2008-01-26 00:00

ELRIO van Heerden’s superb strike to equalise for Bafana Bafana in their 1-1 draw against Angola has already made this an improved African Cup of Nations on the campaign in Egypt two years ago.

The compact, neat midfielder’s scorching left-footed drive into the top right-hand corner that left goalkeeper Luis Joao rooted to the spot might well turn out to be almost as significant in the long-term as a similar strike by Phil Masinga against Congo at FNB Stadium in August 1997 to send South Africa to their first World Cup.

Van Heerden’s goal improved on Bafana’s record in Egypt, where they had failed to score, win a game or notch up a point. South Africa now have one point in Ghana, which is the same as Senegal, Tunisia and the Angolans as the group starts from scratch, and still have an even chance after the first game, which could not be said of their previous campaign.

With 86 minutes gone at the Tamale Sports Stadium on Wednesday night, with Angola leading 1-0, South Africa’s and Carlos Alberto Parreira’s hopes appeared dashed, and perhaps not just for this Nations Cup. Surely a young team like this one could not bounce back from defeat in the opening game, even if Senegal and Tunisia had looked a pale shade of past sides that had each made a big impact in the Afcon in the last three competitions.

Bafana’s young team faced the depressing prospect of going into their next game against Tunisia staring down the barrel of a gun. True the South Africans were playing some scintillating attacking football as the game against Angola drew to a close, but Bafana Bafana in recent years just do not come back from 1-0 down within the last five minutes.

They panic, they become too desperate to be able to keep their heads and attack with composure, or they are just plain unlucky. There can be few more unlucky teams than South Africa have been over the past five to six years, and on plenty of occasions the team has dominated a game but just not been able to finish its chances.

Of course, that is as much down to South Africa possessing, with a few exceptions, some pretty poor strikers, but there have been times when even the worst forwards in the world would have finished some of the chances missed by Bafana. Poor fortune had to have played a role and the dictum that luck always runs with a winning team must also apply in reverse.

Bafana’s most notorious defeat in recent times — the almost inexplicable 3-1 embarrassment at the hands of Zambia in Cape Town in September that almost cost South Africa their place at this competition —was such a game. Zambia had three chances in the first 20 minutes -– admittedly from some slack errors in defence, though none of them sitters — and finished all three of them. How often does that happen?

In Tamale on Wednesday journalists had already finished typing stories of gloom and doom for South Africa before Van Heerden’s goal forced them to rewrite their copy. Before the equaliser it appeared this would be yet another case of having to try to justify a disastrous result in a crucial game in which the national team actually played quite well, but lost. Instead a young man — who, at still just 24 years of age, epitomises the youthful promise of Parreira’s squad — came on as a substitute in the 71st minute and did what many before him in recent years have shied away from.

When presented with an opportunity with just three minutes of normal time remaining Van Heerden, an expert shooter from range, did not avoid responsibility and look for someone to pass to. He picked his spot and unleashed his best, and the shot almost ripped the netting out of the Angolan goalpost. The youngster from Port Elizabeth, who plies his trade in Belgium for Club Brugge, had been threatening to do something big for Bafana since making his debut under Stuart Baxter against Cape Verde Islands in 2004. He could not have chosen a better moment.

Due to Baxter’s growing unpopularity when the coach introduced Van Heerden the midfielder was initially received with suspicion and not much warmth by the South African media, one newspaper labelling him “Baxter’s homeboy”. This could have played a role in him being used so sparingly for the national team in the intermediate years. But Parreira has often spoken of the player’s versatility and talent, and it was no surprise that Van Heerden was named in the Nations Cup squad. Van Heerden’s goal was by no means the single contributing factor to Bafana’s fightback on Wednesday.

Fullbacks Tsepo Masilela and Bryce Moon again shone, Teko Modise started brightly, faded, and then grew in strength again, and, amongst the experienced hands, Nasief Morris was a pillar in central defence. The Panithanaikos defender had to be, because next to him Benson Mhlongo was struggling to contend with the pace of Angola’s dangerous strikers Manucho and Flavio.

Mhlongo’s lack of pace was just one area of concern, along with the standard dose of poor finishing in a far from flawless performance by South Africa, who lost their way in the middle of the game. But a Bafana Bafana fightback is something that has not been seen for some time. In training the team looks focused and determined, and more importantly united.

These youngsters have exuberance, energy and a willingness to fight for each other that just might be enough to compensate for their inexperience and see them progress from Group D to the quarter-finals. Thinking past that right now serves no purpose.

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