Today is National Youth Day in South Africa. It marks the anniversary of the start of the 1976 Soweto riots, which began with the death of twenty-three people after the police opened fire on a protest in the township against the imposition of Arikaans in schools. The events of that day caused revulsion around the world – prompted in no small part by a horrific photograph of a dying child, twelve year-old Hector Pieterson, which flashed around the world – and sparked the consciences of many millions of people. It took almost two decades, but apartheid began to die that day. The ultimate sacrifice of those that died on the 16th of June 1976 (as well as many more before and afterwards) would lead to the freedom and salvation of the country.
It is, therefore, utterly appropriate that the South African national team should play today, that football, the game of the oppressed under that wretched regime, should take the centre stage on this of all days. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the atmosphere at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria is thunderous. The South African team sing in the tunnel before the match, and the South African National Anthem rushes out of the speakers on the television. Seldom can it have been sung with such pride and such conviction. But can South Africa, who have the mother of home advantages this evening, make the most of this opportunity?
To an extent, it’s difficult not to have a degree of sympathy for Uruguay this evening. Only Uruguayans themselves or the stone-hearted could want them to win this evening. They are battling enormous odds, having already caused something of a surprise by grinding out a draw in their opening match against France last week. Indeed, this is a match of many questions. After a tepid opening round of matches, will teams come out of their shells as winning starts to become more important than not losing? To an extent, this match, the first of the second round of group matches, will act as something of a barometer for the next few days. With the group all square after one match, defeat for either team could mark the beginning of the end of their involvement. South Africa will need no reminding that no host nation has ever been eliminated at the first stage of the World Cup finals.
It’s cold again, of course. That this should be a major surprise to major broadcasters when we were all aware that it is the middle of winter in South Africa (which is, of course, the southernmost tip of Africa and therefore nearer to the South Pole than anywhere else on the continent) says more about the preparation of the broadcasters themselves than it ever could about the weather. Uruguay dominate the first fifteen minutes without attempting much like a serious attempt on goal, and the feeling that the players know how important this is crackles in the air. Three minutes in, Uruguay win a free-kick on the edge of the South African penalty area and Stephen Pienaar is booked for encroaching to block Diego Forlan’s shot. By the time that the retake has also been blocked, it has been three minutes since the original foul was committed.
Slowly, though, South Africa settle. It is on the break that they look to be at their most effervescent, and Siphiwe Tshabalala shoots over from distance twice. We are midway through the first half before Luis Suarez has the first shot on target of the match, but within a minute of this Uruguay have the lead when Forlan’s powerful long rang shot deflects off the South African captain Aaron Mokoena and loops over and in. For the first time in the tournament, South Africa are behind. They continue to push forward, but too often they find themselves playing the wrong ball and running down blind alleys. Uruguay, meanwhile, drop players behind the ball and play on the break. Luis Suarez hits the side netting when should maybe have done a little better. They are, however, doing enough – more than enough – to hold on as half-time comes.
South Africa need a strong start to the second half, but they play the opening ten minutes as if somebody has spiked their half-time oranges with mogadon. Sluggish and careless in possession and sloppy with their marking, they allow Uruguay far too much control in the centre of the pitch. Suarez crosses and Cavani sees his shot blocked from six yards out. Lugano has a free header but makes a hash of his jump and sees the ball bounce off the top of his back and away. South Africa bite back with their best spell of possession of the match but – and this happens so often that it starts to become almost infuriating to watch – every time they to cross, shoot, pass… anything, it is blocked by a white-shirted player.
Then, with fifteen minutes to play, falls the hammer blow. From nowhere, Luis Suarez springs the offside trap and is tripped by the South African goalkeeper Itumelenge Khune. At first view, there is a – soon disproved – hint of offside about the ball that released him, but there is no lingering doubt about it. Khune is sent off and, after a lengthy delay while South Africa replace Pienaar with the reserve goalkeeper, Moeneeb Josephs, Diego Forlan slams the penalty kick into the roof of the net to double the Uruguayan lead. It is the goal that fatally deflates the South African balloon. They have created scarcely any chances for the previous eighty-odd minutes with eleven men. Quite where they can realistically hope to get two goals from in around ten minutes is anybody’s guess, and so it proves. Uruguay run down the clock with considerable comfort, and in the dying seconds comes the icing on the cake. Forlan’s superb diagonal pass picks out Luis Suarez on the right hand side, and Suarez lifts the ball back across the goal for Alvaro Pereira to touch the ball over the line for 3-0.
South Africa remain in the competition by the width of a cigarette paper. Should they beat France next week and other results go their way they can still edge through, but blind hope is about as much as they have now and on the evidence of tonight’s performance they simply won’t have enough to edge through. In the World Cup, though, tonight has been Uruguay’s night. We have seen this evening the first individual performance of real quality from Diego Forlan, and his team deserves absolute credit for coming into such a hostile atmosphere and taking such complete control of the game. Providing they don’t crash and burn against Mexico, they will completely deserve their place in the Second Round of the competition. Eighty years after they won the first World Cup, they have started this tournament solidly and, in a tournament in which the possibility of no team shining as brightly as had been predicted before a ball was kicked hasn’t yet been disavowed, they may well consider that their chances of going further than anybody had predicted are high.
Our thanks once more to Historical Football Kits for the use of their images in this match report.