Hosts South Africa warming to the task

JOHANNESBURG - In just four days South Africa will become the continent's first country to stage the world's most watched sports event and the hosts are growing increasingly confident about winning on the pitch as well.

Having stretched their unbeaten run to eight months and 12 consecutive games, South Africa, among the lowest-ranked nations going into the tournament which starts on Friday, are beginning to believe they can enjoy some success on home soil.

"When it was first announced we would be hosting the World Cup, the players wanted to compete. Now our confidence has grown and as we start to feel we are capable our mindset has changed," South Africa goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs said on Monday.

"Now we want to win, we want to get as far as we can go in this tournament," he added.

South Africa open the World Cup against Mexico at Soccer City in Johannesburg but before that organisers still have to make sure the supporters' safety is guaranteed after a stampede in friendly match left 15 people injured on Sunday.


World football's governing body FIFA, which was not responsible for the Nigeria v North Korea game where thousands of fans stormed the stadium gates, gave assurances that no such incidents would take place in the month-long tournament.

"I'm sure that this is a wake-up call and this will not happen in any match, you can be assured (of that)," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said.

General Secretary Jerome Valcke noted the stampede illustrated the danger of selling tickets on match days which FIFA has refused to do for the finals.

"We have been criticised very often for not distributing tickets on the match day at the stadium and it's what happened there," said Valcke.

"The level of organisation we have when we organise a game is definitely higher than the one we have seen there."

Several teams also got an injury respite after many top players, including England captain Rio Ferdinand and Nigeria midfielder John Obi Mikel, were ruled out of the tournament through injuries.


Ivory Coast said their captain Didier Drogba, who has just had surgery for a fractured arm, would be fit at some stage of the tournament.

However, it was still not clear whether the African Footballer of the Year will play in the opening Group G match against Portugal in Port Elizabeth next week.

"His recovery has been extremely encouraging. It is suggested that, at this stage, all the signs are good and there is great hope the captain of the Elephants will be in action with his team mates as soon as possible," spokesman Roger Kouassi said.

Honduras also breathed a collective sigh of relief with midfielder Wilson Palacios ruled fit despite a leg muscle injury scare at the weekend.

Portugal will see defender Pepe return from a six-month injury absence at least as a substitute in a pre-World Cup game against Mozambique on Tuesday.

"Certainly he will play. I will only announce the lineup on Tuesday, but we are counting on Pepe to play some minutes," coach Carlos Queiroz said.


For the Dutch, however, coach Bert van Marwijk admitted Arjen Robben's inclusion in the squad is a risk after the winger picked up a hamstring injury in their final friendly last week.

"We had an ideal (World Cup) warm up until the injury," Van Marwijk told Reuters. "But ...I'm willing to take the risk of keeping Robben in my squad.

"In the past such an injury would take four to six weeks (to clear) but the methods nowadays have developed."

There was also good news for five-times world champions Brazil who thrashed Tanzania 5-1 in Dar es Salaam with double strikes from Robinho in the first half and Ramires in the second plus a goal from playmaker Kaka.

England striker Wayne Rooney was also on target in their laboured 3-0 win over South African Premier League club Platinum Stars, though their overall performance did little to reinforce their position as one of the tournament favourites.

Rooney, scorer of 25 goals for England, came on in the second half and was booked after several strong challenges before he netted the third goal seven minutes from time.

Off the pitch, European champions Spain, who are still at home, had to defend their alleged 600,000 euro individual player bonus if they win the title.

"You can comment and talk, especially at this time when everyone is suffering," captain Iker Casillas said, referring to the economic crisis and soaring unemployment gripping Spain.

"And I include myself in that because I have family and friends and cousins and they are also hurting because of the crisis. Everyone sees it one way, as they want, but you shouldn't mix one thing up with the other," he said.

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