World Cup opening games are typically nervy affairs, with a host nation nervous under the weight of national expectation and an opponent intimidated by the atmosphere, but this was not the case here. South Africa and Mexico shared the points after a compelling encounter finished 1-1.
The main South African contribution to the first half came from the crowd or, more specifically, their vuvuzelas. Complaints are understandable but we are all just going to have to get used to it; there will be locals at every game and it’s surely only a matter of time before visiting fans decide that they might as well just join in.
Mexico had the bulk of possession early on and should have scored as early as the second minute, Giovani Dos Santos finding himself through on goal only for Aaron Mokoena to block his shot at the expense of a corner. Giovani, back on Tottenham’s books after loan spells at Ipswich Town and Galatasaray, was at the heart of much of Mexico’s good early work. He would soon come close again, beating two defenders on a run that started in the centre circle and ended with a sliced drive that sailed just wide of the upright.
Arsenal’s Carlos Vela, another of the current generation of highly-regarded Mexican youth had a busy first half too, putting Guillermo Franco through on goal. The striker, recently released by West Ham, controlled the ball beautifully but his shot had little power, South Africa goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune given just enough time to make one of several important saves. Shortly after Franco returned the favour, Vela sent clear down the right, wasting a good chance with a mis-hit shot.
Vela soon had the ball in the net, the goal disallowed by the referee’s assistant correctly spotting that Khune had come far enough off his line to play the Arsenal midfielder offside as he tapped in from six yards.
It was all Mexico. South Africa had been slow to put pressure on the Mexicans in possession, and looked uncomfortable when in it themselves. In the five minutes before half time they seemed to wake up, possibly fearing a dressing-room dressing-down from Brazilian manager Carlos Parreira. Suddenly they started to move the ball around and forced three corners. Perez flapped at the first and missed. The second hit the first man. Kagisho Dikgacoi of Fulham won his header from the third but it sailed over the bar. Never mind: South Africa went into half-time with the wind at their backs, Mexico disappointed in knowing they should have had the lead.
South Africa came out in the second half a team transformed. Masilela replaced Thwala in defence but it was in midfield that things came together. Siphewele Tshabalala did for South Africa what Giovani had done for Mexico, getting involved in everything, showing a fine touch and range of passing. A turn and run down the left flank ended in a fiercely whipped cross for which veteran Carlos Salcido was at full stretch to head clear. Their passing was smarter, snappier. When Mexico had the ball they were closed down quickly and aggressively.
Within minutes Tshabalala would put his side ahead, getting onto the end of a through ball before blasting a shot across Perez right into the top corner. The crowd reaction was predictable – vuvuzela volume up to 11 – the five-man line dance celebration rather less so. World Cup 2010 had its first goal, its hosts did too, and a memorable one it was too.
The onus then was on Mexico to attack and South Africa were happy to let it happen and then hit them on the break. Giovani went close again, with a well-struck shot that was destined for the top corner before Khune tipped it round the post.
Vela had faded badly and was replaced by the 37-year-old Cuauhtémoc Blanco, at his third world cup finals. Blanco was recalled to the international team by coach Javier Aguirre, and played a significant part in qualifying. Shortly after the disappointing Franco was replaced by Javier Hernandez, recently signed by Manchester United. But still South Africa looked comfortable enough in defence and a constant danger on the break.
Eleven minutes from time Mexico somehow found themselves with three men attacking a cross against one defender. The ball fell to Rafa Marquez who had so many options the keeper never stood a chance. He rifled past Khune and for the briefest of moments the vuvuzelas fell silent.
Both teams seemed happy enough with the prospect of a draw after that, but South Africa continued to have a go and hearts met mouths when Katlego Mphela beat his man for pace then clipped a shot off the foot of the post. Both teams will feel they did enough to win a game in a group that looks likely to be decided by the finest of margins. A draw, though, was probably a fair result.
South Africa: Khune, Gaxa, Mokoena (c),Thwala (Masilela 45), Khumalo, Tshabalala, Pienaar (Parker 83), Modise, Letsholonyane, Dikgacoi, Mphela.
Booked: Thwala, Dikgacoi.
Goals: Tshabalala 55
Mexico: Perez, Rodriguez, Salcido, Marquez, Osorio, Aguilar (Guardado 56), Juarez, Torrado (c), Franco (Hernandez 73), Vela (Blanco 69), Giovani.
Booked: Torrado, Juarez.
Goals: Marquez 79