a team which appeared demoralized under former coach Sven-Goran Eriksson amid fears it might not qualify.
“I don’t know what Eriksson did but what I do know was that the team was demotivated,” Aguirre said. “They lost their energy. There was a lot of quarreling in the Mexican nation and the leadership issue was hindering their play.”
Mexico has only two quarter-final appearances to show for 13 previous appearances, twice as host.
“Now I see hunger,” Aguirre said. “They want to write a chapter in history, right from the first day.”