Bafana Bafana: Embarrassing early exit looms for World Cup host

Bafana Bafana sadness: South African officials are asking local fans to find other World Cup teams to root for.

By , Associated Press

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    Bafana Bafana: With the home team at risk of an embarrassing early exit, South African officials are asking local fans to find other World Cup teams to root for. A South African flag is waved on top of a building as thousands of supporters of South Africa's national soccer team cheer.
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It's come to this. With the home team at risk of an embarrassing early exit, South African officials are asking local fans to find other World Cup teams to root for. Even the vuvuzelas, those din-creating plastic horns, are quieting down.

To most of the soccer world, South Africa was a decided underdog in this tournament. To millions of South Africans, their beloved Bafana Bafana, as the team is known, was bound for glory, and Wednesday night's 3-0 defeat by Uruguay was devastating.

"As people walked home, for the first time the vuvuzelas were silent — they were dragged home in pain," said Danny Jordaan, CEO of the local organizing committee, in a day-after postmortem.

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"The entire country fell into the kind of quietness you find at a monk's funeral," said The Sowetan, a daily newspaper, describing the mood when Uruguay seized the lead.

South Africa, with a tie and a loss in two matches, still has a slim chance to advance with a victory over France next week, depending on other results in its group. But there's a strong possibility it will become the first host nation to fail to reach the knockout phase of a World Cup.

"We have a moral obligation to fight to the very end against France — we can't put our heads down," said South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, a Brazilian who guided his own national team to a World Cup title in 1994.

Organizers — and the government — appealed to South African fans to maintain their passion for the tournament even if Bafana Bafana exits, and to find other teams to support.

"We hope that we as a nation will remain as great hosts," said Rich Mkhondo, the organizing committee's spokesman, who suggested that his compatriots cheer for the other African teams in the field.

Mkhondo even invoked South Africa's greatest hero — 91-year-old anti-apartheid leader and former president Nelson Mandela.

"Remember Mandela's words, to say in times of pain, 'Keep yourself up, keep your chin up,'" Mkhondo said. "This for Africans is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we hope they will embrace."

The government echoed the plea.

"This is not the time to pull back, regardless of the disappointment we may feel after Bafana Bafana's loss," said spokesman Themba Maseko.

"Since the opening game. ... South Africans have heeded the call to be good hosts, coming out in numbers to create a thrilling atmosphere," he said. "We need to continue doing this, irrespective of Bafana Bafana's performance."

Jordaan, at a breakfast briefing with journalists, said the South African loss and the stunning upset of Spain by Switzerland added up to "a day of shock and pain" on Wednesday. He noted that it also was a national holiday marking the 1976 protest march by Soweto students that ignited anti-apartheid clashes.

One reporter suggested that Jordaan urge South African fans to rally behind North Korea, which appears to have the smallest number of its own fans at the World Cup.

Jordaan laughed, but praised the North Korean team.

"I'm sure they will develop strong support," he said.

Many of the foreigners who have come to South Africa for the World Cup have adopted Bafana Bafana as a team to root for.

"Everyone's buying Bafana," said Peter Venter, a manager at a FIFA shop in Cape Town. "It has been a madhouse here. Germans, English, South Americans are buying South African caps, flags, scarves, beanies."

Kate Wilke, 29, of Los Angeles, was among a throng of visitors in Cape Town who cheered in vain for South Africa as they watched a telecast of the Uruguay match.

"You must be a South African while you're here," she said.

Aside from the home team's predicament, Jordaan said he was pleased by the tournament thus far — with fans heeding calls to arrive earlier for matches, and ticket sales on the verge of surpassing Germany in 2006 to become the second-highest in World Cup history after the 1994 tournament in the United States.

"It's a tournament of severe host-nation pain, but a celebration from the organizing committee perspective," he said.

One concern, looking ahead, is possible traffic congestion July 11 when the final is played at Soccer City in Johannesburg. Jordaan urged fans to use public transportation and warned that access by private cars to Soccer City would be restricted.

Jordaan expressed relief that the police were now planning to take over security duties for the rest of the tournament at four stadiums where security stewards had gone on strike over wages.

Asked if the organizers would need to pay the police for the extra deployments, he acknowledged there were "cost implications" but gave no details.

He praised the police for "an incredible job" handling the security duties, and added, "We have the responsibility to create an environment where fans can celebrate."

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Associated Press writers Stuart Condie in Johannesburg and Raf Casert in Cape Town contributed to this report.

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