Hosting the World Cup already has South Africa feeling proud, but translating those emotions into results on the field might be a problem.
Considered one of the worst teams to host the tournament, South Africa will try to avoid becoming the first home team to lose an opener when it faces Mexico in Johannesburg on Friday.
FIFA was determined to bring the World Cup to Africa for the first time, and South Africa was awarded the event with six years to prepare.
“We knew from that moment that South Africa would never be the same,” President Jacob Zuma said. “It is clear that millions of our people have waited for years and look upon this tournament with hope, pride and a sense of belonging.
“Bringing the World Cup to South Africa is to trust South Africa, to trust Africa and to say, ‘You are strong and you can do it.'”
Doubts over the country’s ability to put on the World Cup have waned heading into the opener, but now the questions are about the team. South Africa is ranked 83rd by FIFA – the lowest for any host.
Host nations have never lost an opener and have reached at least the second round of each World Cup, with six winning it. Over the last three tournaments, the hosts have gone 10-0-2 in the group stage.
Reaching the second round would be a first for South Africa, which didn’t qualify in 2006 after going 1-2-3 in the two previous World Cups.
The task of advancing at home is even tougher with Group A also consisting of former winners France and Uruguay. Bafana Bafana has won one of eight meetings with its group rivals – a 2-1 victory over Mexico in 2005.
“The mission of our boys is to make this country proud,” said coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who guided Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title. “And the goal, the goal is to go as far as we can in the World Cup. That’s it.
“Once the ball moves, anything can happen. Everyone knows our group is a tough one. But we are ready.”
Katlego Mphela might be Bafana Bafana’s best hope for creating goals. The forward has 15 goals in 31 games for South Africa with the last 11 coming on home soil, including two in a 3-2 loss to Spain in last summer’s Confederations Cup.
Mexico’s lineup is unsettled with coach Javier Aguirre deciding if veteran Guillermo Franco or rising star Javier Hernandez will start at forward. Goalkeepers Guillermo Ochoa and Oscar Perez are also waiting to find out who will start.
“These are decisions for the coach,” Ochoa said. “One never knows who is going to play. You don’t know until the lineups come out that day.”
Hernandez scored three goals in Mexico’s last three friendlies, while Franco has been hampered by a foot injury.
Mexico, ranked 17th, was eliminated in the round of 16 in the last four World Cups.