JOHANNESBURG – Opening games to tournaments are, by tradition, less than thrilling. Even by those low standards what happened on Saturday in Johannesburg was deflating.
It wasn't just that both games in the opening double-header -- South Africa against Cape Verde and Angola against Morocco -- finished goalless; it was the utter lack of quality in the opening match. Angola's tie with Morocco at least featured some cohesive attacking intent with occasional strings of purposive passes constructed by both sides. But all that served to do was demonstrate that the abysmal quality of the opener could not be explained by the weather.
Last time South Africa hosted the Cup of Nations, in 1996, it won it for the only time. That run began with a 3-0 win over Cameroon in front of a fevered crowd that could hardly have been more different from Saturday's damp squib. Its captain then, Neil Tovey, expected - as most did most other commentators - that South Africa, with its resources and infrastructure, would go on to become one of the dominant forces on the continent. The feeling was that 1996 should be a platform, the beginning of great things.
Instead, it now stands as a peak from which everything else has been decline: South Africa were losing finalists in 1998, semi-finalists in 2000, quarter-finalists in 2002, third in the group in 2004, bottom of the group in 2006 and 2008, and failed even to qualify in 2010 and 2012.
In fact, South Africa might not have qualified this time round had it not taken over hosting duties from Libya following the conflict there. The stadiums left from the 2012 World Cup give the nation facilities as good as any in the world. Having a Ferrari, though, does not mean you can drive it.
Whether it is down to the Confederation of African Football or the local committee, the organization was shambolic. It takes a special kind of incompetence to take a stadium that hosted the World Cup final 30 months ago and make journalists yearn for the steamy two-row press-box of Malabo in Equitorial Guinea, or the dusty terrace of Benguela, Angola. Nobody expects perfect internet or replays in HD, but a desk might be nice; there was not a single one for the written media.
Nor, at the moment, does South Africa have much to put into its stadiums. Under Gordon Igesund, who took over in June, South Africa has tended to play conservative, possession-based football. It might not have been particularly thrilling but the feeling was that control of midfield was a major step to controlling the game and that if it could find either a finisher in form or a dash of creativity, it could prosper. Yet in that opening game, it was almost nihilistically awful. Although Phala Thuso, the right-winger, looked initially dangerous, once Cape Verde had closed him down, South Africa struggled to string three passes together.
"The guys were very, very nervous," said Igesund afterwards. "I've never seen them like that. We weren't keeping possession the way we can do; we were rushing it. There was a big gap between the midfield and the forwards and so we played it forward too quickly too often. We hit long balls in a way we haven't really since I took over."
If nerves are such an inhibiting factor in an opening game against a minnow making its debut in the tournament, it's hard not to wonder how South Africa might react if it found itself in a real crunch game. It wasn't even as though the stands were full: although the game was a sell-out, the heavy rain discouraged thousands of fans from attending, adding to the sense of anti-climax.
And why now? Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the opening goal of the World Cup at the same stadium in 2010, cutting in from the left and shaping a shot into the top corner, but on Saturday he was dreadful, overhitting crosses again and again: why was he inspired against Mexico but timorous against Cape Verde?
The most plausible explanation is that there is a sense of anxiety about South Africa as a whole in this tournament. At the World Cup, it could have lost every game and so long as it wasn't defeated by an embarrassing margin, nobody would have minded too much. Here there is a strange combination both of expectations - South African fans believe, as Tovey does, that 1996 should have been the start of a period of domination - but also fear, for there is an awareness that, having failed to qualify for the last two tournaments, there is no guarantee South Africa would have made it to the finals had it not qualified automatically as hosts. (Libya, after all, are not in South Africa, having lost to Algeria in their qualifying play-off.)
For its part, Cape Verde, which was criticized heavily in some parts of the South African media for its negativity, seemed surprised by how poor South Africa was. Platini, laid through by Babanca, scuffed the only chance of the first half badly wide, and it was easy to speculate on what might have happened had it been more prepared to abandon its game plan and try to take advantage of South Africa's clear deficiencies. South Africa improved significantly after the break, but the best opportunity fell Cape Verde's way, Heldon's header being pushed wide by Itumeleng Khune.
The South Africa goalkeeper had spoken of the game as a must-win and, while that was an exaggeration, Angola and Morocco both looked far more progressive teams than Cape Verde. A draw in an opening game is never disastrous, but South Africa's route to the quarter-final is far more complicated now than it appeared on Saturday morning. South Africa was the first Word Cup host to fail to make it through the group stage; there is a serious danger it will become the first Cup of Nations host to do so as well.