Just 45 days to go before AFCON kicks off in South Africa, and while many aren’t even aware the competition is happening in the country, Gordon Igesund is bullish about his charges’ chances. By ANT SIMS.
The African Cup of Nations is just 45 days away, and while the tournament organisers have had their fair share of problems, Bafana Bafana’s preparation seems to be right on track. So on track, in fact, that coach Gordon Igesund is eyeing a repeat of the 1996 tournament, when South Africa lifted the trophy.
South Africa hosted the tournament that year, and won its first and only AFCON trophy by beating Ghana in the semi-finals and Tunisia in the finals. Igesund reckons he’s got the crop of players to repeat the success of the Bafana side of yesteryear.
“If you go to ’96, it was magnificent. We want to emulate that now. We want to get into the semi-finals, and the final, and do well. I believe we have the players to do that,” Igesund said.
South Africa will play three more friendlies before the tournament kicks off on 19 January, first against Malawi in Durban on 22 December, then against Norway on 8 January and the final match at the Orlando Stadium against Algeria on 12 January. The coach is currently focusing on whittling down his squad to 23 players ahead of the tournament.
The coach has had plenty of time to eye players in the PSL, but the squad is currently at 35, and he needs to drastically cut down before the continental showpiece. Not only does he need to decide on his final squad, but he also needs to get the team together as unit to train. Time is limited, however, and Igesund will have less than a month to organise his troops.
“The league has been really exciting, which means now my job is becoming very tough. The squad I have of 35 has to be cut down. After the game against Malawi, our preparations will really begin,” Igesund said.
The players will head to a training camp after their clash against Malawi in December, and Igesund was mum on exactly who would feature in his final 23. The coach also insists that he wants to give all players a chance to prove that they are worthy of a place, especially those who have recently returned from injury.
“Because of the fact that we have a match against Malawi, then a three-day break and then another camp, I can’t call one squad for this and one squad for the other. So that is why I have called up a squad of plus-minus 30 players and keep on changing them. I would also like to give some of the players who have recently returned to action after injuries a chance to prove themselves.”
Igesund admitted that the task ahead was not an easy one, and while he reckons he has about 70% of his squad finalised, he added that it would be a bit easier if he had the opportunity to work with the group of players on a daily basis – which is impossible due to players’ club commitments.
“We never said it was going to be an easy task. It’s going to be a difficult task. Right now I’ve got a [confirmed] squad of about 16 or 17 players and I need to make sure of the other group of players. It would have been nice to work with the players every single day.”
Bafana Bafana opens its account in the AFCON against the tiny nation of Cape Verde on 19 January, and the coach knows that it won’t be a case of showing up and walking away as winners.
“Cape Verde [will not] be a walk in the park. Twenty of their players are playing in the league in Portugal. We need to know a lot more about them,” Igesund said.
Barring their performance in 1996, South Africa’s record in the AFCON has been poor. They haven’t managed to qualify for the last two tournaments and last progressed out if the group stages in 2002. They last made the semi-finals over a decade ago, yet Igesund is expected to overturn these misfortunes.
The coach is talking the talk, and while he has walked the walk on a domestic level, his challenge at international level is a much tougher one. The South African Football Association expects him to take the team to the semi-finals of the tournament.
The three friendlies are crucial for the national team, not just to help them get into the groove of things, but also to polish off some of their stuttering and stumbling tendencies, especially in the final third.
Igesund hasn’t quite convinced his critics in his short tenure, and while he has always insisted that he’s biding his time, building a side in the short period he has been given, he’ll have to weave his magic in the next few weeks to get Bafana to the level he believes they belong. DM
Photo: South Africa’s coach Gordon Igesund reacts during their international friendly soccer match against Brazil in Sao Paulo September 7, 2012. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
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