The rise and rise of Bafana

2011-06-11 00:00

TODAY marks exactly one year since the biggest showpiece in international sport commenced at Soccer City in South Africa. As if I need to tell you what happened on June 11, 2010. Siphiwe Tshabalala’s sensational strike that put Bafana Bafana ahead in the tournament opener against Mexico was possibly our country’s greatest sporting moment since the Stransky drop goal in 1995.

Even now the hair on my arms stands up when I remember how it felt as if the ground was shaking as a nation roared its triumph and believed that the sky was the limit for our boys in yellow. As it turned out, the nation was wrong and Bafana were bundled out in the group stages — but for those 10 minutes or so that we lead Mexico, we were champions.

It was a ridiculous assumption to even consider that we would excel at the tournament given that we entered the showpiece ranked 83rd in world football. We also had a coach who could barely string two words of English together and didn’t seem too fazed about our world ranking. In all fairness, I wouldn’t have wanted to think about the ranking going into the tournament either. As gallant an effort as it was, Bafana were never going to go anywhere at the World Cup under Perreira.

A year later and debate around what the World Cup did for our country still goes on. What about all those stadiums that were built? How are they being funded? Did the World Cup really create any long-lasting job opportunities? I’m not sure a sports writer should be answering those questions, but I do know that I have heard the term “2010 legacy” so many times and in so many different contexts that I am not sure what it is supposed to mean anymore.

I also know that none of these questions deal with anything remotely resembling football. If they did they would find that South Africa is experiencing a significant resurgence under coach Pitso Mosimane.

Since taking over from Perreira after the World Cup, Mosimane has taken Bafana to 38th in the Fifa rankings globally and fourth continentally.

It is hard to say what role hosting the World Cup played in the improvement, but the players who were there that day will tell you that victory in their final group game over France instilled a belief that they could mix it up with any side in world football. And this belief has been evident over the last year.

Mosimane’s men currently top Group G in the African Cup of Nations qualifiers and their latest performance against an Egyptian side desperate to win in front of their home fans was impressive.

Mosimane has the advantage of understanding local football — he was in charge at SuperSport United for seven years. As a national coach he finds himself in the privileged position of having his overseas-based players wanting to play for him whenever international duty calls, and the fact that he has kept the likes of Pienaar interested in his developments has added to the progress that has been made.

Though Mosimane moved into the role of assistant manager of Bafana in 2006, as an assistant he seldom had the opportunity to stamp his authority on a side, especially when working under somebody of Perreira’s pedigree. He places an astute emphasis on keeping shape, closing down space and being solid defensively. It was precisely this mentality that helped Bafana leave Cairo with a point last Sunday that has left them in pole position to qualify for the 2012 tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The side hasn’t conceded a goal in the group so far.

Mosimane has also revealed that, unlike his predecessor, he is concerned with the rankings and he wants his side to keep climbing them. Bafana have never been ranked higher than 16th on the ranking table and still have some way to go before nearing that position. If Mosimane’s men continue to display the same discipline that they have shown in the last year, then there is no reason to believe that they won’t keep climbing world football’s ladder.

It has been a more-than-encouraging year for South African football. The World Cup euphoria was followed by one of the most exciting PSL title races in recent history, and if the domestic league keeps improving structurally then this will only help Mosimane and Bafana.

A World Cup looms in 2014 in Brazil and Bafana quite simply have to be a part of it. They must first ensure that they are on a plane to Gabon next year, though, and can do so with victory over Niger in September.

Twenty-ten was a manic year and certain sectors of the country might be wondering how much we gained from it. But for Safa, Mosimane and Bafana there is no reason to look back.

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