Mexico’s Rafael Marquez struck 12 minutes from time to deny hosts South Africa a winning start to the World Cup at Soccer City in Johannesburg
Marquez controlled Andres Guardado’s cross at the back post and rifled past Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune to ensure the spoils were shared after a breathless opening to the tournament.
The Mexicans were the better team throughout, but they fell behind when Siphiwe Tshabalala fired in a left-foot thunderbolt from an angle on the left to give the hosts a lead in which their supporters revelled.
In an atmosphere bordering on ecstasy in Johannesburg, Tshabalala’s screamer threatened to provide the 19th World Cup with the fairytale beginning it was hoping for, before Marquez and Mexico intervened.
Even then, South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira saw his team almost snatch it in the dying moments, only for striker Katlego Mphela to agonisingly roll a shot against the post with keeper Oscar Perez beaten.
Yet over the 90 minutes, Parreira and his side were perhaps lucky to get away with a draw themselves in front of a partisan 84,490 crowd as Mexico failed to turn their startling superiority into victory.
For South Africa, the first African nation to host the footballing spectacular, what was supposed to be a day of celebration began with the announcement that the 13-year-old great-granddaughter of former president and icon Nelson Mandela had tragically died in a car crash on Thursday.
The 91-year-old Mandela stayed away from the opening ceremony – which preceded the game – to mourn, but through president Jacob Zuma, who declared the World Cup open, he asked people to “enjoy the game”.
It is unlikely many of the South African fans enjoyed the first 54 minutes of their moment in the global footballing spotlight as their team were comprehensively outplayed by a Mexico side that knocked the ball around the gorgeous surface with consummate skill and ease.
With Giovani sitting in the hole behind Carlos Vela and Guillermo Franco, the Mexicans had weapons Bafana Bafana simply could not handle – and the movement of the front three quickly began to cause the hosts all kinds of havoc.
Khune was only spared the embarrassment of his early fumble costing a goal by Aaron Mokoena’s reflex block to deny Giovani, before Franco headed a corner wastefully over.
South Africa were struggling to get out of their own half with any real consistency and former West Ham striker Franco was inadvertently keeping them in the contest, again heading off target when he should have done better and seeing another shot expertly saved by Khune.
Mpehla had been forced to feed off scraps until he was inches away from heading in Tshabalala’s cross just before the break, but soon after the interval the world had the goal for which it had been waiting.
Tshabalala, a 25-year-old Soweto-born left winger for Kaizer Chiefs, wrote his name down in football folklore with a strike of such pure quality it almost took a second for him to realise what he had done.
Mexico were shell-shocked, but after Giovani’s left-foot rocket was tipped away by Khune, up popped Marquez to slot in and quieten some of the vuvuzelas in the crowd.
Mphela’s late flirtation with the woodwork only compounded the agony for the hosts, but their World Cup campaign remains very much alive.