One small voice: Don’t lose hope over Bafana

2008-06-27 00:00

The benefits of long-term planning in sport are exaggerated. More often than not, the outcome is determined, not by organising expensive workshops, creating dazzling PowerPoint presentations and hiring smart consultants years in advance, but by what happens on match day: a moment of genius, an official’s mistake and so on.

Bafana Bafana should not lose hope. It is true that last weekend’s 0-0 draw at home to mighty Sierra Leone makes it unlikely that they will qualify for the African Cup of Nations in January 2010, but this does not mean they are destined to fail at the Fifa World Cup five months later.

“Yes, but we should be developing a team now,” supporters are wailing. “There are less than two years to go before the World Cup, and we can’t even beat a team ranked 163 in the world. We pay zillions of rands to Brazilian coaches, but the performances are pathetic. It’s going to be embarrassing.”

Such hysteria is misplaced.

In the first place, failure to qualify for the 2010 African Cup of Nations may prove to be a masterstroke, not a catastrophe. Instead of enduring the chaotic hullaballoo of the ill-conceived tournament in Angola, leading South African players will be able to prepare quietly and calmly for the main event.

Most international tournaments, such as the World Cup and the European Championships, take place every four years, yet the Confederation of African Football’s desperate urge to trouser as much commercial revenue as possible means the African Cup of Nations is held every two years.

So at the start of 2010, when the continent’s top players should be conserving their energy, preparing to mount a serious challenge in the first Fifa World Cup ever to be staged on African soil, Drogba, Essien, Eto’o and the rest will be dragged to Angola and mercilessly drained of energy.

They will then be herded back to England, Italy or Spain to complete the European season with their clubs. By the time they turn up at SA 2010 in the first week of June, when they will be expected to shine on the greatest stage of their careers, the pride of Africa will be mentally and physically exhausted.

As World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen might have put it, what passing bells for these who play like cattle?

Albeit by virtue of their own ineptitude, the Bafana players seem likely to dodge the ordeal in Angola and, all going well, will arrive at the World Cup in reasonable condition.

Their challenge at the tournament will be simple: play with passion and pride, finish in the top two of their four-team group and qualify for the knock-out stages, thus avoiding the ignominy of being the first host country in all the history of the Fifa World Cup to be eliminated in the group phase.

In pure football terms, this task may boil down to a single match.

Notwithstanding the evidence of last Saturday, spurred by the enthusiasm of the home crowd, Bafana should be able to overcome the fourth-seeded team in their group, a minnow such as New Zealand or Qatar. That said, it is equally probable they will lose to the second-seeded team, a Spain or an Argentina.

Success, defined as qualification from the group, will then hinge on a single match against a third-seeded team, a middle-ranking football power like Sweden or Paraguay. In that stadium, on that day, Bafana’s campaign will be defined as either a national humiliation or a glorious triumph.

The margin between success and failure is likely to be tiny, with the nation’s hopes hinging on a moment of inspiration, an unimagined error or a referee’s split-second decision. In that stadium, on that day, what happened on any particular day in 2008, or even 2009, will seem totally irrelevant.

It is 14 years since Kitch Christie took over a Springbok rugby team that had been soundly defeated by France, Australia, England and New Zealand. Nobody gave the coach a chance because he had no time to “plan” before the 1995 World Cup. Nine months later, his team were world champions.

Bafana will not win the World Cup in 2010, but they can still stand tall.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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