Sport

Soccer: Bafana’s biggest challenge still beckons

By Ant Sims 25 January 2013

It’s taken a while, but Bafana Bafana has found its spark – the spark ignited by coach Gordon Igesund. Beating Angola 2-0 was a terrific result, but their biggest challenge will come on Sunday when they take on Morocco. Pressure and expectations have returned after the win, and how they respond will be the key. By ANT SIMS.

On Wednesday night, Bafana Bafana finally looked like the team Gordon Igesund tried to make everybody believe they were. They looked composed, fearless and hungry, like a team who actually believed in themselves. The chemistry that had been missing for so long was finally set in motion, and much of the game brought explosions of the best possible kind.

Coach Gordon Igesund made five changes to the side which drew so dreadfully to Cape Verde in the opening clash of the competition. He called it a gamble; others might call it tactical genius.

Whatever it was, it worked brilliantly. South Africa bagged a 2-0 over an Angolan side which didn’t really turn up. South Africa was better in every aspect of play.

“I gambled today because it was a must-win situation. We had four defenders, one holding midfielder and the other five players were committed to attacking,” Igesund said.

“The players believed in themselves – the nerves that affected us so much against Cape Verde were gone. It was not easy out there on the pitch with the weather so hot.”

Some of the usual frustrations did come up here and there, with players still struggling for accuracy in front of the goal, but at least they were taking shots – and Bafana managed to make their way into the final third.

What changed, then? Igesund admitted that he and his charges played without fear of losing on Wednesday. That’s a big step forward: letting go of expectations. Fear seemed to transform the side.

“I wasn’t scared to lose tonight, that’s why we went the way we went by making five changes.

“I have said all along we are going to be a hard team to beat. We have kept two clean sheets in this tournament but we know this is not yet in our hands.”

Dean Furman had a particularly impressive game and earned himself a man of the match gong. The 25-year-old admitted that the support at the Moses Mabhida stadium helped spur the side on.

“The support was incredible; you could feel it as you were playing – the crowd just kept pushing us on,” said Furman.

“It was the kind of encouragement the players needed, especially as things didn’t go the way we wanted them to in the opening game.”

The stadium was practically empty at kick-off, but filled up rapidly as the match went on. The familiar sights, sounds and colours synonymous with African football lined the seats as supporters started to stream in.

“You could hear them getting louder as the game went on, and that was motivation enough for the lads to keep their heads down and guarantee the win. We’re just really happy about the three points, and the way we played to get them,” Furman added.

It wasn’t just the support at the stadium which swelled. On social networks and in pubs across the country, South Africans finally started to believe that the team wasn’t entirely useless, and even the most stoic critics started to come around.

But that’s perhaps Bafana’s biggest challenge. The expectations ahead of the opening fixture against Cape Verde were massive, and with such pressure to perform, they fell flat.

Those expectations had dwindled by their second match, but they have now been reaffirmed – and while a draw against Morocco should be good enough for the hosts to make it through to the next round, they should be aiming for more than that.

Their biggest challenge will be psychological: their self-belief and how they respond to the expectations of fans. All eyes will be on South Africa when they take on Morocco on Sunday, and their performance on the pitch will be the strongest indicator of whether they have truly turned a corner. DM

Photo: A South African fan cheers their team against Angola during their African Nations Cup Group A soccer match at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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