It’s more than just football

2013-02-02 00:00

IF you aren’t at Moses Mabhida stadium or in front of a television at 8.30 pm tonight watching Bafana Bafana’s Afcon quarter-final against Mali, you’d better have a good excuse.

Today’s clash is about more than football. For the first time in a very long time, Bafana Bafana have given us reason to be proud. They reached the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time in 11 years.

That said, the squad is all too aware that the job is far from done. Victory tonight will guarantee a home semi-final against either Ivory Coast or Nigeria at the same venue on Wednesday night.

Coach Gordon Igesund was in a relaxed mood yesterday afternoon, and while he said that right up until kickoff he would continue thinking of ways to counter a powerful Malian side that is ranked 25th in the world, the majority of his decison-making is already done.

“I decided on the starting lineup two days ago and we have been working hard with those players since,” he said yesterday. “One thing I can tell you is that we won’t have the same team out there.”

But that was about as much Igesund was prepared to say regarding how he is setting up for the biggest clash of his international career.

“I can’t tell you what the gameplan is, because if I tell you I tell everybody. But we know what we want to do and we know how we want to play.”

Mali finished third at last year’s continental showpiece, and boast one of the world’s more decorated central midfielders in Seydou Keita, formerly of Barcelona, but Igesund refuses to focus his attention on one player.

“Obviously we all know what a good player he [Keita] is, but they are a side with many good players so we will have to be at our best,” he said. “We don’t fear any player from any team, we respect them, but we don’t fear them.”

With Oldham Athletic’s Dean Furman highly impressive in Bafana’s last two group matches, he is likely to get the nod in the middle of the park again meaning that he would have the unenviable task of dealing with the Keita threat. But Igesund might be tempted to go with two holding midfielders and include Kagisho Dikgacoi alongside Furman, while the other major talking point is whether or not striker Lehlohonolo Majoro will start ahead of Katlego Mphela.

Bafana will be expecting the Malians to keep the ball well while making good movements off of it. Much has been written about the height and physical strength of the West Africans. To dominate the game, the home side must simply be quicker than their opposition while keeping the ball on the ground and passing it crisply and accurately.

And, if all else fails, Bafana can rest assured that if things aren’t going well the Durban crowd will be there to lift them up.

“When you’re representing your country and you’ve got 55 million people behind you wanting you to do the same thing, I think that’s a very proud moment,”said Igesund, adding that his last few weeks as national coach had taught him much about South Africa.

“I have learnt that South Africa is a fantastic country. The people have treated us and all the teams so well,” he said. “The support out there is really that of a rainbow nation and just the passion of the supporters has been overwhelming.”

But sport is cruel, and support will certainly not be enough to see Bafana home. To win tonight it will take a performance of intensity similar to the 2-0 win over Angola at the Moses that kick-started the campaign. Igesund doesn’t think that the dreaded drama of penalty shootouts will come into play.

“I think we’ll have a winner in normal time or extra time,” he said, suggesting that his side would not sit back and defend tonight. “But if it does go to penalties then we are ready. We have been practising them every day after training.”

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