To be a South African soccer fan is a bit like being trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. You get hurt over and over again. Your partner promises to change. For a few, short months, things are different. You dare to hope. You forgive. You soften your heart and allow love to return. And then the abuse starts again.
Less than two months ago, Bafana Bafana put in a sublime performance against Burkina Faso at Ellis Park, thrashing them 3 – 0. Admittedly the opposition were not top quality and didn’t provide much of a test, but the win was emphatic and beautiful to watch. A month later Bafana Bafana fell to the perfect tropical storm and their campaign to qualify for the 2012 African Cup of Nations suffered a devastating setback. Playing away to Niger, they were roasted in the 35°C heat of Niamey and beaten two goals to one by the hosts.
Watch: South Africa vs. Burkina Faso (highlights)
Sure, the officiating was dodgy and the weather withering. No team has won away from home in this group, underlining how hard it can be to tour Africa. But, in an instant, we were back in familiar territory: our fate no longer in our hands. In the aftermath of our defeat, Niger rose to the top of the group with nine points. With both South Africa and Sierra Leone on eight points, and only one more game to play on 8 October, there’s a good chance Bafana Bafana won’t qualify.
To finish top of our group, we need to beat Sierra Leone at home and hope Egypt can beat Niger or at least hold them to a draw. We have the ability to win at home, but with the Pharaohs essentially fielding their youth development team, we can hardly rely on them to do our dirty work for us.
The other hope is for one of two “best runners-up” berths. The two teams finishing second in their qualifying groups with the most points will also travel to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Unfortunately, beating Sierra Leone and ending on 11 points may not do it either. One of these two spots is already going to either Ghana or Sudan, who both have 13 points in their group. If Nigeria beat Guinea in their group, or Libya beat Zambia, then Bafana Bafana will see Afcon 2012 from the comfort of their couches.
But wait, there’s more potential bad news. If the team fails to qualify for Afcon, they could be spending a lot of time twiddling their thumbs while other African countries get valuable game time. The most tangible and immediate result of this state of affairs will be a ratings downgrade for the national team as we slip back in the official Fifa rankings. Of course, we’ll also be softer and less seasoned by the time we have to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
How we got here, and what we need to do is a story for another time. Please forgive our bitter tone, but galls us to see our coach, Pitso Mosimane, begging his Egyptian counterpart to field a full-strength side. It would be nice if South Africa, the fifth most populous country on the continent and its economic powerhouse, could secure a position at Africa’s most prestigious soccer tournament on its own merits. It would be a truly joyous day if we could use our money, infrastructure and talent to build a national team that could beat the less-blessed countries.
To be fair to our coach, South Africa has suffered greatly from the interference of bureaucrats and functionaries. One need only look at who has coached Bafana Bafana, and for how long, to see we have a big problem on our hands. Clive Barker coached the team from 1994 to 1997, the golden age of Bafana Bafana. He manufactured the team’s only African Cup of Nations win, and the only entrance into a Fifa World Cup. After that little adventure went horribly wrong, he was replaced by Jomo Sono. The downward slide was pretty much unstopped until the arrival of Carlos Alberto Parreira in 2007. Parreira was brought over at enormous expense mainly because our match officials thought they could fix an administrative problem by throwing millions of rands at it. That didn’t work either.
As good a coach as Mosimane is, what the national team desperately needs is for the suits to merrily bugger off. Ten national coaches in 13 years isn’t healthy.
But the challenge right now is qualifying for the next Afcon.
If we beat Sierra Leone, and if Egypt hold Niger to one point, and if Nigeria don’t beat Guinea and if Libya don’t beat Zambia…well, then we’re through. That’s a lot of ifs. We need to ask ourselves what has the better payoff in the long term and what will save our relationship with our national team? Is it hoping, praying and lighting a candle every couple of years that other countries will do our heavy lifting for us? Or is it refusing to accept mediocrity, greed and a lack of imagination from the officials we allow to administer the sport for our benefit? DM
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