IT WASN'T quite the miracle that South Africans had prayed for, but it was a mini-miracle all the same. Their team, ranked just 83rd by Fifa, the world football federation, succeeded in defeating France, ranked 9th, 2-1 in one of the most exciting matches so far in the 2010 World Cup. But the victory was not enough to prevent South Africa from being knocked out of the tournament, making it the first host nation in the 80-year history of the World Cup to fail to make it through to the second round.
Bafana Bafana, the South African team, can nevertheless go out with their heads held high. Unlike their terrible match against Uruguay six days ago, they played a gutsy energetic game, scoring the first goal 22 minutes into the first half and a second one after 39 minutes. Minutes later, the crowd went wild when it looked as if Bafana Bafana had scored a third time only for the goal to be declared off-side. But the fans' spirits were lifted again when news came through just before half-time that Uruguay, in the same group as South Africa, had scored the first goal in its match against Mexico.
A Uruguay victory was essential for South Africa to stand any chance of making it through to the second round. And the bigger Uruguay’s lead, the greater South Africa’s chances. At one point, the dream seemed almost possible. But France, though reduced to ten men after a red card, managed in the second half to lift itself out of its lethargy, scoring its first and only goal after 69 minutes of play. And Bafana Bafana, while taking several more shots at the goal, never managed to score again.
A terrible feud in the French team in the run-up to the match had given South Africa, plunged into the doldrums following its team’s terrible performance against Uruguay on June 16th, a glimmer of hope that a miracle might just be possible. Nicolas Anelka had been expelled from the team and sent home after swearing at France’s unpopular coach, Raymond Domenech, prompting the rest of the team to refuse to take part in Sunday’s training session. By way of punishment, several of the protesters, including the captain, Patrice Evra, were not selected to play in today’s match. So it was a thoroughly disheartened and unmotivated French team that met the South African underdogs. But the French performance has been pretty dismal throughout the tournament from which they, too, have now been knocked out. Mr Domenech had already announced his resignation, to the undisguised joy of most of his fellow countrymen.
South Africa’s leaders had been preparing the nation for worst. “The success of the World Cup is our success,” President Jacob Zuma declared the day before the critical match: “As a country and continent, we have already won…no one can take that feeling and pride away from us.” And no one will. As for Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Africa’s (Brazilian) coach, it looks as if he’s for the high jump, too.