Group A: South Africa

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The World Cup has never had lower-ranking hosts, reveals Piers Edwards – so they'll have to produce a few surprises to stay at the party...

South Africa wouldn't be at the finals at all unless they were the hosts. For since their last appearance in 2002, Bafana Bafana have gone backwards – absent from Germany 2006 and this year’s Cup of Nations as well.

Twenty years ago, even contesting – let alone hosting – the World Cup seemed unimaginable since South Africa was still serving an apartheid-related FIFA ban (which lasted for nearly three decades). As political reform swept the country in the early 1990s, South Africa returned to the international fold, playing their first match in 1992.

Incredibly, just four years later, South Africa - one of the Confederation of African Football’s founding fathers - won the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil, at the first time of asking.

As the country hosts Africa’s first World Cup, many fans merely hope to make the second round. Grouped with Mexico and former champions France (1998) and Uruguay (1930 and 1950), it’s no easy task for the competition’s lowest-ranked host nation in history.

Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who led Brazil to 1994 World Cup glory, likens the task of qualifying from Group A to climbing Mount Everest. Nonetheless, the FA president has set Parreira a quarter-final target. “I think this World Cup will be full of surprises and I hope we can be one of them,” says towering defender Matthew Booth. They'll have to be to stay involved after the first fortnight.

Strengths are few but defence is one of them. Kaizer Chiefs’ Itumeleng Khune is a reliable stopper and Siboniso Gaxa a capable right-back yet question marks surround centre-back and captain Aaron Mokoena – with many feeling the experienced Portsmouth man has become a liability.

South Africa’s midfield holds its own - thanks to the unsung work of MacBeth Sibaya. He’s often partnered by Fulham’s Kagiso Dikgacoi in a somewhat defensive central pairing. To their right is domestic league golden boy Teko Modise of the Orlando Pirates, but on the other side Everton's Steven Pienaar is a class above his colleagues. In reserve, skilful left-footer Siphiwe Tshabalala can be dangerous.

South Africa’s attack is a serious concern. In late 2009, Bafana Bafana scored once in seven games – meaning Parreira recalled Benni McCarthy, the controversial striker who had often ignored call-ups. Katlego Mphela, the local league’s top scorer with 17 goals, will partner him but injury to either will hamper South Africa’s hopes. Underlying the lack of goals is a problem of creativity: Bafana don’t make too many chances and the team’s crossing is often sub-standard.

Interesting fact
No World Cup host has failed to make the second round – but South Africa haven't managed it in their two previous attempts. To help, the Premier Soccer League ended in March, the earliest finish in its history, to allow the squad adequate time to prepare with camps in Brazil, Germany and Johannesburg.

The Coach: Carlos Alberto Parreira
In his second stint, having quit in April 2008 to care for his then cancer-stricken wife, the Brazilian was reappointed to replace beleaguered compatriot Joel Santana. He will be leading his fifth different nation at a World Cup – after Kuwait (1982), UAE (1990), Brazil (1994 & 2006) and Saudi Arabia (1998) – but he has never guided a non-Brazilian side to victory in the group stages.

Key Player: Steven Pienaar
The heartbeat of the side. Without his creativity, accuracy and sense of urgency, the hosts have little chance.

Probable Team (4-4-2): 
Khune; Gaxa, Mokoena, Gould, Masilela; Modise, Sibaya, Dikgacoi, Pienaar; McCarthy, Mphela.

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the players
Q&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation

Mexico, June 11, 3pm, Johannesburg
Uruguay, June 16, 7.30pm, Tshwane/Pretoria
France, June 22, 3pm, Mangaung/Bloemfontein

Qualified Automatically as hosts

World Cup record
1998 1st Round
2002 1st Round

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