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Bafana Bafana Readies for Confederations Cup Opener

Like other football teams preparing to battle it out for the Confederations Cup title, South Africa's national team, Bafana Bafana, has been training hard each day this week, despite a bitterly cold snap and unseasonable rain. VOA's Delia Robertson visited the squad at a training session at Orlando Stadium in Soweto.

South Africa's Bafana Bafana will play Iraq in the opening match of the Confederations Cup at Ellis Park Stadium this Sunday. They will take the field knowing they cannot afford to lose the game if they wish to make it to the semi-finals.

Currently ranked 72nd against Iraq's 77th place in the FIFA world rankings, Bafana Bafana will draw some comfort from its recent defeat of Poland in a warm-up game. Poland is ranked 39th by FIFA.

Bafana Bafana will also have to beat New Zealand next Wednesday because the team's chances against Spain, the favorites to win the tournament, are less optimistic. Squad coach Joel Santana told reporters after practice this week, that his team will be taking it one game at a time.

"I need to wait now, take it in now. I need to win the Iraq (game)," Santana said. "I need to win the New Zealand (game) for us, that the players have confidence."

Bafana Bafana comes to this tournament, often called the Festival of Champions, with a checkered past. In 1996, just four years after the demise of apartheid and the country's re-admission into international soccer and against all predictions, Bafana Bafana defeated Algeria to become African champions.

It was a heady moment for the team and for the country and the future of South African football looked assured.

But those high hopes would soon be dashed. Despite qualifying for two previous FIFA World Cups where it never advanced out of the first round, the team's record until last year on the African continent was particularly dismal.

In 2007 the South African Football Association [SAFA] appointed Carlos Parreira national coach. The highly respected Brazilian coach had previously taken four national teams to the FIFA World Cup finals and under his tutelage a more professional, more confident Bafana Bafana began to emerge.

But in 2008 Parreira stepped aside to spend more time with his wife, who was ill. At his recommendation SAFA appointed Santana, who has built on the foundation laid by Parreira and the team has started once again to win matches.

The team is made up of some older seasoned players such as the captain Aaron Mokoena, and a group of young, exciting players like Teko Modise and Siboniso Gaxa. Mokoena, a steady stalwart who has been on the team since 1999, has proven a good leader perhaps because he still holds the record for being the youngest soccer player, at 18, to represent South Africa.

Playing for the host team in the Festival of Champions is a dream come true for each member of the squad. Katlego Mashego told visitors to his team's training camp this week that he and his team mates will be playing hard and playing to win.

"It is some that I have waited for a long time, so it is an opportunity that we are going to grab with both hands, and we are playing at home so we cannot let anyone come in to our house and boss us around, because we are playing at home," Moshego said. "So we should give people hell when they come here and we are ready and we hope to achieve a lot in this tournament."

While few pundits expect Bafana Bafana to make the final four, South African supporters will be hoping that Moshego is right, and that Bafana Bafana will indeed achieve a lot in the Confederations Cup.