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May 12, 2009

Bafana Bafana prepare for dry run

In a little over a month, shortly after the hullabaloo of the European season has died down, the eyes of the footballing world will turn to South Africa as the Confederations Cup kicks off on Sunday 14 June. Featuring the likes of Brazil, Spain, Italy and the United States, the tournament is seen by many as a dry run for next year's World Cup - when the finals will be landing in Africa for the first time.

"Never before has this country had the privilege of hosting a tournament with teams of this calibre," Dr Irvin Khoza, the chairman of the 2010 World Cup organising committee, recently wrote in a FIFA magazine. "At the same time, it is a chance for a watching world to get a real sense of what South Africa has to offer as a host.

"It is an excellent opportunity to put the plans we have been working on for the last couple of years into practice and to prove to ourselves and the world that the World Cup will be successful and memorable. It is also an opportunity for us to gauge where more work still needs to be done."

Khoza may have been talking about organisation, crime and other such issues but his words can also apply to Bafana Bafana. With the Confederations Cup widely covered in the local media, debate has inevitably turned to the hosts' fortunes. Adding considerable spice is the knowledge that the eight-team tournament will prove an important form guide to South Africa's World Cup chances - especially since their embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2010 Nations Cup means they will have no competitive matches until June 2010.

Last week, coach Joel Santana named his preliminary 30-man squad for the Confederations Cup, sending out shockwaves when star forward Benni McCarthy of Blackburn Rovers was not included. As the only top-class South African striker, the 31-year-old seemingly believes he can walk into the national team despite regularly missing friendlies; but Santana's patience ran out when he missed March internationals against Norway (won 2-1) and Portugal (lost 2-0) claiming he was inured only to play, and score, for Blackburn days later.

Having taken charge a year ago, the Brazilian coach still polarises opinion. His English is scratchy at best, his press conferences requiring a translator, and much of their content baffles the local media. Amidst numerous questions over his selection, there was incredulity at his failure - especially when Bafana Bafana have found goals so difficult - to call up home-based Richard Henyekane, the league's top scorer with 19 goals for Golden Arrows.

Nearly half Santana's squad plays in South Africa's Premier Soccer League (PSL), which finished this weekend in unconvincing fashion after 30 rounds of games. "We're winning the league with only 55 points and that's a problem for South African football," announced coach Gavin Hunt, after his SuperSport United defended their title.

Aside from the general paucity of South Africa's players (the result of lengthy inertia from the local FA to implement developmental programmes), the immediate problem for South Africa - who will be captained by Aaron Mokoena and spearheaded by Stephen Pienaar - is the weakness of their Confederations Cup group. With only European champions Spain expected to prove a real test in Group A, which includes Asian champions Iraq and Oceania champions New Zealand, South Africans might lull themselves into a false sense of standing should the team reach the semi-finals.

"We're positive as players," says Teko Modise, the Orlando Pirates midfielder who is widely recognised as the PSL's most creative talent. "We'll have our supporters behind us so I think we're going to do well - and if we're to do well in the World Cup, we have to do well in the Confederations Cup."

Making up a competition traditionally used by FIFA as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup are Egypt who face Brazil, Italy and the US in Group B. The African champions are taking the Confederation Cup very seriously, recognising the rare opportunity to test themselves against the Brazilians and Italians to see where they stand, no matter what sort of teams the former World Cup winners may send out. Although coaches may care little about winning the tournament, the chance to experience conditions in South Africa ahead of 2010 will be priceless so Brazil's Dunga and Italy's Marcello Lippi will want their teams to have as much playing time as possible.

Meanwhile, South Africa will be desperate to take on these sides in the semi-finals, which they expect to reach with home advantage behind them, but it remains to be seen how many fans will actually be there. For while there is certainly great enthusiasm for the World Cup, ticket sales for the Confederations Cup have been slow.

Just over half the 640,000 available tickets have been bought, 50,000 of these by a local bank alone, and organisers had to stage a road show in Soweto to drum up interest as well as demonstrate how to buy tickets - as paying in advance is not a customary habit for South African fans. Yet with recent signs showing that World Cup tickets will be like gold dust, fans are wising up to the fact that this might be their only chance to watch the likes of Brazil, Spain and Italy over the next year.

The Confederations Cup will be using four World Cup venues, with Johannesburg's Ellis Park hosting the opening match on 14 June and the final a fortnight later. 'Joburg' is of course the venue for the World Cup final itself although this will be at Soccer City, currently being rebuilt from scratch on the outskirts of Soweto.

There had been hopes to try one of the new stadiums being built for 2010, but owing to a logistical problem the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth was cautiously stood down - even though it's all set to host its first match next month. In fact, South Africa is well ahead in its stadium infrastructure for the World Cup, with all ten venues on target to be completed this year.

While the completion of new stadia tends to dominate the media, so do the other problems foreseen in South Africa for next year - such as crime, travel and accommodation. The latter two issues will not be tested by the small numbers attending the Confederations Cup but crime and security certainly will be: and any supporters planning on visiting next year should be buoyed by the first big test for South Africa 2010, which came about at short notice when the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament was relocated following the terror attacks on Sri Lanka's players in March. So far, the IPL has progressed with serene calm, prompting optimism from the chairman of Cricket South Africa.

"I don't think there's any doubt in anyone's mind now about security next year," says Dr Mtutuzeli Nyoka. "I'm sure FIFA is looking at the situation and if they were to talk to any IPL players or administrators, they would hear how well they have been looked after from a security point of view. When you go to the stadiums, you see how strict security is - it's been amazing - so South Africa is ready to go as far as security is concerned."

All will be put to the test next month, as South Africa's hosting capabilities - the football team included - fall under the spotlight as the World Cup starts to roll into view.

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