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Little margin for error

South Africa knows that it needs a strong national team to make the 2010 FIFA World Cup TM a huge success, which is why the Bafana Bafana recently appointed Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira as their new coach.

There is an amusing advertisement playing out on South African television these days that shows an experienced businessman in a bank queue, berating the long, winding line in front of him and then generally whingeing about all the of society’s ills before finally predicting a catastrophe when the country hosts the FIFA World Cup TM in 2010. Suddenly a tourist also stuck in the queue a few places ahead, turns to the whiney suit and barks back a few home truths.
The Australian visitor berates the South African for his negative outlook and his pessimistic viewpoints and rattles off long list of positives about the country, its potential and its determination to do well when the FIFA World Cup TM comes to town some three years from now. The rest of the queue then erupts into thunderous applause, leaving the negative businessman crestfallen, humiliated and suitably embarrassed.
The pay-off line is one of positive thinking and confidence in the future and it has become a popular message at a time when the machinery of hosting the World Cup is finally beginning to click into gear. It has admittedly been a ponderous process to date but the documentation and planning is now complete, the construction contracts signed and the physical labor has begun. That means there is now tangible evidence of the upcoming footballing fiesta, firing the fever that is escalating on a daily basis..

Two years of mediocrity
The fever has also been fuelled by heightened coverage of the arrival of the new coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. The Brazilian World Cup winner in 1994 agreed to take over as South Africa’s coach six months ago, but he also asked for time to recover from the rigors of the last campaign in Germany.
Parreira duly took six months off to be with his family, including a new grandchild, and to sort out his affairs in Rio de Janeiro, but during that time, Parreira traveled twice to watch South Africa’s national side, Bafana Bafana, in order to get a first look at his future charges.
First up was a disappointing home draw in the opening match of the 2008 African Cup of Nations qualifiers against Congo in Johannesburg, where the home strikers were off song. It would not have made much of an impression on the Brazilian, but Parreira did have a broad smile of satisfaction a month later in October when he went with the team to Zambia and saw Bafana Bafana come away with a famous, hard-fought win that restored them to the position of favorites in their group and put them back on course for a place at the African Cup of Nations finals in Ghana next January.
After two years of mediocrity, the 1-0 win in Lusaka was a major fillip for South African football, particularly given how important a good national team will be to the overall success of the 2010 World Cup finals. Germany certainly proved that the impetus of a winning home side underwrites the positive image of the host nation.

The nature of the fans
Parreira has now moved to Johannesburg and has begun his full-time job. His first day in the country received frenzied media coverage and the paparazzi even followed him around when he went house-hunting in the suburbs.
Of course, his appointment has already created enormous controversy, mostly over the price South Africa are paying for his expertise. Parreira’s salary of some USD 250,000 per month might be market-related but in Africa it is “big bucks”. Indeed, Parreira earns more in a month than South Adrican president Thabo Mbeki takes home in an entire year, a fact that the newspapers have keenly picked up on.
It means there will be little margin for error as the new coach gets the building process underway. His first game is away to Chad, not exactly a monolith in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking but nevertheless a country whose footballing pedigree is a mystery and one that therefore represents a dangerous trip into the unknown. The African Cup of Nations is clearly just a stepping stone towards building a competitive team for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa TM and Parreira has been told that he has time to construct, but such is the fickle nature of fans, it might not be as long as he hopes.
Parreira has enough experience to know that he needs to keep a positive win balance to hold off the detractors. His considerable time working in the Middle East will have reinforced the old sporting maxim that “you are only as good as your last game”. What would be ideal would be a continual improvement in form for the team and more positive results, especially like the one achieved in Zambia.
That would build on the World Cup fever that is such an important ingredient of a successful tournament. Building a better South African national team will come at the same time, as the ten venues for the 2010 World Cup finals are being built or renovated. As South Africans see the stadiums going up, the list of those with a negative outlook will decrease daily. Eventually there will be no need for TV adverts to poke fun at the detractors and put them in their place.