Mexico rallies to tie host South Africa, 1-1, in World Cup opener

When South Africa invited the world over for a little soccer party this month, it was expected they would serve the food, chill the drinks and maybe provide a little entertainment.

What very few people expected is that they might actually try to win some of the door prizes.

Looks like someone forgot to tell the South Africans that. Because after the host team played Mexico to a 1-1 tie in Friday’s World Cup opener, South African Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is confident his team is going to spoil the party for somebody.

With a win in just one of its next two Group A games against Paraguay and France — who played to scoreless tie Friday — South Africa has a good shot of qualifying for the second round.

“We’re still in the competition,” Parreira said. “This group is very tough. In this group the team that makes four points will qualify. So we’re now in the competition.”

And for that he can thank a sloppy Mexican team that repeatedly blew scoring chances to take the Bafana Bafana out of the game in the first half.

Friday’s match capped a long celebration for South Africa, the first African country to stage a World Cup. And it was a celebration that peaked this week with a downtown parade before a quarter-million people who came out to salute Parreira’s team.

So when the players stepped on to the field before nearly 85,000 enthusiastic vuvuzela-tooting fans, most dressed in the green and yellow of South Africa, it was an overwhelming experience for a team largely lacking in big-game experience.

“It was the opening game, which always puts a lot of pressure on the home team,” Parreira said. “But] we could not disappoint these people behind us. The whole week they were giving us support.”

Early on, the pressure seemed to get the best of nervous hosts, who became tentative trying to avoid mistakes. If the South Africans were on their heels, though, the Mexicans couldn’t knock them over.

Less than two minutes into the game, Mexican defender Paul Aguilar hit a nice crossing pass from the right wing that South African keeper Itumeleng Khune intercepted with a diving save in the middle of the box.

In the 15th minute, Guillermo Franco headed Giovani Dos Santos’ corner kick over the top of an empty net — the first of two headers he missed on in the first half — and four minutes after that a strong left-footed shot by Dos Santos sliced to the left, just missing a goal.

In all Mexico had at least half a dozen excellent scoring chances in the first half yet put the ball in the net just once, when Carlos Vela redirected a corner kick about seven minutes before the break. But that goal was waived off because Vela was offsides.

“We had our chances,” Mexican Coach Javier Aguirre said. “And we wasted them.”

The South Africans made good on their first real scoring chance when Kagisho Dikgacoi found the speedy Siphiwe Tshabalala behind the Mexican defense 10 minutes into the second half.

Left with no help, Mexican keeper Oscar Perez had no chance to stop Tshabalala’s strong left-footed shot.

The desperate Mexicans got the equalizer in the 79th minute when an unmarked Rafael Marquez settled a long cross from Andres Guardado on the edge of the six-yard box, then beat Khune with a low strike.

The South Africans weren’t done, though, nearly stealing the win in the final minute of regulation when Katlego Mphela’s open shot bounced off the goalpost.

Marquez’s goal may turn out to be the one that saves Mexico’s World Cup chances. With a loss Friday, it would have faced a daunting climb to get out of group play. But with all four teams equal in the standings after one game, the Mexicans face the same scenario as South Africa — win against either France or Uruguay and they stand a good chance of advancing.

“We have a bitter taste in our mouths with the tie. But it’s what we got and now we have to look to beat France,” Aguirre said.

The newly confident South Africans face the same two opponents, in reverse order.

“This group,” Parreira promised “will be decided in the last game against France.”

And won’t that be a party?