Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The clock was ticking this evening as South Africa’s Confederations Cup bid slowly dragged itself to life this evening, with a performance that added little to the widely held perception that they are likely to be the worst host nation in the history of the World Cup when the show rolls into town. On Sunday, they seemed reasonably resolute defensively but betrayed the key indicator of a team playing at a level above its current station – an inability to score which passed rapidly through farcical to, by the time the ball bounced off Bernard Parker’s backside with five minutes to play, well and truly into the realms of low comedy.
For the first twenty minutes this evening, however, the clocked ticked and tocked as South Africa continued to labour unnecessarily against a New Zealand team that was just as limited as it was in conceding four goals in twenty-five minutes against Spain at the weekend. The passing was neat and tidy enough, though they didn’t come under too much pressure to actually stop passing it around, but once they got to the penalty area everything started to go south and they were reduced to speculative shots from improbable angles and unlikely distances. The goal, when it came, was the one occasion upon which everything clicked, although even then they were dependent on a deflection wrongfooting the New Zealand goalkeeper Moss to send Bernard Parker’s shot in.
After the goal, New Zealand settled reasonably well. South Africa continued to stretch them but their finishing was snatched. One suspects that they know the potential importance of goal difference rather too well. New Zealand, on the other hand, started to play some neat football. Realising their limitations, they played the ball into the corners, looking for a cross, a corner or a free kick which would mean half a chance of scoring. They hoisted a couple of dangerous looking balls into the penalty area which the South African defence coped with comfortably but which also hinted that it wasn’t completely beyond New Zealand to cause the hosts serious problems.
Six minutes into the second half, however, a little precision and a little luck effectively killed the game as a contest. Steven Pienaar was given too much room to thread the ball wide to Tsepo Masilela. His cross from the left hand side was a decent one, but Bernard Parker seemed to mistime his goal attempt, but the ball bounced off his trailing knee and wide of Moss to double the South African lead. If the South African confidence didn’t come flooding back, the second goal certainly seemed to bring a light drizzle of adrenaline back into their game. Still, however, the final ball and the finish were missing. Typical of this was a series of passes that set up the full-back Gaxa for shot on goal. This time, not only was the angle improbable but Gaxa completely missed his kick and ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor.
South Africa continued to press forward, mindful of the fact that 2-0 might well not be enough to see them through to the semi-finals. More shots were snatched and half chances wasted. New Zealand were playing a damage limitation and South Africa couldn’t work themselves a third goal. They need just a point from the final match – it is, however, somewhat unfortunate that they have to play Spain in that final match. If they lose, Iraq have to beat New Zealand two goals more than South Africa lose by. Probably. The permutations are mind-boggling. What we know for certain is that South Africa’s destiny remains, by the slenderest of margins, within their own hands. Iraq were far too cautious in their opening match against them on Sunday. Can they lift their game and make things even more uncomfortable for South Africa?