‘SA Quick and Fast’

2008-02-02 00:00

I AM sitting in the adjoining Italian restaurant waiting for the media bus to Accra, having checked out of my Kumasi hotel. The waiters are tidying after breakfast, straightening the chairs and resetting the tables. A waiter sweeping the floor is talking about Bafana Bafana with a Nigerian businessman across the room, and naturally my ears prick up.

“They play quick football, South Africa. Such good football, such quick passing. Very exciting,” the waiter enthuses excitedly.

“But South Africa, their only problem is that they can’t score,” the Nigerian says.

“Yes, but they play such good football. So quick. I like Modise. I have even watched him playing for Orlando Pirates. What a good player. He played so well yesterday. And Chabangu too. I like him. Such quick football, such quick passing.”

This is a markedly different impression to the one that a dull, weak Bafana Bafana made in Egypt two years ago. Yes, this time South Africa went out in the first round again. Yes, the cynics might try to make the point that two draws and three goals scored is not too much of an improvement on Egypt’s three defeats and no goals scored.

But, actually, it is. And, while the results did not quite go South Africa’s way, the overall performance by a young team for the future was a huge improvement.

Carlos Alberto Parreira selected a young team for this tournament with a view toward building for the 2010 World Cup, and hoped it would progress to the quarter-finals. But that was never in any way guaranteed.

The coach’s main aim was an improvement on Egypt, for the youngsters to gain experience, and to identify the players who will represent the country in 2010. There was always the chance of many of the first-timers being a little star-struck by the Nations Cup, and overawed by the TV cameras, global audience and legions of international press in a continental championship that has become a very big stage, and one that is taken very seriously worldwide.

While South Africa were unable to progress from the group stages for their third Nations Cup in succession, this time at least there was light at the end of the tunnel, and hope for the future.

The performance of the waiter’s favourite player, Teko Modise, was a case in point. Modise struggled with the level of competition in the first two matches. In the 1-1 draw against an Angola side who did not disgrace themselves at the 2006 World Cup, who possess two superb strikers and have looked the only southern African side at this tournament capable of being deadly in the final third, Modise started brightly with a long-range shot in the first six minutes, then faded.

Against a Tunisia side who, from past experience, know that Bafana tend to crack when put under pressure in their own half, the Pirates playmaker was neutralised by big, physical midfielders such as Issam Jemaa and Birmingham’s Mehdi Nafti. But against Senegal, where he was again up against two giants in Papa Bouba Diop and Moustapha Sall, one of Bafana’s most influential players in the past year was back to his best, and showed how quickly he had adapted at this level.

Other very big positives were the emergence of two young full-backs, both just barely past their 20th year, in Bryce Moon and Tsepo Masilela. Lance Davids, who got just a 15-minute run against Senegal, is another big prospect. Kagisho Dikgacoi was thrown in at the deep end against Sall and Diop for the final game and did everything that could have been asked of him. Elrio van Heerden’s two goals, the scorcher against Angola, and clinical volley against Senegal, crowned an excellent arrival for an underrated player, who has spent too long on the national team fringes.

Steven Pienaar’s performance in both games he played in before injury kept him out against Senegal was also encouraging. It showed that the midfielder’s move to Everton at the beginning of the season, where he has become an influential first team starter, has precipitated a return to form that is somewhere near the potential he showed in his early days at Ajax Amsterdam, when he was one of Europe’s brightest young prospects. He could be a giant for South Africa in 2010.

And another giant, Benni McCarthy, was not even here in Ghana. Parreira’s decision to exclude McCarthy will always be clouded by controversy, especially considering the team’s costly inability to finish scoring chances and the unconfirmed reports of a deal the coach made with the Blackburn Rovers striker. Equally controversial was the decision to experiment with the defence, moving captain Aaron Mokoena to defensive midfield just two weeks before a major tournament.

Bafana’s abominable defensive display against Tunisia may or may not have been as a result of the experiment. The schoolboy mistakes made were a repeat of SA’s 3-1 defeat against Zambia in Cape Town in September when Bafana had their normal defence, so perhaps this is just a recurring problem for the national team at present. Perhaps this tendency is more down to pressure than anything else.

It is easy to understand how Bafana could be feeling the pressure of turning around their form ahead of 2010. Even for soccer writers, the pressure is being noticeably cranked up as the hosting of the global tournament approaches, so what must it be like for the players? The hosting of the World Cup is serious business. If the pressure is the problem, then Bafana will need to learn to cope with it, because come 2010 it will escalate dramatically, which is all part of the current learning process.

Overall, the positives balanced the negatives in Ghana. Bafana are far, far from the finished product. But what was started here at this Nations Cup is the beginning of the process that will lead them there.

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