Santana: Significant improvement for South Africa

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa have improved significantly since the start of the Confederations Cup and could prove competitive when the country hosts the World Cup next year, coach Joel Santana said on Friday.

"We've improved a lot. It's been great for a lot of my young players," the Brazilian told Reuters after his side reached the semi-finals, losing 1-0 to holders Brazil on Thursday.

"It's their first competition at this level. That makes me very happy. It has been excellent preparation for the World Cup."

Santana said he was delighted with the steep learning curve climbed by his team at the two-week tournament, which was a test event for the World Cup, even though they scored only twice.

South Africa saved their best showing for the semi-final but still lost to Brazil in Johannesburg, heart-breakingly succumbing to a free-kick winner two minutes from the end after dominating play for long periods.

"We played very well and it was great for our confidence," Santana said. "We showed good discipline and great defence against a team who are five-time world champions and it was always going to be a difficult match."

Santana took over from compatriot Carlos Alberto Parreira a year ago but results have continued to be poor for Bafana Bafana, who failed to qualify for the 2010 African Nations Cup finals and whose only significant win during his tenure has been a last-minute success in a friendly over Norway.

They outran an admittedly tired-looking Brazil on Thursday, however, and the coach believes the side have turned a corner.

"My task is to prepare the team for the World Cup. We did well against Brazil, we had a good 60 minutes against Spain (in the group stage) and we did well against New Zealand," said Santana.

"Now I have my squad, I know all the players and their abilities. There are two or three positions that need improving but what is important is that we have many more testing matches ahead of us."

South Africa will play friendlies against Serbia, Germany, Ireland, Norway and Iceland between August and October.

"These matches will help us grow even more," Santana said.