By Gabriele Marcotti, SI.com
Midfielder Steven Pienaar is unquestionably the key to South Africa's hopes.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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Steven Pienaar is the most recongizable name and with good reason. He's coming off a stellar season with Everton and, together with the uber-talented -- but occasionally inconsistent -- Siphiwe Tshabalala will drive South Africa's midfield. Pienaar has the experience and creativity, Thsabalala the energy and directness. Behind them, Kagisho Dikgacoi is an old-school ball-winner, covering plenty of ground and putting in plenty of tackles. He'll be crucial in providing the balance between midfield and attack.
Itumeleng Khune has an outstanding skill set and, at 22, could use this World Cup as a springboard to a bigger stage in Europe. He's one of the most scouted goalkeepers in the competition, despite the fact that he's been slowed by injuries and that, unlike most of his teammates, his first love was cricket, rather than soccer. Main concern is that he checks in at just under 6-foot, which could be a problem.
Aaron Mokoena will be charged with holding the back four together. A midfielder recycled as a central defender, he too is not the biggest, though what he lacks in height he makes up for in intelligence and ability to read the game. With coach Carlos Alberto Parreira likely to opt for a diamond in midfield, width will be crucial and that's why Tsepo Masilela on the left and either Bryce Moon or Siboniso Gaxa will need to make plenty of forward runs.
What to watch for
Parreira has changed things around after replacing Johan Santana, definitively abandoning his predecessor's three-man defence and packed midfield. Instead, he's trying to play to South Africa's strengths: creative, attacking midfielders. But without guys who can finish, it won't do much good. Benni McCarthy, recalled to the national side after a long absence, has looked out of sorts and badly overweight.
Bernard Parker and Katlego Mphela have both failed to live up to expectations. At the back, the central partnership of Mokoena and Booth isn't the quickest ? look for Bongani Khumalo to step in.
Overall, this South Africa team looks weaker in just about every department -- except, perhaps, midfield -- than the one which qualified for World Cups in 1998 and 2002 and the nation knows it. Despite the excitement for the World Cup, expectations are being managed, particularly after the draw cruelly stuck South Africa in the same group as France. Still, if the crowds make their presence felt, the old fox Parreira -- who, lest we forget, has been a part of two different World Cup winning teams already -- could yet surprise a few people.
Key match in group stage
June 11 v Mexico. It's a cliché, but true nonetheless: host nations need to get off on the right foot to capitalize on the home-pitch advantage. South Africa desperately needs a win or a convincing draw, otherwise things go uphill very quickly.
Uruguay is no pushover and France is next: though, with a bit of luck, Les Bleus will have already qualified in which case Bafana Bafana may benefit from facing a weakened side. Still, you can't count on that: you need to get out of the gate quickly.
Celebrity scouting report: New York Red Bulls' Danleigh Borman*
I think we stand a good chance to go past the group stages. We have the home-ground advantage, and all the support of the country. Steven Pienaar and Benni McCarthy are the two main players on the team right now that are in form. For sure, there are a lot of youngsters that need to be called up. I think there's Frankin Cale that's playing back home, and Erwin Isaacs has been doing well for Santos. Daylon Claasen is playing for Ajax, and there are a few guys from Cape Town. All three teams [in Group A] are pretty strong right now, but obviously against the Mexicans I think that's going to be hard, because it's the first game and everything; I think that's going to be our hardest one for the World Cup. But we just need to get at them and work hard as a team and stay together, compact.
*The midfielder is a Cape Town native that currently plays in MLS. As told to SI.com.