South Africa are on the cusp of the most exciting chapter in their football history as they prepare to stage the FIFA World Cup ™ finals.
Bafana Bafana will, nevertheless, set a new benchmark in the preliminaries for the 2010 showpiece by becoming the first host nation to participate in the qualifying competition. South Africa are guaranteed an automatic berth in the finals, but because the preliminaries will also serve to qualify teams for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, which will be hosted six months earlier in Angola, they will participate.
Qualifying for seven consecutive CAF Africa Nations Cups may have been a fine achievement but the South Africans were made to sweat before clinching their place at Ghana 2008. The result of their travails was a fall down the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to their lowest position in over a decade. Worse was to come at the finals themselves with a disappointing return of two draws in three games, and three goals scored against five conceded.
But drawn in the same group as powerhouse Nigeria as well as the unknown quantity of Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, it will prove a potential baptism of fire for new coach Joel Santana.
The Brazilian has been brought in to replace compatriot Carlos Alberto Parreira, who quit unexpectedly after 15 months for family reasons. Parreira had begun the building of the foundations of a side that South Africa hope will prove competitive when they host the 2010 finals.
South Africa are well aware of the importance of building a strong home side for 2010 and, although flying low under the radar at the moment, they hope to be in among the big guns in two years from now.
Santana is also looking to bring in new blood alongside a generation of stars now on the wrong side of 30. The likes of Benni McCarthy, Sibusiso Zuma and Siyabonga Nomvete could still be around come 2010, but the Brazilian is pinning his hopes on Teko Modise, Thembinkosi Fanteni and their ilk as he builds for the future.
It is only 15 years ago that South Africa was re-admitted to FIFA, yet they have amassed an impressive international record since. A first (1996), second (1998) and third (2000) place at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, as well as two appearances at the finals of the FIFA World Cup (1998, 2002) , is something that most other countries in Africa can only dream of.