DURBAN (S. Africa): The friendly football international between South Africa and England today promises to be quite an event judged by the build-up.
South African officials axed the national coach because they did not agree with his selections, only to get substantial dollops of egg on their faces as five “new” players withdrew due to injury or club commitments in Europe.
And as temporarily suspended coach Shakes Mashaba kicks his heels, he could seek sympathy from a guest at a match that marks the international launch of the South African bid to host the 2010 World Cup.
Widely travelled Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz was in charge of Bafana Bafana (The Boys) for two years from 2000 before being stabbed in the back as domestic football politics reared its ugly head once more.
Considered inadequate by South Africa, he was wooed by Alex Ferguson, appointed assistant to the Scot with the Midas touch, and won the respect of hard-to-please midfielder Roy Keane as United regained the English Premiership.
While South Africa have plunged from crisis to crisis, picking up plenty of negative publicity along the way despite the efforts of their spin doctors, England have revelled in the pre-match hype.
Football has been confined to the back seats as the new African hairstyle of Manchester United golden boy David Beckham dominated the front pages of South African newspapers.
Denying the latest change had anything to do with his visit to Africa, the footballer who has become a legend through his swerving free kicks, offered a simple explanation after arriving in the Indian Ocean city.
“My hair was touching my face so I needed to do something about it,” he told a media conference.
Not far behind the golden “corn rows” of Becks was the meeting with another icon, former president Nelson Mandela, who shook hands 11 years ago in Johannesburg with a then unknown United teenager sporting a regular haircut.
How times have changed! Beckham is now the highest paid footballer in the world and instantly recognisable everywhere except the United States – a flaw soon to be fixed when United tour there.
As if that was not enough, England arrived in new grey suits designed by another star, Italian catwalk king Giorgio Armani, with underwear, belts, shoes, sunglasses and watches thrown in for good measure.
When the time finally arrives for the football before a sell-out 50,000 crowd at a stadium owned by the Natal Sharks provincial rugby union team, the “circus” could take another turn.
Stand-in South Africa coach and former star Jomo Sono says he wants to give all his players – and that means 20 – a chance to “rub shoulders” with Beckham, United midfielder Paul Scholes and Liverpool striker Michael Owen.
Perhaps mindful of the “yellow card” he received from world football ruling body FIFA after changing his entire team at half-time in a recent friendly against Australia, England manager Sven Goran Eriksson was less ambitious.
“We are permitted five changes and I would like to make a few more if necessary, but there will be no repeat of the Australia experiment,” he stressed.
The countries met in Manchester six years ago with a disputed Ian Wright goal giving England a 2-1 win in a match remembered most for a vicious tackle on Paul Gascoigne by South African hardman Innocent Buthelezi. – AFP