A national day of prayer was held in South Africa on May 28 for a successful hosting of the World Cup and for the national team, Bafana Bafana. Faith in divine intervention could be seen as a final sign of desperation from a country seeking to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first World Cup hosts to go out in the first round. But recent results suggest that the prayers are already being answered.
South Africa’s 2-1 victory over Colombia, ranked 48 places higher in the world by FIFA, in a friendly on May 27 has steeled nerves before the most crucial games in the country's history. The match, played in front of 75,000 fans at Soccer City, gave a tantalising glimpse of the tremendous colour and spectacle that will greet Africa's first World Cup when Bafana Bafana open against Mexico on June 11.
"South Africa has fallen in love with Bafana Bafana again, and that could spell trouble for World Cup rivals Mexico, Uruguay and France next month," the Mail and Guardian newspaper said.
There was plenty of optimism as hosts had the initiative, the goalscoring touch and, not least importantly, the luck. Their Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, was certainly upbeat.
"This was Bafana's biggest Cup test in our preparations and the boys passed," he said. "This is an incredible stadium a very intimidating stadium with vocal Bafana fans. I am looking forward to Mexico with a lot of confidence."
Such sentiments were unthinkable less than a year ago when Bafana Bafana seemed poised for meltdown. They did not even qualify for this year's Africa Cup of Nations finals after elimination by Sierra Leone, not one of the great powers of world football. A run of eight defeats in nine games spelled the end for Parreira's predecessor and compatriot, Joel Santana. There was also chaos behind the scenes with a bitterly fought election at the South African Football Association (SAFA).
South Africa had known for six years that they would be hosting the World Cup but theirs was the last of the 32 teams to secure a training camp. Frantic attempts were made to arrange friendlies with teams whose diaries had been fully booked. The chief executive was replaced in Jan. The farce of it all is perhaps summed up by worries that West Ham's Benni McCarthy, the country's record goalscorer, is overweight and worthy of his nickname "five bellies".
Parreira, brought back in November, faced an almighty task to stop the rainbow warrior sinking. He ordered intensive boot camps in Brazil and Germany to build team morale and unity. That he has now gone 11 matches unbeaten suggests that the coach, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994, is doing something right.
South Africa have climbed seven places to 83rd. They put in a fighting performance to hold 39th-ranked Bulgaria to a 1-1 draw. Players such as Itumeleng Khune, Thanduyise Khuboni and Siphiwe Tshabalala have gained in confidence.
"I'm impressed," Lucas Radebe, the former Leeds United and South Africa captain, said. "It shows Carlos has worked hard with them in the training camps. They're positive, you can see the confidence in the players. I'm more optimistic now. I think they'll get further in the tournament.
"Performances like that (vs Bulgaria and Colombia) encourage people to believe in the team. Most of us are really behind Bafana." Bafana Bafana also have overseas-based players returning to the fold. Steven Pienaar, Everton's player of the year, came on at half-time against Colombia. "We're just enjoying training every day and the spirit is good within the team," Pienaar said. "We're definitely ready. The spirit is high." After surviving Portsmouth's trials, the captain, Aaron Mokoena, is surely ready for anything. Fulham's Kagiso Dikgacoi is also a Parriera favourite.
South Africa now have what politicians call "the big mo". Then there is the secret weapon: the vuvuzela, an ear-bashing plastic horn that sounds like a herd of elephants. It could yet prove music to South African ears and a pain in their opponents'.