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South Africa goes through after big scare

PLAYERS huddled in midfield. The fans were restless in the stands. For a few minutes after South Africa's 2-0 loss to Spain, success in the Confederations Cup depended on whether Iraq could score a couple of goals against New Zealand in the other group game.

When that game ended scoreless, huge cheers erupted around the Free State Stadium because the host nation had reached the semifinals, a benchmark that meant momentum would be maintained for the coming months, possible up to next year's World Cup.

Strangely, the players broke from their embrace subdued. By now, they know the Confederations Cup has not solved the one huge question hanging over their team: Are they any good?

As World Cup host, Bafana Bafana had failed to beat Iraq, ranked 77th in the world, and were outclassed by Spain, which coasted for much of yesterday's second half.

Bafana Bafana, though, is now assured playing time until the final day of the tournament, and could well get a high-profile semifinal against Brazil or Italy.

"It's going to be tough. I'm just happy we got through," South Africa midfielder Steven Pienaar said.

Captain Aaron Mokoena was also celebrating.

"The most important thing is that we went through," Mokoena said. "Our goal was to gain experience and take it to the World Cup."

Often, Bafana Bafana earned their experience the very hard way.

The team was unable to beat Iraq at home with about 50,000 fans in the stands, even though the Asian champions are ranked five places lower than its own dipping ranking of 72.

Against Spain, too, its offense was sputtering again, not managing a single shot on goal. Had Spain needed the goals, it easily could have run up the scoreline.

For coach Joel Santana, all that is conjecture.

"What is important is that Bafana Bafana have qualified," the Brazilian said. "My team has gained a lot of experience from this game. It's great preparation for the World Cup."

In a sense, his own job was riding on the result.

Surely the critics would have come after him again. After a series of bad results over the past half year, the fans were quickly turning against him and it was only a 2-0 win over 82nd-ranked New Zealand which bought him respite.

Qualification, despite another loss, should now earn him more time to build a better team.

"For the World Cup I have one year and one year is all the time," Santana said.


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