South Africa eager for Cup of Nations win
With 90,000 vuvuzela-playing fans at their backs, hosts South Africa are desperate to record a victory in the opener of the continent's showpiece
Anything less than victory against debutants Cape Verde in today's Africa Cup of Nations curtain-raiser could spell potential disaster for under-fire hosts South Africa.
With 90,000 partisan, vuvuzela-blowing fans cramming into Soweto's magnificent Soccer City, the home nation is out to take a giant step towards the knockout stages in a group also featuring former winners Morocco, and Angola.
Bafana Bafana's build-up has hardly been the stuff of potential champions but they will be counting on huge home support to help lift them, as it did when they won their only previous Nations Cup, in 1996.
The momentum built by an opening success would prove invaluable. Defeat or a lacklustre draw could knock the stuffing out of Gordon Igesund's side.
Since going all the way 17 years ago, South Africa's fate in the continental showpiece has plummeted.
They haven't won a match since 2004 and failed to qualify for last year's competition in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in farcical circumstances.
South African players, coaches and officials did not understand the widely used head-to-head rule and played for a draw at home to Sierra Leone, believing a point would suffice.
The players danced and sang their way around the stadium, convinced they had succeeded, only to discover later that minnows Niger had pipped them at the post.
The time has now come for the 2010 World Cup hosts to put some much-needed pride back into the game.
"With a little bit of luck, and if we start scoring goals, I think we can go all the way," said Igesund, who has won the South African Premiership competition with a record four clubs.
"Hopefully, things go well for us and we get a bit of a roll going, especially with the support we are going to get behind us, 90,000 people in the stadium.
"It's not an easy task. We've got to respect the teams around us. There are some very good teams here, but I think we're very capable."
South Africa's players have shown sterling commitment to the national cause by forgoing any bonuses until the knockout stages. "The players will accept bonuses only if they get to the quarter-finals and again if they reach the final.
"There is no money in the first round nor the semi-finals," Igesund said. "This shows a commitment to do well."
The squad have been under media and public fire after a lacklustre build-up that finished with a drab 0-0 draw against Algeria in Soweto last weekend.
Not as though it puts too much pressure on them, but they have been tipped to do well by South African President Jacob Zuma.
"I certify that the team are ready," Zuma said during a visit to a training session this week. "I am more confident this time, more than any other times."
Igesund, meanwhile, admitted he had never seen Cape Verde play. If he had he would have found a national team brimming with confidence after their shock defeat of Cameroon in the qualifiers.
If South Africa think Cape Verde will be a pushover, they should just listen to Ryan Mendes.
"It's our first time going to the Nations Cup, so there's no pressure on us," the striker with Lille in France said.
"We're lucky to be playing the opening game of this Nations Cup. For us that's the ultimate honour!
"Aside from that, it's true we want to achieve something because we don't want to end up being ridiculed."
Meanwhile, Angola and Morocco will try to put bad memories behind them when they clash in the second half of an opening-day double-header of the tournament.
Both countries went to the last edition a year ago in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea with a base target of a top-two group finish and a place in the knockout phase.
Neither succeeded, with Angola pipped on goal difference by Sudan for second place behind Ivory Coast, and Morocco beating only Niger to come third behind Gabon and Tunisia.
"We have no right to fail this time round. We have a debt to the Moroccan people after what happened at the last tournament," said midfielder Younes Belhanda who was part of last year's squad.