What a year for Bafana

2010-12-18 00:00

BAFANA Bafana began the year ranked 85th in the world and clawing their way back from a disastrous two-year period under Joel Santana. The hosts were rank outsiders to reach the second round of the World Cup.

Carlos Alberto Parreira had returned in November and begun with none-too-promising goalless draws against Japan and Jamaica. Slowly, though, Bafana gathered momentum under Parreira, especially as the effects of training camps in Brazil and Germany began to show.

By June, the team had notched some impressive results, though their ranking had only crept up to 83rd. Still there was optimism and a wave of support for the national team that culminated in 200 000 people flooding the streets of Sandton for a pre-World Cup parade when 50 000 had been expected.

Unfortunately, though, it was too little too late. A 1-1 draw against Mexico was promising before the 3-0 disaster against Uruguay. The 2-1 win over France was an outstanding performance against a team in disarray, though a world-class line-up nonetheless.

Buoyed by their competitive performance at the World Cup, Bafana’s impressive results continued under the man tasked with leading the team to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Pitso Mosimane. They have ended the year 34 places higher in the world rankings than at the start of 2010, in 51st.

The position Bafana are in now was where they would have liked to have been in June, on the eve of hosting the world’s greatest tournament. South Africa can now only wish that things had gone better under Santana after a promising Confederations Cup in mid-2009, where Brazil and Spain were run close. Instead the team went into freefall.

If, after the Confed, Bafana had continued to progress up the rankings, they could have come into the World Cup in a more buoyant, solid state of confidence rather than having the distinct feeling that they had been playing catch-up, and then some, in Parreira’s seven-month “rescue operation” preparation.

One can only wonder what might have been had Parreira not had to vacate the job due to his wife’s illness in February 2008, just weeks after his best result in his first stint, a 3-0 friendly win over Paraguay in Pretoria that was no fluke and certainly suggested the team were on the right track under the former World Cup winner.

After a year in which Bafana have lost just twice and risen to just outside the top 50, there is no doubt there is new life in the national team after a half-decade in the doldrums, where the low point was a failure to score a goal, losing all three games, at the 2006 African Cup of Nations in Egypt.

But it is a fragile rebirth, and one that will need constant care and nurturing if it is to bear fruit. If the SA Football Association could finally get its development house in order that would also benefit Mosimane greatly in his task.

Their last result of the year — a 1-0 defeat against USA where the South Africans’ build-ups were abysmally slow and over-elaborate — was a stern warning to Bafana that there is still so much work left to do. A USA B team’s goal was scored by 17-year-old Juan Agudelo, highlighting the differences in depth between the two former World Cup hosts.

Has a 17-year-old ever scored for South Africa? Certainly not since isolation. USA ploughed their 1994 World Cup windfall into development and structures, and that’s why they have grown in strength since. They reached the second round as hosts and this year again, but there is no doubt which was the more quality line-up between the class of 1994 (Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones etc …) and 2010 (Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey).

Still, 2010 definitely has given Bafana something to build on. The South Africans played 17 official matches, winning nine, drawing six and losing two. They scored 26 goals and conceded 10. Only once, against Uruguay, did the team concede more than a single goal in a game.

Admittedly, some of their wins came against mediocre opposition, and a 4-0 victory over Thailand and 5-0 thrashing of Guatemala have inflated the “goals for” column. But there were also some quality sides beaten — France, Denmark, Colombia and Ghana. Draws against Paraguay in Asuncion, Bulgaria in Soweto and Mexico in the entertaining World Cup opening match also show how much more competitive South Africa were in 2010 compared to recent history.

The defeat by Uruguay showed the difference between a friendly and a World Cup game against quality opposition. It did not help Bafana that they had drawn the surprise package of the tournament in Group A — no one could have predicted that Uruguay, then ranked 16th, would reach the semi-finals, inspired by player of the tournament Diego Forlan. And of course the hosts hardly needed refereeing decisions to go against them too — a 1-0 defeat at Loftus would have left the second round far more attainable.

But the South Africans still found themselves in with an improbable outside chance at 2-0 up against 10-man France at the break in Bloemfontein, needing two more goals to progress.

In the end it was not to be. It was, in some ways, a year of unbearable disappointment for Bafana and the millions across the cultural spectrum who supported them, becoming the first World Cup hosts to exit in the first round. But it has also been a year of hope. A national team that had become an embarrassment were competitive again.

Most importantly, after lows that saw as few as 5 000 people watch a friendly against Serbia in Atteridgeville in 2009, South Africans are in love with the national team again — many for the first time.

It’s an opportunity that would be foolishly spurned.

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