CAPE TOWN — The reawakening of Bafana Bafana under Shakes Mashaba’s stewardship gathers pace at a rate that will have surpassed many long-suffering fans’ wildest dreams.
The most obvious improvement is their group log-topping status at the midway mark of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, a point clear in Group A of second-placed Congo — South Africa’s latest victims by a 2-0 margin in Pointe-Noir on Saturday.
If Bafana can also win the quick-turnaround return fixture against the Congolese at Polokwane tomorrow — catapulting them to a robust 10 points from four outings — it will take all sorts of unlikely late mathematical events for them to miss the cut for Morocco early next year.
Keep in mind the top two teams go through and, even if that does not do the trick because of a late wobble, Bafana are already well set to be strong contenders for the bonus lone berth for best third-placed side should that become an unlikely factor.
Here is something to consider: if Bafana enthusiasts had known a few months ago their closing match away to Nigeria in mid-November had every chance of being a dead-rubber affair, they would have had every right to believe it was because the Super Eagles — a traditional continental powerhouse and long-time nemesis for South Africa — had romped to early qualification.
After all, Nigeria and Algeria were the only two African sides to reach the round of 16 at the Brazil-staged World Cup in mid-year, the former advancing from Group F alongside eventual losing finalists Argentina.
Instead, the Nigerians lie a humiliating (for them) bottom of Group A with one point from a possible nine and now in grave danger of missing the Afcon cut, despite their status as defending champions.
“We will not say to Shakes that he must qualify for Morocco 2015 … that is not his mandate,” South African Football Association (Safa) president Danny Jordaan said in August. “The mandate is to build a sustainable Bafana Bafana team for the next few years.”
Hence, unusually for a South African national coach, the 64-year-old father figure is over-delivering on his job sheet.
While Bafana winning successive away matches — in Sudan and Congo — with a bit to spare each time is a breath of fresh air, a different current statistic also says much about the new resolve and sturdiness of his largely youth-flavoured charges.
South Africa, halfway through qualifying, stand alone with just one other team, Senegal in Group G, among the 28 for maintaining a 100% defensive record. It is desperately rare for Bafana to go two matches without conceding a goal, never mind three in a competitive scenario.
Even if they fail to beat the Congolese at Peter Mokaba Stadium, but at least bank a point, there is still a further home-turf opportunity against Sudan (whom they have already conquered 3-0 in their own den) to earn another victory to take Bafana to 11 points and a definite Afcon ticket.
Under such circumstances, South Africa would make a closing trek to the usually hostile terrain of Nigeria with not a care in the world.
And would not that make a very, very pleasant change?