It was an extremely cold evening in the middle of June, the kind that required being indoors, under a blanket in front of the television, near a heater with a hot drink in hand. But there we were, in the crowd filling Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
The majority of the spectators were resplendent in yellow, enthusiastic and confident they would be delighted come the end of the 90 minutes. This confidence was not unfounded. Bafana Bafana had put on an impressive display in their opening match against Mexico and were unfortunate not to have won that maiden 2010 Fifa World Cup match on African soil. Surely they would build on that performance and put Uruguay to the sword, the entire country seemed to be saying.
There was another good reason to hope for a Bafana victory: the date of the match. It was 16 June, a day commemorated as Youth Day in South Africa because of the Soweto schoolchildren who put their lives on the line in 1976, in protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools. That a number of them – young Hector Pieterson being the first – lost their lives to the bullets the apartheid police fired that day was common knowledge.
And so, we believed, Bafana had no shortage of inspiration. They had to make their own history. Turn 16 June into a day remembered for something lighter, a celebration, by winning the match and becoming the first team to qualify for the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup.
Mokoena ducking in the ‘firing’ line
They didn’t though. Aaron Mokoena and company meekly capitulated to a 3-0 defeat that went a long way towards ensuring South Africa became the first host of the global spectacle to be knocked out in the first round.
The most enduring image from the match is that of Mokoena “ducking” in the face of a shot by Uruguay’s Diego Forlan and the ball flying past a helpless Itumeleng Khune and into the net for the opening goal. It was embarrassing that the captain did not put his body on the line against a ball – Adidas’ Jabulani – that had been roundly criticised for being too light. And on the anniversary of a day when youth younger than him had put their bodies on the line against bullets in a fight that partly contributed to South Africa hosting the World Cup.
Ten years on from that cold night, which saw me walk out of Loftus when Bafana conceded their second goal from a penalty, I ask Mokoena exactly what happened.
“I did not duck that ball,” said the man who captained Bafana at the World Cup and has donned the green and gold more than any other. “You have followed my career long enough to know that I always put my body on the line whenever I had the national team jersey on. I have never been afraid to throw myself into where it hurts for the sake of protecting the team.
“That Forlan goal was just something special. He simply got the technique of kicking that ball right and that is why it beat both myself and Itu. I was trying to close him down but he took the shot. He was very far from the goals and I didn’t think he would shoot. It has always been my way that I must never allow an opponent to shoot. And I was sure Forlan would not dribble past me as I got in to close him but he took the shot as I was going in on him.”
Mokoena admits, however, that Bafana could have done much better. “Coach Carlos [Alberto Parreira] had warned us about Uruguay. He told us they would be much stronger than us mentally because they had the bigger names. But he made us believe we could beat them if we did not allow their stars room to manoeuvre. I don’t think we paid too much attention to that and we were made to pay for it.”
He remembers having a conversation with Khune before the match. “I told Itu that he must be very careful of [Luis] Suarez because he is the type who would dive at any chance and true to form, he did to earn that penalty and get Itu sent off.”
Mokoena says they were very aware that it was 16 June, but “all we wanted to do was to make it a memorable World Cup for South Africa. A lot of us knew of the historic nature of the day, but we did not dwell on it or try to use it as motivation.”
‘Not a part of the game’
Pitso Mosimane, who was one of the two assistant coaches in 2010, explains why they did not draw on events of 1976. “For one, we had a coach who was not South African and he was not going to use an event he knew nothing about as his motivational pre-match talk, was he? But in truth, we wanted the players solely focused on winning the match without bringing in politics or emotional matters into it. As a coach, you do not want your team to go on to the pitch with split vision by talking to them about matters that are not a part of the game, inspiring as the subject might be.
“Using June 16 for a team talk could have triggered some emotions which were not needed for the match. You do not want your players to be too psyched up that they are driven too much by factors outside the need to win.”
There appeared to be little driving Bafana on that cold night as they huffed and puffed about, chasing shadows. Uruguay took control of the game, with Suarez and Forlan looking likely to score whenever the South Americans got into the final third of the pitch.
In analysing the goals they conceded, Mosimane says Bafana could have done better. “It was a game of moments, hey,” he recalls. “I think we could have closed Forlan a little earlier. We were too late to get to him and that allowed him to take the shot. But what most people did not realise is that the ball deflected off Mbazo’s back, hence it went slightly higher. Otherwise Itu could have saved it.”
He attributes the second goal to Suarez’s game smarts. “Suarez dragged his foot, he stayed in the tackle when he could have jumped out. But he is a wily fox. A very smart player who knows how to goad his opponents into doing wrong. He stayed in there to get that penalty and unfortunately for us, it led to Itu being sent off.”
Bouncing back against France
At 2-0 down and with little time left to play, Bafana had no option but to go for broke. As is generally the case, teams in such situations are often punished further and, true to form, Bafana conceded a third goal.
“Of course you have to attack, take a risk. You can’t sit back, although we did try to ensure we minimised the goals we let in to keep ourselves in the fight with the match against France still to come.”
That Bafana won that final clash against a French team beset with internal problems is common knowledge. Mokoena recalls how he had to remain optimistic at the end of the Uruguay match.
“We were shattered after that match. But I had to play my role as captain and when we got to the dressing room, I told the team that all was not lost. I said to the guys, ‘We still have a match to play. Let’s brush this defeat off and get our minds set on beating France. We need to give it our all because we could still go through to the next round.’”
They did beat France, Bongani Khumalo and Katlego Mphela scoring in a 2-1 victory that was not enough to get them through to the knockout stage. It was the first time since the World Cup began in 1930 that a host nation had failed to progress past the first, group stage round.
Looking back, it all went wrong on that cold June night at Loftus when many of us endured the freezing weather to cheer for who we believed were our national heroes. Instead, we left the comfort of our homes to go and watch a group of players who capitulated. It seemed they had no clue that they had to put their bodies on the line, just as the likes of Tsietsi Mashinini, Murphy Morobe, Mbuyisa Makhubo and Sibongile Mthembu Mkhabela had done in 1976.