The 2009 Confederations Cup opened with a goalless stalemate between hosts South Africa and Asian champions Iraq at Ellis Park here on Sunday.
With Group A favourites Spain, in action against minnows New Zealand later on Sunday, expected to steamroll into the semi-finals, this point apiece has at least kept both teams in the running to join the Euro 2008 winners as group runners-up.
South Africa’s Brazilian coach Joel Santana gave a starting place to the nation’s favourite footballer, Teke Modise, who sat out the warm-up win over Poland, with Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, who had limped off injured in that match, on the bench.
Iraq coach Bora Milutinovic, opting for a five-man backline, had the luxury of fielding a full-strength side captained by striker Younis Mahmoud with the artful Nashat Akram in midfield.
In a cagey first half, one of the rare bright moments came early on when Russian-based midfielder MacBeth Sibaya forced Iraq goalkeeper Mohammed Kassid into an athletic dive to keep out his angled 20-metre attempt from the right.
That effort came minutes after Kassid had safely scooped up Bernard Parker’s shot from outside the box.
Akram, who will be the first Iraqi to play in western Europe after signing for Steve McClaren’s Dutch side FC Twente, had a frustrating time, sending one free-kick over Itumeleng Khune’s bar and another into the South African wall.
South Africa striker Thembinkosi Fanteni picked up a yellow card from Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda after an over-zealous tackle on Iraqi midfielder Karrar Jasim in the opening minutes.
With a quiet or perhaps not-so-quiet word from Santana ringing in their ears, South Africa emerged for the second half with much more urgency, encouraging the home crowd of 60,000 or so which included South Africa President Jakob Zuma.
Dominating play, the hosts had a clear chance in the 69th minute only for Fanteni’s miscued shot to edge wide of Kassid’s right-hand post, the Maccabi Haifa striker banging his head with his fist in frustration.
After Akram received the second booking of the encounter Fanteni was at the centre of the action again, rising above the Iraqi defence to head Siboniso Gaxa’s corner just over the crossbar.
Katlego Mashego then came on for Fanteni and the Orlando Pirates striker quickly found himself with only Kassid to beat in the box, but the Iraqi keeper did well to snuff out the danger.
With five minutes left on the clock, Parker will never know how he failed to tap the ball home when faced with an open goal.
Santana introduced Pienaar in a last-ditch effort to grab the points but to no avail.
South Africa are next up against New Zealand on Wednesday with Iraq facing the Spaniards.
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