South Africa confidently await Slovenia

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updated: February 25, 2007 09:27 IST
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Daegu, South Korea:

South Africa is feeling quietly confident as it heads to its World Cup Group B match against Slovenia, buoyed by its performance on the field and its opponents' fireworks off the pitch. Bafana Bafana - "the boys'' - fought back from a two-goal deficit against Paraguay to level the score for a hard-earned point in their first match last Sunday. They are now hoping to equal or better that against Slovenia on Saturday to keep alive their hopes of reaching the second round for the first time. "Slovenia are very, very difficult to play against,'' said coach Jomo Sono earlier this week. "They are very, very organized and very, very big and go in physically,'' he said. Luckily for the South Africans, the Slovenes seem to have saved their most bruising tackles for each other. Zlatko Zahovic, Slovenia's only undisputed star, was sent home in disgrace Thursday for being a disruptive influence after a spectacular falling out with coach Srecko Katanec during the team's 3-1 loss to Spain. Slovenia, making its debut on the World Cup scene had linked its fortunes to Zahovic's dazzling runs on and off the ball. The loss gives South Africa - widely regarded as the weakest of Group B - cause for hope. But the South Africans are acutely aware that Zahovic's absence guarantees nothing. Ireland, whose imminent demise was predicted after it sent home star player Roy Keane, defied the critics with draws against both Cameroon and highly favored Germany. Somo also warns that the challenge posed by the young, emerging European team will likely be tougher than Paraguay's aging defensive squad which visibly tired as the match wore on. However, the coach does hope that the heat of the afternoon - plus 30 degrees Celsius - will play in favor of the South Africans, just as it helped the Senegalese in their 1-1 draw against Denmark in Daegu. Training in the quiet beach resort of Kangnung - far too quiet for the players' tastes - Somo has kept his boys insulated from the pressures affecting the mightier teams in bigger cities. The Black Prince, as he is called from his days as a soccer player, wants to avoid a repeat performance of the squabbling that contributed to South Africa slumping out of the African Nations Cup in February against lowly Mali in the quarterfinals. Since taking over in March, Somo has moved in to quell the unrest in the ranks. He has called up local players - including from his own team the Jomo Cosmos - to ensure the national squad is not solely based on talent playing in Europe as it was under former coach Carlos Queiroz of Portugal. And in a country where the scars of apartheid have not yet healed, Somo has tried to instill the team with a sense of unity, forcing players of all races to blend on the pitch and mix off it. Many of South Africa's squad play at top European clubs, but this has been a mixed blessing. The players get valuable experience, but most of them also spend weeks sitting on the bench rather than playing. Yet that does not bother Somo. Quinton Fortune, who has spent much of his time with Manchester United as a substitute, was surprisingly included in the starting lineup against Paraguay and scored the decisive penalty. "If he's good enough for Man United, he's good enough for us,'' said Somo of his decision. Benni McCarthy, who excelled while on loan from Spain's Celta Vigo to Portugal's FC Porto with 12 goals in 10 matches and scored two stunners in a World Cup warmup game against Turkey, had evident trouble settling down against Paraguay and was substituted in the second half. McCarthy's agents hope that a sterling performance in South Korea will land a juicy transfer deal - Middlesborough being the main one on the cards. If he flunks, he risks ending up back on the transfer list at Celta Vigo, where he was deeply unhappy. On the injury front, South Africa has several worries. Lucas Radebe, the team's veteran defender and captain who was sidelined for nearly a year at Leeds because of injury, played the full game against Paraguay but he is still fighting his way back to his peak. Pierre Issa, who hobbled off in last Saturday's match with an ankle injury looks doubtful. There is also a question mark over Teboho Mokoena, who scored South Africa's first goal. Substitute midfielder Bennett Mnguni returned home earlier this week after his brother died.