Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Bafana on the rise

(Written: June 11, 2013)

A new Bafana...
There was a time when away qualifiers almost held no fear for South Africa.

From Phil Masinga and Doctor Khumalo’s one-two combo against DR Congo in 1997 to Thabo Mngomeni’s magical bicycle kick in Congo in 2000, brilliance in hostile conditions became the norm as Bafana Bafana qualified for five consecutive major tournaments from 1998 to 2006.

After what can only be described as a lean spell, Saturday’s resounding 3-0 victory over the Central African Republic (CAR) was an overdue throwback to those good ol’ days.

The win was South Africa’s first away success in a World Cup qualifier since 2008 and the authority with which it was achieved was impressive.

Granted, the match was played in neutral Cameroon, but this is the same CAR team that dispatched Egypt in Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifying last year and is rated so highly by Fifa as to have been ranked 49th in the world late in 2012. Simply, whenever you score three goals away from home in Africa you have done something right.

And several things have gone right for Gordon Igesund since his takeover as South Africa coach 12 months ago.

One has been the discovery of multiple goal-scoring options. Bernard Parker’s burgeoning nose for goals at club level has translated to the national team, Katlego Mashego is in his prime and in South Africa’s last three outings there have been five different scorers.

Man on form...
Bernard Parker

It’s a far cry from when Katlego Mphela seemed Bafana’s one and only avenue for goals.

Suddenly, there’s scoring prowess to the team and this development has the potential to lift South Africa back amongst the upper echelons of the African game.

It is a major achievement of Igesund’s tenure – solving a scoring conundrum that’s been Bafana’s greatest headache since Benni McCarthy and Shaun Bartlett stopped being fixtures in the national side almost a decade ago. It’s no coincidence South Africa’s struggles in qualifying for major tournaments have coincided with this period.

Goals win games.

If goals win games then defence wins championships. Bafana have been solid at the back under Igesund. Saturday’s clean-sheet against CAR was the side’s third in a row and since the start of the Afcon Bafana have only conceded three goals in seven games.

More impressive, perhaps, is the list of top-class defenders out at the moment – Morgan Gould, Siyabonga Sangweni and Tšepo Masilela, for example.

It’s the by-product of the total team effort Igesund has advocated. The midfield, marshalled by Dean Furman and Reneilwe Letsholonyane, provides the platform and every squad member is ready to make an impact whenever called upon.

This balance bodes well.

It’s a steady base on which to build for a team that, in truth, should be amongst the world’s top 30 given the resources and talent at South Africa’s disposal. Healthy competition is good start. It means a spirited team, always on its toes. That, in turn, breeds the character that’s clearly growing within Bafana.

The work for Igesund and his team is not done, though. Ethiopia remain top of Group A after an impressive 2-1 win over Botswana in Lobatse, also on Saturday.

Ethiopia have 10 points, two ahead of South Africa, with two games to play. The equation, therefore, is simple for Igesund’s men when the two sides meet in Addis Ababa on Sunday. Bafana must win in order to have their destiny in their own hands.

Gordon Igesund's Bafana; something to celebrate 
It won’t be an easy. Coupled with the altitude – Addis Ababa is 2400 metres above sea-level – Ethiopia are a confident, fast improving side.

Speed is the name of their game and the Walia Antelopes impressed at this year’s Afcon in a group that featured 2012 champions Zambia as well as 2013’s eventual champions and runners-up, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

Further evidence of Ethiopia’s upward curve came earlier this month via club side Saint George who became the first Ethiopian side to progress to the group stage of an African club competition by qualifying for the Caf Confederation Cup round robin.

Even so, if this is to be the beginning of a return to successful times, South Africa have to take care of business in Ethiopia. Ultimately, even with all Bafana’s splendid progress, when it comes to these 2014 World Cup qualifiers the job is not done just yet.

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