Siphiwe Tshabalala. A commentator’s nightmare turned national hero, if only for twenty-four minutes.
After soaking up a first half of Mexico’s own brand of quick, free-flowing football, the 25 year-old Sowetan ignited the first World Cup on African soil with the kind of goal that will live in infamy. Rafael Marquez’s 78th-minute equaliser spoiled the party, but Bafana Bafana succeeded in halting any talk of a first whitewash for a host nation.
Mexico began positively, utilising pace from their wing-backs of Paul Nicolás Aguilar and Carlos Salcido well, regularly overlapping a bounding partnership of Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela. This, as well as a hint of indiscipline from South Africa around the box, enabled the Mexicans to supply Guillermo Franco with an embarrassment of riches in front of goal; all of which were wasted. However, Mexico’s defensive troubles began when their adventurous wing-backs failed to respond to the South African counter, leaving acres of space in wide areas for Bafana Bafana’s own marauding full-back Siboniso Gaxa to run into. Coupled with Mexico’s own goal-hero Marquez being caught out in his defensive role, became the catalyst for Tshabalala’s goal; a soaring through ball finding the Kaizer Chiefs attacker from distance, before an absolute rocket of a shot giving South Africa a lead they could only dream of for much of the first half.
Future Manchester United youngster Javier Hernandez and the worrying unfit and seemingly overweight veteran Blanco were brought in by Mexico to ignite the search for a goal. However, this only resulted in a similar pattern to the first half, with Mexico holding onto the ball for long periods of time with very little spark at the top end of the pitch, mainly due to Blanco’s complete inability to chase anything in wide areas. The more-organised defensive systems of France or Uruguay would have held out the Mexicans, but Bafana Bafana finally crumbled to one of a multitude of set pieces swung into the box.
The blame for Mexico’s equaliser can be laid solely on an indisciplined offside trap, allowing Marquez (as well as three or four others) to drift into several yards of space, metres from goal, and score a leveller from close-range. The vuvuzelas quietened, and a shock opening victory for the African nation was denied. Katlego Mphela struck the post late on with a shot that could have spawned another World Cup hero, but for now the hosts will have to make do with a point that some pundits believed was beyond them. For the rest of us, a breathless opener to the tournament, and should many of the games in the coming month be as entertaining, we will be blessed with a glorious tournament.