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South Africa home not just to World Cup but a troubled team

The host country's national squad has lost seven of its last eight games. Will FIFA give it a boost?

October 11, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES | ON SOCCER

What sort of World Cup can we look forward to next year?

One that will be played in winter, for sure, with cold temperatures and rain making a stark contrast to the sunny summer of Germany '06.

One that will see the host nation, South Africa, struggle on the field unless FIFA, which is not beyond such shenanigans, fiddles the Dec. 4 draw in Cape Town and places the Bafana Bafana (the Boys) in a relatively easy group.

One that, Spain notwithstanding, almost assuredly will be won by a previous winner. Brazil, England, Germany and Italy already have booked their places in the June 11-July 11 tournament, while Argentina, France and Uruguay remain within striking distance.

Meanwhile, concern over whether the South African organizers will be ready in time is slowly evaporating and is being replaced by worries over the South African team itself.

"It's very, very important that we do well on the pitch," Aaron Mokoena, the team's captain, told Reuters last week. "It wouldn't make sense to host the World Cup and to have a struggling team."

But that is precisely what South Africa has at the moment. Its latest setback was a 1-0 loss to Norway in a friendly in Oslo on Saturday. That was the team's seventh loss in its last eight games, the only victory an unimpressive 1-0 win over lowly Madagascar.

"We have to start winning games now," Mokoena said in Oslo before Saturday's match.

So worried is the South African soccer federation about the possibility of being embarrassed in front of the world that Kirsten Nematandani, the federation's president, has called on three local coaches to "assess" South Africa's Brazilian coach, Joel Santana, and his players.

Since the trio includes former national team coaches Jomo Sono (who played for the New York Cosmos way back when) and Clive Barker, it is quite possible that Santana's days are numbered. His reign might end after South Africa, ranked 73rd in the world, plays Iceland in Reykjavik on Tuesday.

"We have not made any judgments yet," Nematandani said, "but we need to get Bafana back to their winning ways and fast."

Santana remained unperturbed.

"I am not afraid," he said Saturday. "These are training matches and the bigger picture is the World Cup."

The draw is key

When the 32 World Cup participants finally are all determined on Nov. 14, the next -- and probably most -- meaningful step is the division of the teams into eight groups of four for first-round play.

That takes place at the tip of the African continent on Dec. 4, and seeding comes very much into play. Which names go into which pots invariably decides a team's fate.

As matters stand, and assuming that Argentina and France qualify, these likely would be the eight top-seeded teams: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Africa.

The South Africans get top billing as host and thus benefit by not having to play one of the real powers in the first round.

That is supposed to guarantee passage to at least the round of 16, but FIFA is going to have to provide a lot more help than that if the Bafana Bafana are not going to look more like the Buffoona Buffoona.

What they said

Saturday marked a significant milestone on the road to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but beyond the day's results there were the remarks.

What follows is a selection of comments from coaches and players both before and after Saturday's matches:

"It would be an error to play for a draw."

-- Italy Coach Marcello Lippi, before a 90th-minute goal in Dublin had secured the defending world champion a fortunate 2-2 tie with Ireland and qualified it for yet another World Cup.

"It's not a done deal. The players mustn't turn up like a bunch of tourists, saying, 'We've won, no problem.' "

-- France Coach Raymond Domenech before his team's 5-0 demolition of the Faroe Islands in Paris.

"I want to play a great game against Argentina and go down in history, like the bad guys in the movies, for eliminating a great team."

-- Peru's captain, Nolberto Solano, before the luckless Peruvians were felled, 2-1, by an injury-time goal in Buenos Aires.

"I saw how [Diego] Maradona publicly asked for God's help. The pressure is almost inhuman."

Germany's former World Cup-winning player and coach Franz Beckenbauer, talking about the strain on Argentina's coach.

"No team in the world can play for a draw, and that certainly includes us."

-- Germany Coach Joachim Loew after Germany had shut out Russia, 1-0, in Moscow to book its ticket to South Africa.

"When we came to the stadium, I saw the supporters being checked. Clearly, they did not check enough."

-- England Coach Fabio Capello, on the flares that were thrown onto the field and stopped play in Ukraine's 1-0 upset of already-qualified England.

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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