South Africa, horns and all, have edged their way into the semi-finals of this year’s Confederations Cup, but their doing so has been something of a hollow victory for them, as we saw last night. Their procession through to the semi-finals was more about the shortcomings of others than about anything that they managed themselves. For Spain, meanwhile, came a further extension to their extraordinary unbeaten record and a brand new record for successive wins, now up to fifteen. Whether anybody will be able to keep them in check at the World Cup finals next year is the question that is taxing most people. It is not a question that is being asked of South Afria.
The first half was an uneventful affair. Spain had made seven changes from their previous match though this was still an exceptionally strong side. The widespread changes, however, seemed to disrupt their flow. This was not the same Spain side – neither literally nor metaphorically – that brushed New Zealand aside last weekend, and the changes seemed to suit the host nation. Spain stuttered and stalled, allowing South Africa far too much possession. It looked, however, as if the shortcomings that the hosts had shown in their previous matches – the hurried, almost panicky shooting and the reasonably neat interplay spoilt by poor finishing that is, to put it plainly, the hallmark of a side without players of the quality to win matches like this.
All the while, the thoughts of the crowd were being distracted by what was going on elsewhere. As long as South Africa could hold on for a draw, they would be okay as long as Iraq couldn’t find a way past New Zealand in the other match being played, and they were in luck. If anything, New Zealand were looking more likely to score than Iraq. In the space of thirty seconds at the start of the second half, however, South Africa’s destiny was taken out of their hands. A through ball to Cesc Fabregas saw Mokoena go in with a rash challenge that conceded a penalty kick. David Villa stepped up, but Itumeleng Khune saved brilliantly and then picked himself up to save Carlos Puyol’s shot from the rebound.
The crowd were still celebrating when Spain scored, barely thirty seconds later. A long, floated pass cut the South African defence and Villa, having possibly first controlled the ball with his arm, volleyed past Khune. Suddenly, everything was out of South Africa’s control, and their crisis deepens with seventeen minutes to play the substitute Llorente swept the ball into the corner of the net after South Africa’s defence had failed to clear a corner. South Africa were now dependent on New Zealand holding out against Iraq, but Iraq had failed to score in their previous two maatches against Spain and South Africa and they couldn’t manage to break down the New Zealand defence. South Africa were through to the sem-finals, by the skin of their teeth.
Whether Tele Santana can turn things around for South Africa before next summer is debatable. The snatched shooting that has been a feature of their previous matches was again in evidence last night. Can Santana do anything to resolve this problem? It’s important that he does, because it is unlikely that South Africa will have a group containing such mediocre opposition at the World Cup finals next summer as one containing Iraq and New Zealand, who exit this tournament without having managed a goal between them. Spain, meanwhile, trundle on like a juggernaut, with the often posited cliche of them being big tournament chokers now feeling very much like a thing of the past. We will know this evening whether they will play Italy or Egypt in the semi-final.