Will South Africa get out of the 1st round?
South African national team rebuilding after departure of Joel Santana
No host nation has ever failed to advance beyond the first round of the World Cup in the long and storied history of the competition.
That unblemished record could fall, however, at the 2010 tournament in South Africa, considering the current chaotic state of the Bafana Bafana.
The South African national team failed to build on its surprising semifinal showing at last summer's FIFA Confederations Cup, and instead went into a downwards spiral, losing eight of its next nine matches, including setbacks in international friendlies to Norway and Iceland.
As a result, Brazilian Joel Santana stepped down from his post as national team manager, leaving South Africa in a dangerous freefall as it prepares to host and compete in the World Cup.
Santana's departure hardly came as a surprise to his legion of vocal critics — and he had a lot of detractors during his year-and-half stint in charge — who felt he was in over his head and didn't possess the tactical tools to inspire a team short of quality players.
Santana steps down
"I went on the trips to Norway and Iceland, and it was clear that the man was patently not capable," Mark Gleeson, Cape Town-based journalist and the world's leading African soccer expert, told CBCSports.ca.
"Eighteen months on [from taking over as manager], and he [hadn't] learned the language. It's been like a prison camp for the players. They weren't responding to him, and the training sessions were lame."
Things looked bleak for underachieving South Africa until this last summer, when its fourth-place finish at the Confederations Cup gave local fans new hope ahead of next month's World Cup. Not everybody was convinced, however, with many pointing out that South Africa's Confederations Cup success was a mirage.
"It certainly got everyone pumped up, but I think the reaction has been over the top. They won one game and it was against New Zealand — not exactly a world tour de force there," Gleeson stated.
"The team's performances were good, especially in the semis against an admittedly tired brazil. There was a lot of hope coming out of the tournament .... Unfortunately, the team suffered a string of defeats and lost all of that momentum."
Now, the general consensus is that South Africa won't even be competitive and able to put up a good fight at the World Cup.
Won't go to Angola
"I think most people here laugh at that prospect," Gleeson admitted. "Most of the sentiment is that it doesn't matter what country the World Cup is being played in, our team is so crap. I don't think that will change with one or two victories between now and then."
South Africa faces an uphill battle, one that is made even more daunting by the fact that new coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, the man Santana originally succeeded, didn't have the benefit of taking his team to the African Cup of Nations in Angola in January.
The biennial continental championship tournament would have provided South Africa the perfect opportunity to do some team building and test itself in competitive games against top competition. But Bafana Bafana failed to qualify for the tournament under Santana, and was forced to hastily organize international friendlies in the past few months in order to work itself into shape.
So, will Parreira, who led his native Brazil to World Cup glory in 1994, have enough time to rebuild South Africa into a contender?
"That's the million dollar question," Gleeson said. "A lot of the play of home teams at World Cups, historically, has often times run on instinct or emotional passion. There's not always been a logical scheme to it — and I think that's what we can expect next year from the South African team."
If any good came of Santana's departure, it's that it lead to Benni McCarthy's return to the national team.
A star striker with Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, McCarthy is a player of considerable skill who has appeared in over 75 games for South Africa and is the country's all-time leading scorer with 32 goals in international competition.
McCarthy, 32, is generally considered South Africa's most influential player and he has represented the Bafana Bafana squad with distinction at two World Cups, and finished joint top scorer at the 1998 African Cup of Nations. But he's also earned widespread criticism for what many describe as his petulant behaviour and for his periods of self-imposed exile from the national team.
The latest episode occurred when he refused to play in a pair of exhibition games for South Africa this past March. McCarthy cited a hamstring injury for missing the matches, but he played the full 90 minutes and scored a goal in Blackburn's 2-1 victory over Tottenham a few days later, raising serious doubts about the seriousness of the injury.
It didn't go unnoticed by Santana, who omitted the Blackburn star from his national team roster for the Confederations Cup. With Santana out of the picture, and with Bafana Bafana in utter disarray, Parreira has welcomed McCarthy back into the fold, recalling him to the national team.
"Santana had this philosophy of a family group — he was the father and it was very important to have comportment," Gleeson said. "He felt Benni was big-headed, so he got rid of a bad egg. That family philosophy might have worked in previous jobs he had, but here I don't think the players ever bought into it."