By Mo Allie in Brazil
As if being competitive against a Neymar-led Brazil with a full complement of 11 players wasn’t tough enough South Africa, down to 10 men for the last third of the game, surpassed the expectations of even their most ardent fans when they held the hosts to a goalless draw in their opening Group A game at the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia.
Owen da Gama’s side, despite being restricted to counter attacks, looked dangerous on the break when playing with their full complement in the first half but the dismissal of Mothobi Mvala on the hour mark completely changed the dynamic of the contest as they were forced to defend stoically against a dominant Brazil for the last half hour.
And how well they coped with the considerable threat of Barcelona ace Neymar, Manchester City-bound Gabriel Jesus and Lazio star Felipe Anderson who showed signs of frustration the longer they failed to breach South Africa’s dogged defence.
And when Brazil did find a way past South Africa’s rearguard, they found goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune in magnificent form. The 29-year-old Kaizer Chiefs custodian produced a series of blinding, acrobatic saves to deny Neymar in both halves.
Right back Abbubaker Mobara enhanced his reputation by shackling Brazil’s superstar with a superb display of pick-pocket- like tackling, wonderful anticipation and concentration while fellow defenders Rivaldo Coetzee, Erick Mathoho and Deolin Mekoa stepped up a gear to compensate for the loss of Mvala.
With Brazil launching wave after wave of attacks.South Africa also had a huge slice of luck midway through the second half when an unmarked Jesus saw his simple tap-in at the far post strike the upright with Khune prone on the ground.
It was a different story in the first half as South Africa dealt competently with Brazil’s attacking threat, often counter-attacking with flair and skill that had even the home fans applauding. Keagan Dolly showed his class with a series of intelligent runs and defence-splitting passes that France-based Lebogang Mothiba and Menzi Masuku failed to convert.
Dolly himself came agonizingly close to breaking the deadlock early in the second half when his shot from a difficult angle went narrowly wide, that after a lovely exchange of passes that freed the SA captain in the danger zone.
The draw was a massive moral victory for Da Gama’s side who should now approach their remaining two games against Denmark and Iraq, who earlier played to a goalless draw, with a spring in their step.