Inch by inch, is it coming together?

2009-04-03 00:00

SLOWLY we’re getting there. Or are we? Are we kidding ourselves? Is that just what we want to believe because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate?

IT may be a case of one step forward, half-a-step back for Bafana Bafana, but at least that means the national team seems to be moving in the right direction, even if they are inching their way there.

But the question mark over whether the team is beginning to shake itself from an extended period in limbo will only be answered when Bafana compete in a full-scale tournament at the Confederations Cup in June.

After South Africa’s five-match winning streak against mixed-strength opposition — the most competitive a strong Cameroon — they were unable to match the pace and suffocating confines offered them by Marcelo Bielsa’s impressively direct and well-organised Chile. Then the South Africans beat their first European team in seven meetings with their 2-1 win over Norway last Saturday.

Detractors will point to Norway being bottom of their World Cup qualifying group, but the Scandinavians came to South Africa having recently recalled their national side’s most successful-ever coach, Egil Olsen, and Olsen started with a 1-0 win over Germany in Dusseldorf before meeting Bafana. Norway also went on to edge Finland 3-2 in a friendly in Oslo on Wednesday, so they are competitive.

But was the myth of Bafana’s improving form exploded somewhat in a disjointed 2-0 defeat to Portugal? Coach Joel Santana says he wants to try to win the Confed Cup, which is an admirable sentiment and an approach that should be taken by hosts whose 72nd world ranking is in no way reflective of their collective talent. To do that he will have to beat Brazil, Italy or Spain in the semis or final, who are every bit as strong as Portugal.

Bafana’s performance against Portugal was not terrible and along with the Norway friendly was a valuable learning experience. The result on paper against the 10th-ranked team in the world and 2006 World Cup semi-finalists, who fielded a line-up very near full strength, is not bad at all.

South Africa only sporadically troubled Portugal, while at times had to defend desperately to keep the scoreline respectable. This they did though, and had Santana opted for Rowen Fernandez in goal instead of the off-form Itumeleng Khune, Portugal might have had to struggle harder for their two goals.

And, of course, there were factors that worked against the Bafana — not least the 2°C Lausanne cold to follow up the 34°C they experienced in Rustenburg against Norway just four days previously. As much as the Norwegians appeared sluggish out of their element in the heat, a mostly locally-based Bafana froze in the cold. It seemed no surprise that new squad member Masilo Modubi, the largely unknown midfielder from KVC Westerlo in Belgium, provided one of South Africa’s brightest performances from the bench. South Africa, too, are a notoriously poor travelling team and at their most comfortable in front of their home crowds, where they stamp their authority or trouble illustrious opponents with greater ease.

But are these excuses? Will Bafana be ready come their opening Confed game against Iraq at Ellis Park on June 14? Nobody seems to have a clear answer and the truth is, right now, while a quiet confidence might be growing, no-one knows for sure.

The signs seem to be there that Bafana will be competitive on home soil. Certainly the team’s shape and organisation has improved since Santana’s shaky start after the bombshell departure of Carlos Alberto Parreira early last year. The coach seems to have a clear idea of who can do the job in various positions and how he wants the team to play.

Siboniso Gaxa’s solid form at right-back, keeping Panithinaikos’s Bryce Moon on the bench, has been one of the encouraging signs. Tshepo Masilela remains a bright prospect at left-back and Kagisho Dikgacoi should be back from injury for the Confed to re-establish his partnership with the potentially devastating Teko Modise in midfield. Steven Pienaar’s vast experience in Europe consistently shows through, Siphiwe Tshabalala’s skills even dazzled Portugal’s world-class defenders and Bernard Parker has taken to international football, and scored goals. Bafana’s final friendly against Poland at Orlando Stadium eight days before playing Iraq will provide more answers.

Santana is supposed to have a training camp ahead of the Confed starting with the locally-based players from May 13, with the foreign contingent joining on June 1, which will be a welcome opportunity to work with the players for an extended period and beat the side into shape.

An interesting anecdote from the coach’s club career in Brazil, recounted by football correspondent Phil Vickery, is that he once travelled to an away game knowing little about his opponents. Santana stopped at a local petrol station and found the attendant was an ardent fan of the opposition, and was able to receive a detailed analysis about the side.

The coach is a man of the people and football, like most Brazilians, clearly courses through his veins.

Given this, it seems strange and disturbing that leading South African coaches — including Gavin Hunt, Gordon Igesund and Clive Barker — have complained of never having been consulted by Santana. And why has he not learnt to speak English better yet?

Of course these issues will be forgotten if Santana achieves his aim of winning the Confed Cup, though at the moment it seems far more likely Bafana, assisted by a kind draw that sees them face Iraq, New Zealand and Spain in the group stages, will fall honorably in the semis.

And then there will be a year to the World Cup and much work left to do.

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