South Africa 0-0 Cape Verde
It could have been worse for South Africa, but not much. Aside from losing, it is hard to imagine a more dispiriting, deflating start to the Africa Cup of Nations than this. In front of vast swathes of empty orange seats, as rain hammered down, they stuttered to a goalless draw as dismal as they come against the tournament debutants Cape Verde.
The contrast to the opening game 17 years ago, when South Africa last hosted the tournament, could hardly have been greater. Then, they opened with a 3-0 win over Cameroon, a game that began an emotional run to what remains their only Cup of Nations success. As the 1996 captain, Neil Tovey, said, given South Africa's resources, the assumption then was that Bafana would go on to dominate the tournament for the foreseeable future. As it is, they have endured a steady decline, culminating in their failure to qualify for the past two Cups of Nations.
Disappointment has bred cynicism and, although Soccer City was initially fervent, the general mood in the build-up to the game was gloomy and that, allied to the Johannesburg weather, probably explained the spaces in the stands despite the game officially being a sell-out. A 1-0 defeat to Norway and a goalless draw in a friendly against Algeria in South Africa's final two warm-up games did little to breed optimism, with a clear problem converting possession into chances.
There was barely even that encouragement in a first half that was pitifully bad. Teeming rain made conditions difficult but it could not fully explain the scrappiness of the play. Anxiety prevailed. Phala Thuso, South Africa's right winger, briefly threatened on that flank but once Cape Verde cut off the supply to him, they looked relatively comfortable and created the only meaningful chance, Babanco laying in Platini, who scuffed his shot badly.
"The guys were very nervous," said the South Africa coach, Gordon Igesund. "I've never seen them like that. We weren't keeping possession the way we can do; we were rushing it. There was a big gap between the midfield and the forwards and so we played it forward too quickly and too often. We hit long balls in a way we haven't really seen since I took over."
The introduction of Lerato Chabangu at half-time for the former Fulham midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi gave South Africa added urgency but their lack of quality in the final third was painfully apparent. Siphiwe Tshabalala, who scored the first goal of the World Cup in this stadium, again and again overhit crosses and, although it took a brave save from Vozinha at his feet as the ball broke to him from Bernard Parker, it was little surprise when he was withdrawn for the Ajax creator Thulani Serero on the hour.
He, though, was barely involved, and the best chance fell to the Cape Verde forward Heldon, whose free-header bounced awkwardly in front of Itumeleng Khune and was pushed wide. Igesund had insisted South Africa were improving, that control of midfield would yield goals. Perhaps it will, and South Africa did at least take the initiative in the second half, but their lack of rhythm seemed less to do with a lack of imagination than with a dearth of quality. Even Igesund seemed to spend most of the last 15 minutes pacing the touchline shaking his head. There will be those who will ask why he did not start with Abel Mphela, who replaced Lehlohonolo Majoro after 69 minutes, but the issues began far before the ball got to the forward line.
Despite their lack of history in the competition, Cape Verde are the highest ranked side in the group, and they defended with great spirit, so it may be that South Africa will find it easier against Angola and Morocco, the other two teams in the group, but there is need of major improvement quickly.
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