A few seconds is all it takes

2011-04-02 00:00

BAFANA Bafana’s 1-0 victory over Egypt was probably their most important of the last two years.

In a period where, apart from a five-month spell under Joel Santana after the Confederations Cup in June 2009, the results have been largely positive, Katlego Mphela’s goal in the dying seconds at Ellis Park last Saturday could just have been the spark to ignite a new era for the once-beleaguered national team.

It really is remarkable how in sport a few seconds can decide success or failure, and even separate a positive future from a dim one.

The win over Egypt reminded of the 1-1 draw against Mexico in the World Cup opening match last year. Then, had Mphela’s effort in the dying seconds gone in instead of ricocheting off the left upright, Bafana would have progressed past the opening round of the tournament.

Given that their ranking was 66th going into the event, this would have been hailed as a success. Instead, they became the first hosts in history to not reach the second round.

Had Mphela missed against Egypt on Saturday, it would have been a 0-0 draw and the Pharaohs would have kept the gap in Group G at three points. Then they would have been heavily favoured to win in Cairo in June and draw level with South Africa. From there both Bafana and the Pharaohs would have had had to try to win win their last two games against Niger and Sierra Leone, scoring as many goals as possible, with the final verdict likely to come down to goal difference. And Bafana Bafana don’t really do convincing victory margins, while Egypt do.

But, thanks to a few seconds and a cool head by Mphela, South Africa are in the driving seat in the group. They can lose to Egypt away in June and still qualify for the 2012 African Cup of Nations relatively comfortably with an away draw against dark horses Niger and home win over Sierra Leone.

A failure to qualify for the Gabon and Equatorial Guinea finals would have been another depressing setback for Bafana and a serious stumbling block in a revival that has seen them progress in the rankings from 86th to 46th. It would have been a tremendous dampener to what has been a bright start under Pitso Mosimane since replacing Carlos Alberto Parreira after the World Cup.

The past two years, and especially the past seven months under the new coach, have been reminiscent of the signs that started to show under Clive Barker in 1994 and 1995 that Bafana could become a success.

Santana’s period might have been muddled, but pushing Brazil to the 90th minute in the Confed semi-final and taking Spain to extra time in third-place playoff gave the current Bafana generation an inkling that they can compete against top teams.

The ensuing five months largely undid that, but Parreira did a pretty decent rescue job in the nine months running up to the World Cup.

There has still been a fragility, at times. Joachim Loew said before his side’s friendly victory against South Africa in 2009 that he felt Bafana were a good team, but lacked confidence.

Slowly, with each positive result, the belief is growing. South Africa are learning to win under pressure, against good quality opposition. The doubters will continue to point to Bafana having beaten a France team in disarray at the World Cup. Egypt came to South Africa an ageing side, their preparations affected by the January 25 revolution in their country.

I don’t know. I was in the stadium for both games. Admittedly France were a mess in the first half, but Bafana capitalised superbly and played outstanding football. In the second half the French, aware of the humiliation they were already set to suffer on their return home, played hard and came nowhere near overrunning the hosts.

Egypt came to Ellis Park aware that a defeat would almost certainly mean the three-time Afcon champions would not be able to defend their title. They’re not the team they were a year-and-a-half ago, but still possess hugely experienced, quality players, and are still robust and superbly organised.

Both were big wins for the new Bafana, but the latter was the more significant. It guarantees Mosimane — should South Africa keep their heads and qualify — a chance to lead the team to a major tournament at the 2012 Nations Cup finals. This will significantly build experience for the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Then, who knows, perhaps participation in Brazil too?

The public have complained that South Africa were not convincing against Egypt. The visitors dictated play, missed the better chances and and lost to a dying secsseconds goal.

B But this is not tthe team of 1996 any more, which could stand toe to toe with Egypt and dominate them on home ground.

The Pharaohs are three-time African champions, Bafana are rebuilding from not qualifying for 2010, going out in the first round in 2008 and losing all three games without scoring a goal in 2006.

SA is playing the underdog role superbly and whether the home side scored in the 15th or the 93rd minute, Mosimane’s gameplan worked.

He will need time, support, and realistic expectations from the public and media to continue South Africa’s revival. Has the country grown up enough to give him that?

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