29 June 2009
If anyone was expecting the third and fourth place playoff in the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup to be a letdown, they were in for a surprise as South Africa and Spain produced a humdinger in Rustenburg, North West province on Sunday.
It is a concern that is commonly bandied about: that losing semi-finalists meeting for third and fourth places are playing a match they don’t want to play. There might be some merit in that, but watching South Africa and Spain doing battle on Sunday, it was clear that once the whistle had sounded to get the match under way, both teams desperately wanted to win.
Important for both sides
It was an important game for both sides, for different reasons. Bafana Bafana, after a hugely encouraging performance in the semi-finals, where they went down 1-0 to Brazil, needed to show they were capable of consistently producing such a high-standard performance, and not simply a one-off.
Spain, on the other hand, were coming off a 2-0 defeat to the USA, which brought to an end their world record 15-match unbeaten run, and left them level with Brazil with a record undefeated streak of 35 games. It is said that if one falls off a horse, the best thing to do is to climb back on immediately. That’s why coach Vicente del Bosque’s charges needed to win.
Ultimately, the Spaniards got their wish, but they were made to fight all the way for it, edging Bafana Bafana 3-2 after extra time in a pulsating game. The contest was intense, and with South Africa showing the appealing passion they had displayed against Brazil, Spain also showed their hard edge and, at times, their frustration.
Seven yellow cards were shown in the match – four to Spain and three to South Africa – yet they did not distract from the show. Rather, they served to underline the effort and refusal to take a step back by both teams.
By the end of the contest, 30 shots had been fired on goal, 18 of those by Spain and 12 by South Africa. The question Bafana Bafana fans need to ask is: when have they ever seen their team offering up so much on attack against a top tier team?
Possibly never, and that is why this Bafana side could be a factor in next year’s World Cup in South Africa: it looks like a new philosophy (although it is probably not new), and that is to attack the opposition and not allow them to dictate affairs.
Yes, it has been only two good games in succession. Yet, those matches were against Brazil and Spain, two of the elite teams in the world game. And in those games, South Africa demonstrated the ability to match the best shot-for-shot and tackle-for-tackle, all the while exhibiting an outstanding work rate.
The passion of the side, so often criticised in the past, could not be faulted. Instead, it was that very quality – passion – that clearly deserved praise this time around.
Coach Joel Santana’s charges showed unity of purpose and worked hard for one another and that togetherness led to a togetherness among the side’s supporters, who could not help but feel proud of their national representatives and get behind the team. In addition, the mix of those supporters, quite obviously, were respresentative of all South Africans, indicating that the entire country was behind Bafana Bafana.
Bafana and the fans
The connection between Bafana Bafana and South Africa’s football lovers has helped ease the concerns of many about next year’s Fifa World Cup. Now they believe it will be a success, and they also believe it will be a memorable event. Furthermore, they know South Africa will be a team that will give a good account of itself.
Sunday’s contest began with Bafana patiently holding onto possession and knocking the ball about, under pressure from Spain’s forwards, who tried to limit the time the South African defenders and midfielders had on the ball.
The first good chance of the contest fell to the Spaniards when, after four minutes, David Villa created an opportunity for himself on the counter-attack. Given some space to run, he drew two defenders to the right of Itumeleng Khune’s goal, before an excellent stop wrong-footed them and gave him time to snap off a left-footed shot. Khune was up to the challenge and deflected the ball behind for a corner.
Best chance of the first half
Ten minutes later, the best chance of the first half fell to defender Matthew Booth. After out-stripping the Spanish defence wide on the left, he found himself on the end of a free kick from Siphiwe Tshabalala and ahead of the trailing defenders. His header from close range, which he struck from just left of the goals, was off target, however.
In the twentieth minute, it seemed that Villa would open the scoring. He was played clear of the Bafana defence and was set to test Khune. But Tsepo Masilela made a fantastic clean, covering tackle to deny the striker a shot on goal.
The alarm bells sounded in the South African defence two minutes later when Fernando Torres made a superb run, but another excellent lasp-gasp tackle by MacBeth Sibaya denied him a decent shot on goal.
In the 33rd minute, Siphiwe Tshabalala forced a save out of Iker Casillas with a curling shot and Booth was wide, following up on the rebound.
With 10 minutes to go to the break, Spain’s left-winger Albert Riera fired across the SA goal and wide.
Bernard Parker got himself on the end of a cross in the 39th minute, but Casillas stopped a goalward bound shot low to his left.
Sergio was shown a yellow card, for a late tackle earlier in the movement that set Parker up. It was a clear sign that the hustle and bustle of Bafana Bafana was getting to Spain, and Sergio’s tackle was nothing more than an expression of his frustration.
At half-time, the teams went into the break at nil-nil. Earlier in the tournament, in Bloemfontein, the score had been the same at the break and Spain had gone on to a 2-0 victory. It proved to be a very different game in Rustenburg as the second half, after a slow start, erupted into a scintillating, edge-of-the-seat encounter.
Spain came out with fire in their collective belly and had the ball in the back of the South African net three minutes into the second stanza, but went unrewarded. David Villa took a shot, which was parried by Khune, and Sergio stuck the rebound into the net, only for the referee to rule him offsides.
Riera, steaming through at pace, was put in the clear inside the South Africa area in the 62nd minute and he let rip with a powerful, low shot to the left of goalkeeper Khune. The netminder, however, responded superbly to save a real tester with aplomb.
Ten minutes later, the contest, which had been riveting up to that point, got what it needed to explode: a goal. It came from Bafana Bafana substitute Katlego Mphela.
After some sharp passing in the midfield, Elrio van Heerden put Siphiwe Tshabalala through on the left-hand flank with a fine ball. Tshabalala then centred for an unmarked Mphela to control the ball with his right knee, which wrong-footed Casillas, before putting the ball into the net from four metres with his left foot.
The European champions responded with purpose, seeking out an equaliser, but they found no give in the Bafana Bafana defence until three minutes from time. Substitute Daniel Guiza, on the edge of the box, controlled a pass brilliantly with his chest before snapping off a right-footed shot just beyond the outstretched fingertips of Khune and into the bottom right-hand corner.
A famous victory had been within South Africa’s grasp, but it had suddenly been ripped away. Two minutes later, in the 89th minute, the crowd sat open-mouthed and in disbelief as Spain took the lead. Some of the fans even made their way to the exits.
Guiza received a ball on the right corner of the box and with superb touch and vision lofted an incredible goal over Khune that made it just inside the post. It was a stunning strike that left even Bafana coach Santana marvelling about it afterwards.
Spain celebrated a wonder goal, while the Rustenburg crowd was stunned into silence.
From the sidelines, the board was held up, indicating that three minutes of injury time should be played.
Bafana Bafana desperately kept pressing and with time running out won a free kick 35 metres out, directly in front of the Spanish goal. Spain set up a wall and with the great Iker Casillas in goal it was obvious that a superb strike would be needed to beat him. Katlego Mphela produced it.
His swerving shot rocketed into the top corner of the Spanish net, to the right of a diving Casillas and suddenly the Rustenburg crowd was transformed once more into a heaving, loud celebrating mass. Many disappointed supporters who had left must have hustled back to the stadium.
And so the contest went into extra time.
With a superbly timed run, Mphela was put in the clear eight minutes into additional time and had a one-on-one with Casillas. The striker’s shot was on target to the goalkeeper’s right, but the Real Madrid star stuck out his right foot and denied Mphela a memorable hat-trick.
The Spanish players were livid six minutes later when a header by David Silva in the South African area was clearly stopped by Benson Mhlongo’s arm. However, the referee waved them away, ruling it unintentional, and didn’t point to the spot. A penalty could very easily have been awarded.
It wasn’t long thereafter that Spain’s anger turned to joy when Xabi Alonso put them in front for good. From the midfielder’s free kick, Fernando Llorente failed to get his head on the ball, but his run was enough to distract goalkeeper Khune and the ball flew into the left hand corner of the South African goal.
Bafana Bafana threw everything into trying to level once more, but it was a bridge too far and Spain ran out 3-2 victors. South Africa had been beaten, but there was plenty to celebrate about their performance.
Captain Aaron Mokoena admitted to being devastated at the loss and his attitude reflected the Bafana Bafana belief that they could have – maybe should have – beaten the world’s top ranked team.
“We have had a good Confederations Cup, so it’s a positive experience for us and our players,” South Africa’s coach Joel Santana told Fifa.com.
‘I believe we played very well’
“Experience is acquired with time. I believe we played very well. I’m very satisfied with our team, a team that was not well thought of.
“It gives us a very promising future.”
Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque also praised Bafana Bafana. He said: “Today was difficult for us. We were playing against a side that attacked us a lot.”
For Bafana, the bottom line is that it was a loss. But it came loaded with plenty of hope and promise for the future, especially the Fifa 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
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