Second chance for South Africa

2010-06-26 00:00

THERE’S a marvellous clip centred on Bongani Khumalo on the website of New York TV news channel WIVB that brings home the pride South Africans must be feeling for Bafana Bafana’s heroic victory against France in Bloemfontein.

In fact it brings home more. It emphasises the global nature of the tournament, and how many homes, from New York to Beijing, to Baghdad and Abidjan, are waking up in the morning to daily news reports on their television screens about what is panning out to be perhaps the greatest World Cup ever.

The clip brings home Bafana Bafana’s newfound fame, and that South African football is now on the map. And also that now the country is on the map.

After decades of misunderstanding, the world is discovering and asking questions about South Africa, and Africa.

The commentary on the clip drawls: “[Tuesday’s] Top Performer from the World Cup. The host team, South Africa, bows out of tournament play. They did it in style though. That goal got it started — Bongani Khumalo scored in the 20th minute; South Africa went on to beat France two to one. A header right there from Bongani Khumalo. Not enough goals to advance to the next round, but a good finish for South Africa.

“You’ve heard of him before?” the anchor asks the sportscaster afterwards, who replies, “At about 7.30 this morning.”

Bloem … Bloem was beautiful. Bafana were beautiful. And heroic. And played some pretty decent football — perhaps their best game ever. Other stand-out performances were the 3-0 defeat of Ghana in the 1996 African Cup of Nations semi-final, the second half of the 2-1 victory over Zambia at Ellis Park in 1994 on the day of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, and the under-23s’ 3-1 defeat of Brazil at the Sydney Olympics.

Perhaps the best 45 minutes Bafana played was in a goalless first half of a friendly match against Argentina in Buenos Aires under Philippe Troussier ahead of the 1998 World Cup, before capitulating to the goals of Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega after the break.

But Bloem was just beautiful. The context of the game is part of the reason. Bafana just knew they had to win. The mood in South Africa would have collapsed if they didn’t. They had to reward the spectacular support they had received. You could see on the players’ faces, and in their determination and focus, that they knew this. There wasn’t a shred of doubt. The players are South Africans too — they knew how every one of us was feeling. And under this pressure they came through — against the ninth-ranked team in the world. Whatever disharmony existed in the French team, they were still 11 world-class, big-name, top club-based players.

Bafana didn’t make the second round and it is disappointing. But to have come so close — and in the end, refereeing decisions and goalposts struck, it was pretty close — as an 83rd-ranked team against the 16th-, 17th- and ninth-ranked sides in the world was a phenomenal achievement.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, if he were honest, might admit, if not publicly then to himself, that part of Bafana not progressing was a smidgen of his own doing. (I won’t use the term “failure to”, because like the coach, I don’t see it that way). His tactics were spot on for Mexico, and only first-half nerves and the post with two minutes to go from Katlego Mphela’s shot, denied South Africa victory.

Against France, the coach had less to get right thanks to the opposition’s disarray, but he mostly did come up with the correct plan again. Perhaps Bafana could have pushed harder for goals in the second half. But it is the coach’s style, and was his half-time message to the players, not to push too hard; to pass the ball around, and the chances will come. Perhaps if Bafana had pushed forward too aggressively, the rejuvenated French would have won.

Against Uruguay, more battlers in midfield, a second striker and marking Diego Forlan closer, as the coach had said the South Africans would, might have helped Bafana’s cause.

Overall, though it was the coach who made South Africa competitive in the first place to even have these issues to discuss. To a man, Parreira’s players praised the coach for having instilled fitness, tactics, belief and spirit in the players in training camps in Brazil and Germany. The players agreed with Parreira that Bafana now have an identity and a style.

As World Cup hosts you need a special coach. Parreira is not perfect, though none of the coaches at the World Cup is. The coach whose approach is closest to perfect, and who has world-class players at his disposal, is the one whose team will win the tournament. But Parreira was on a par with anyone he would come across on the touchline.

The coaches at this World Cup — with the exception of Diego Maradona, who is his own entity, a human touched by God, in a footballing sense — are hard, intellectual men. Parreira was able to match the Javier Aguirres, Oscar Tabarezes and Raymond Domenechs. And he did it with less big-name players at his disposal.

And now to the future. After their performance at this World Cup Bafana do have a future again. They have an opportunity. Khumalo, Mphela and Tshabalala are set to have a chance to develop their games at the top level. The country is in love with the national team again. Safa will receive R4 billion in gate-takings from the World Cup that it can plough into grassroots. Pitso Mosimane is a fiery, straight-talking intellectual coach who has learnt from working with a maestro, and can take Bafana forward.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is no longer a gloomy prospect, but one filled with opportunity. We’ve been in this position before after winning the Nations Cup in 1996. We let it slip. Let this crime not be committed again. Mostly though, thank you Bafana for giving the country hope.

See the WIVB clip at:

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