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GREAT EXPECTATIONS

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Bafana Bafana and Mexico get the World Cup ball rolling as a nation holds its breath
With the opening match of the World Cup between hosts Bafana Bafana and Mexico just days away, the excitement has reached dizzying heights for football fanatics.
Six African representatives will contest the first World Cup to be staged on the continent, and although most local fans will be behind our neighbours, Bafana Bafana will have their work cut out for them if they are to progress to the knockout stages.
Carlos Alberto Pereira’s charges need to make an extra ordinary escape from Group A. After their tournament opener against the Central Americans, South Africa face France and Uruguay as they bid to avoid becoming the first hosts to miss out on qualifying for the second round.
South Africa needs to collect maximum points from their first game to keep millions of its supporters happy and coming to the stadia. Though their opponents did not have an easy ride in qualifying for the World Cup, they do have enough experience and depth to silence tens of thousands of vuvuzelas that threaten to do lasting damage to eardrums around the country.
Against France, the 3-0 drubbing handed by hosts in 1998 will still be fresh in the minds of South African fans. Revenge will be all the more sweet should Bafana Bafana do it on home soil against the unconvincing
French side.
Raymond Domenech’s side had a bumpy road in the qualifiers only reaching the 2010 finals through the European play-offs thanks to a
controversial goal, some called it cheating that cruelly knocked out the Republic of Ireland.
Their other opponents Uruguay also qualified via a play-off, in a grueling transcontinental affair against Costa Rica. They will be playing in their eleventh World Cup tournament and will be hoping to improve on their previous performance. The team has assembled a relatively young squad and players that could take the South Americans to the promised land are Diego Forlán and Diego Lugano.
South Africa had done little to inspire confidence, despite the weight of expectation as hosts. First the country failed to qualify for the African Nations Cup in Angola, at one stage going nine matches without a single win under the fired Brazilian Coach Joel Santana.
But after roping in experienced Parreira their performances have showed signs of improvement, and with Mondays 5-0 victory over Guatemala, on top of last week’s 2-1 victory over Columbia, they have now gone 11 games unbeaten.
The clash between Bafana Bafana and Denmark today will be used as a barometer to determine the extent of that improvement.
England based midfielder Stephen Pienaar is expected to turn it on for his side, and in form striker Katlego Mphela will have to be at his best if he is to make an impact against well organized defences. The team will also need all the experience of defender Aaron Mokoena of English side Portsmouth, who became the first South African to reach 100 caps in the game against Guatemala.
Clearly France is favourites to make it out of this group, despite their initial unimpressive form. The top two teams from the eight groups will make it to the next phase, and with experienced players like William Gallas, Frank Ribery, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry, Les Bleus as France is affectionately known, are expected to take one of the places.
Mexico has managed to bring together a group of exciting players like
Giovanni dos Santos, Rafael Márquez and Carlos Vela, who on a good day can tear any team apart. They finished second in their qualifying campaign in CONCACAF behind USA.
How they cope with the mass national hysteria inside a packed Soccer City will say much about their character and determination.

Benni Mcarthy

McCarthy axed from final line-up
West Ham United striker Benni McCarthy has been dropped from South Africa’s World Cup squad by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.
The shock decision to axe the country’s record goal scorer from the final 23-man squad follows criticism in South Africa concerning his weight and general fitness.
McCarthy is one of five players cut from the tournament hosts’ squad, but Fulham’s Kagisho Dikgacoi, Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar and Portsmouth defender Aaron Mokoena were all selected and will be in contention to start South Africa’s opening game against Mexico on 11 June.
Parreira, who led Brazil to World Cup glory in 1994, sympathised with the five players left out but refused to comment directly on McCarthy.
“My heart bleeds for them,” Parreira told a news conference in Johannesburg. “I am not going to talk about individuals who did not make the final squad. We applied five principles when making our choices.
“This is not the end for the five footballers whose dreams I have cut short. There will be other opportunities to play for the national team.
“It was a sad thing to have to split apart our family, but I told them put your heads up. Life goes on. All of you deserve to be here.
“Unfortunately, we have to obey FIFA rules and we can only name 23 but thank you very much for your efforts, your attitude and commitment.” The 32-year-old’s omission looks certain to bring an end to his turbulent 79-cap international career. The former Blackburn striker played at the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals but had a difficult relationship with the national side, twice retiring from international football when it conflicted with his club career in Europe.