JOHANNESBURG — A joyous day for South Africa. A not quite perfect result.
South Africa gave up the lead on a goal by Mexico's Rafael Marquez in the 79th minute and settled for a 1-1 draw Friday before 84,000 horn-blaring fans, whose euphoria over the start of the first World Cup on the continent was only slightly dimmed by the tie.
The match followed a day of celebration throughout all of Africa – though the excitement was tempered by the death of Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter in a car accident on the eve of the opener.
Beyond the personal heartbreak, the tragedy stole a moment of triumph from the 91-year-old anti-apartheid leader, who campaigned to bring the World Cup to his nation despite skepticism it could be pulled off. Mandela mourned with his family and opted not to attend the match or the colorful opening ceremony that preceded it.
Siphiwe Tshabalala had given the host nation a dream start, finishing off an excellent move in the 55th minute to set off wild celebrations at Soccer City. But the South Africans left defender Marquez open and he collected a left-wing cross to score the tying goal.
"We could easily have won the game," coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said. "All in all at the end a draw is a fair result. We are still in the competition, this group is very tough."
France and Uruguay played to 0-0 draw later Friday, leaving each team in Group A with a single point.
As pledged by coach Javier Aguirre, the Mexicans attacked in force from the kickoff and the hosts should have been a goal down within the first two minutes when goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune fumbled a low cross. Giovani dos Santos had a chance for an easy shot, but South Africa captain Aaron Mokoena blocked it.
The aggressive Mexicans continued to create chances, but lacked accuracy and, when Carlos Vela put the ball in the net from a flicked-on corner, it was called offsides.
The South Africans they went ahead with a superb series of passes and an accurate finishing shot. Teko Modise found Tshabalala clear of the Mexican defense, and the winger let fly with a powerful left-footed shot that flew past keeper Oscar Perez into the top far corner.
"It was a great goal, very special for me," Tshabalala said. "It was something of a present because I was celebrating my 50th appearance."
Forced to defend most of the time, the South Africans posed few threats but nearly scored just before halftime. Tshabalala's cross from the left found Katlego Mphela unguarded in front of goal but he failed to reach it.
"That could have been the killer goal." Tshabalala said. "It would have been a great goal. There's nothing we can do about it."
The Mexicans responded quickly and Dos Santos cut inside on the right for a left-footed drive that Khune pushed past the post.
While the racket in Soccer City seemed impressive, the South African goalkeeper said he was disappointed with the fan reception and noise making.
"The people who were making too much noise were the Mexicans, rather than hearing those vuvuzelas," he said. "It was more like a Mexico home game."
Mexico finally tied it when Andres Guardado floated in a cross from the left and Marquez was left completely free to control the ball and score from close range.
Earlier, the South African score set off a frenzy of cheers around the continent, wherever fans had gathered to watch their team.
In Durban, fireworks erupted in the evening sky and the din of the vuvuzelas – plastic horns – cranked up a few more notches as thousands of revelers watched the game in an official fan zone on the beach.
The Brazilian players practicing in Johannesburg stopped for a moment to listen to the cheers that filled the air.
When Mphela hit the post late in the game, it set off cries of "Noooooo" in the Cape Town press center. Some people jumped up, then sat back down with their heads in their hands, left to wonder what might have been.