By Tony Ubani, in South Africa
RAFAEL Marquez denied South Africa a dream start to their FIFA World Cupâ„¢ with a late equaliser for Mexico in a 1-1 draw in an absorbing Opening Match at Soccer City.
Carlos Alberto Parreiraâ€™s hosts appeared on course for three points when Siphiwe Tshabalala fired them in front with a superb 55th-minute strike. But after Teko Modise had missed two clear chances to seal victory, Marquez rescued the draw that Mexicoâ€™s first-half dominance deserved with a close-range finish 11 minutes from time.
South Africaâ€™s players were singing as they came down the tunnel before stepping out into a wall of noise inside Soccer City. But after referee Ravshan Irmatov blew the first whistle of these finals, it was Mexico who looked the team in tune.
Their positive start might have yielded the earliest goal of any FIFA World Cup Opening Match as Alessandro Dos Santos nearly struck inside two minutes. Paul Aguilar delivered a low cross and when goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune failed to smother it, Dos Santos looked poised to bury the loose ball only for Aaron Mokoena to make a vital block.
Javier Aguirreâ€™s Mexico created a steady supply of chances as they dominated possession in the first half-hour. After Guillermo Franco had sent a header over from a corner, the lively Dos Santos threatened again when he surged upfield from the centre-circle before slicing a shot wide from the edge of the box. After 32 minutes Carlos Vela sent a dinked ball over the Bafana backline to Franco but he was foiled by Khune. When that pair next combined, Mexico got the ball into the net but Vela was offside as he turned in Francoâ€™s flick-on from a corner.
Once or twice South Africaâ€™s interpassing almost opened up the Mexico rearguard only for the final ball to go astray. But it was not for nothing that South Africa entered this contest unbeaten in 12 games and home hopes rose before the break when Tshabalala whipped in a dangerous ball that Katlego Mphela just failed to get his head to.
It was Tshabalala himself who made the breakthrough by concluding a four-man move in spectacular style ten minutes after the restart.
Latching on to a long diagonal through-ball by Kagisho Dikgacoi, he broke into the penalty box on the left before unleashing a superb left-footed shot high into the opposite corner. Soccer City exploded in celebration and after Khune had turned behind Dos Santoâ€™s rising shot, Modise could have put the game out of sight.
He had already spurned one clear chance, albeit when ruled offside, when he broke through in the 72nd minute. Under pressure from Francisco Rodriguez, however, he failed to get the power on his shot to trouble Perez.
The hosts paid for their profligacy when Andres Guardado picked out the unmarked Marquez at the far post and he gave Khune no chance with a near-post finish. Even then South Africa might have snatched a winner only for Mphelaâ€™s left-foot strike to rebound to safety off the post.