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Stephen Brunt

Sounds of joy ring through South Africa Add to ...

It was a glorious moment, for the team, for this country, and even if that's as good as it gets, the sound and the sense will live on in memory.



The perfect, angled pass from Teko Modise that set Siphiwe Tshabalala free, a half step clear of the lone Mexican defender. The shot, flawless, struck in full stride, cross goal from his left foot into the top right corner, unstoppable by any keeper. And then the roar: The vuvuzelas suddenly hitting a new amplitude, and high above that drone, in Soccer City and you knew everywhere in this country, a great collective exultation, the sound of joy.



Not enough, it turned out, for a historic victory, but at least enough for a historic 1-1 draw in the opening match of the first World Cup game ever played on the African continent.



South Africa will take it. They will absolutely take it.



Bafana Bafana had seemed intimidated at the start on Friday afternoon, overwhelmed by the scene and their starring role in it, and who could blame them a bit? All of those years knowing as the host, they would be automatic participants, and standard-bearers, and symbols - and of knowing all of that would seem pretty much beside the point if they couldn't get a result. Home teams in World Cups are supposed to overachieve, but the consensus was there had never been one as weak as this.



Next the draw - a tough one - and the rigorous training under Carlos Alberto Parreira, and the surprisingly strong series of performances leading up to the tournament, which sent the expectation meters here crazily into the red. Anyone who went on local television over the past few days and suggested South Africa would do anything less than win a quarter-final seemed like a piker - wild talk considering their real place in the football food chain.



The crowd in the stadium and on the streets, the speeches from FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, the nod to the absent Nelson Mandela, the anthem, all heavy, heavy stuff. Not to mention that standing at the other end of the pitch was a very good side from Mexico, with its own pressures, its own expectations, but in this context mere supporting players.



For the first 40 minutes it was a mismatch. Mexico probed patiently, controlled the pace, seemed to be setting up an inevitable first goal, while the South Africans couldn't make the simplest of passes and mostly sat back in their own half of the field, as though they knew what was coming and were terrified of the consequences.



But then, in the final 10 minutes or so of the half, there was a subtle shift. The Mexico goal didn't come, and meanwhile, after conceding a couple of corners, they seemed a bit vulnerable when forced to defend. The 0-0 result at the half was flattering to South Africa, but also represented an opportunity found, and they took it, with Tshabalala's historic score in the 55th minute against a Mexican side whose initial confidence/overconfidence had turned to lethargy.



Things got serious after that. With France and Uruguay also vying for the two spots in the knockout round from Group A, a loss could well have been fatal to Mexico's hopes, which back home would be construed as a disaster. On came the talisman, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, 37 years old now and barely able to run, but wise, with a beautiful touch, and he immediately settled things down. Next on was Javier Hernandez, the young phenom bound for Manchester United next season, who provided some much needed energy.



On the tying goal, after a short corner, South Africa's captain Aaron Mokoena was preoccupied with Hernandez, who rose to meet a cross from Andres Guardado (another second-half substitute). Beyond them, unmarked at the far post, was Rafael Marquez, who took the ball after it sailed just over their heads, and had plenty of time to look and think before scoring the equalizer past Itumeleng Khune in the 79th minute. The sizable Mexican contingent in the stands let out a great big happy sigh of relief.



Regrets? A few, on both sides - though the shot Katlego Mphela knocked off the post in the 90th minute after a ball dropped at his feet as if by an act of God will be hardest to shake from memory.



All in all, though, it's what they call a fair result, in a match that built nicely from a stuttering start, in a tournament that will be like nothing else, because this place is like nowhere else.



And the party, for a few more nights anyway, can continue undiminished by harsh football realities.



You don't need a huge sentimental streak to think the longer that's true, the better.



 

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