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Sabelo Mashego
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Bafana Bafana's group stage phobia

24 January 2014, 15:13

"What I saw there was not a problem of coaching, it was a bunch of losers, who don't have ANY respect for this country and don't have ANY respect for anybody."

Of course, these were the opinion-dividing words of Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula amid the elimination of our  national football senior team, Bafana Bafana, in the group stages of yet another major tournament.

Indeed, the scathing attack followed Bafana's dumping out of the African Nations Championship (CHAN) by the Super Eagles of Nigeria on home soil.

You would've been forgiven to think that the minister had already said more than a mouthful after that statement or perhaps, had one of those blood rush-to-the-head moments when anger overwhelms your judgement only to realise seconds after the sin had been committed that you were out of it.

But there was more to come.

"First and foremost, I want to concede that we, indeed, have a crisis of monumental proportions and this tournament was just one journey that proved we don't have a crisis of talent, we've got a crisis of putting everything together.

"The people of South Africa wake up and get this mediocrity. I felt like just standing up and walking out."

Mbalula then briefly turned his attention to the Nigerian camp, who he said were in disbelief to see Bafana failing to trouble them anywhere on the pitch.

"Two useless goals, I mean, Nigeria were shocked.

"I saw their coach starting to stand up, he couldn't believe.

"They thought they were going to meet the lions, whose stadium was filled to capacity, to come and fight for their own country, but what did they come to meet?

"Just a bunch of unbearable, useless individuals."

Were the minister's words justified?

Let's exclude CHAN for moment. This was not Bafana's  first disappointing attempt to make it past the group stages of a tournament. The pattern, which I've elected to dub 'Bafana's group stage phobia', could be traced as far back as the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France where they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by the hosts before drawing their last two games against Denmark and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Apart from the French, who were aided by the comfort of playing in front of their home supporters and lead by a one Zinedine Zidane, surely Bafana had enough to challenge Denmark and secure the victory against Saudi Arabia?

Four years on in the 2002 edition of FIFA's World Cup, a familiar scenario unfolded where our national team gave themselves a mountain to climb by having to avoid defeat against group favourites, Spain, in their last group stage match. Bafana subsequently succumbed to a heartbreaking 3-2 loss after a promising start which included a 2-all draw with Paraguay and a 1-0 victory against Slovenia, courtesy of Siyabonga Nomvethe. In the end, Jomo Sono's men had flattered to deceive, much to the disappointment of their fans.

After failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, Bafana were consequently involved in the 2006 African Cup of Nations where they did far worse than failing to make it to the second round. They finished last in their group and failed to score a single goal in the tournament. Different results, same outcome in the 2008 African Cup of Nations: South Africa finished last albeit in a group that comprised of Tunisia (who won the group), Angola and Senegal.

Moving on  to the Confederations Cup, a tournament used as a curtain-raiser for the World Cup and held during the year which precedes the global showpiece.The 2009 edition in particular, which was of course hosted in the country as the prelude for the 2010 World Cup, serves as a bit of an exception because Pitso Mosimane's men did manage to get out of the group stages as progressors this time. Bafana went on to finish fourth in the tournament after losing the third place final to European champion, Spain. Progress was made in that sense but the results could have been better. The tournament was organised in South Africa and nothing less than second round qualification was expected anyway, which is exactly why the first round exit in the 2010 jamboree in particular, is the most disappointing out of the bunch.

 Everything was in place for Carlos Alberto Parreira's men to finish in the top two of their group which included Luis Suarez's Uruguay, a France team in disarray and a promising Mexican side. Bafana had played enough friendly games in the months building-up to the World Cup to make up a whole season. They had full support from the country, every South African was in unison to support captain Aaron Mokoena and his teammates. They had a packed Soccer City Stadium with 90 000+ fans. They had strong team chemistry and last but certainly not least, they had gained experience from all the previous heartaches experienced from prematurely bowing out of previous tournaments. This was the perfect stage to finally take full responsibility of their own fate and showing their supporters, and more importantly themselves, that they were worthy hosts of the biggest sporting showpiece on the planet.

In the tenth minute of the second half of the opening match against Mexico, Bafana winger Siphiwe Tshabalala obliged with a thunderous left-foot strike which set the country abuzz. Bafana were in the ascendency and if there were non-Bafana believers before kick-off, Tshabalala's strike and the performance which followed thereafter provided much-needed reason to believe in the team. Bafana held on for the next 24 minutes before Rafael Marquez, inevitably, levelled matters to hand the host nation a bitter-sweet draw. The pressure of having to win their next game against Uruguay had been mounting during the build-up and it told when the day had come. The game, which included an unfortunate turn of events which included goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune given his marching orders, was taken away from Bafana from a clinical Uruguay performance, final score: 3-0.

It was down to the last game against the French, who were without Zidane this time around but still a formidable unit nevertheless. Bafana had to achieve the seemingly impossible thanks to the damaging defeat to Uruguay: beat France by more than two clear goals and prevent them from scoring while hoping that Uruguay defeat Mexico handsomely, to make their path to qualification that much easier. After a promising start to the tournament, as per usual with Bafana, they and their fans had found themselves in a very familiar situation going into the last match of the group. 

 Everyone knows what transpired after the last game. The result?

Mokoena and his team had created unfortunate history by becoming the first host nation in World Cup history to crash out in the first round. Their fans, whom some used as consolation, were left with Tshabalala's goal's nomination as one of the tournament's best and despite getting the job half done, beating the most high-profile team in the group, France. They fittingly scored the opening goal of the tournament and won a game at least, but the bigger picture of second-round qualification was once again not realised. Perhaps this is the sort of mediocrity the minister was referring to?

 I regress.

 The comments made by Mbalula following the most recent exit from the CHAN tournament can be possibly seen as a reflection of year's of repeated disappointment for the minister and the rest of Bafana's die-hard fans. The repeated, desperate third place finishes courtesy of the goal difference stat in Bafana's groups suggest that Bafana can compete and that it's just a matter of getting the job done.

The national team has had its good times of course, like finishing third in the year 2000 version of the African Cup of Nations, reaching the final of the 1998 version, and winning it in 1996, four years after Bafana's first ever match.

 However, the good times have come few and far between and unfortunately, the bad times outweigh the good.

 All of Shakes Mashaba, Phillipe Troussier, Trott Moloto, Carlos Queiroz, Sono, Stuart Baxter, Ted Dumitru, Parreira, Joel Santana, Pitso Mosimane and now, Gordon Igesund, have been assigned to coach Bafana between 1998 and today, which strengthens the minister's words of Bafana's woes not being a coaching problem, but rather a 'crisis of monumental proportions'. What that monumental crises includes and possible ways to mend it is a topic for another day.

 For now, Bafana's task is to restore respect for themselves and bring back the good times, times that will prove useful and make Bafana a football team of everything but a bunch of useless, unbearable individuals.

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