Little under a year ago, any notion that Bafana Bafana would be able to compete with the best in Africa was a laughable notion. Now, their optimism is actually endearing. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
A little less than a year ago, if anybody had said that Bafana thought they could win the Africa Cup of Nations, that optimism would have been met with laughter. Not even a subdued chuckle – full belly laughs.
But now, upon departure for Gabon, where the team is stationed to play warm-up games, Shakes Mashaba had no qualms being optimistic.
“We are coming back after the 10th [February] after the final is played. We have packed our bags expecting for a long stay there. In 1996 we set the standard that we are championship material. With this team we are trying to revive that spirit and show that we are one of the best,” the coach said.
Although his comment should be taken with a pinch of salt, his comments aren’t entirely laughable. South Africa finished top of their qualifying group, ahead of African champions Nigeria, Congo and Sudan. They remained unbeaten throughout their campaign, an unthinkable result just a few months back. Mashaba has been heralded as some sort of miracle worker and will need all the magic he can muster if Bafana are to get out of their group. They are pitted against Africa’s number one ranked team, Algeria, as well as Ghana and Senegal – a group that has been labelled the “Group of Death” – but for Mashaba, this is no bother.
“All the teams are equal. When they say ‘the group of death’ it gives us motivation. It will be good to beat the number-one team on the continent.
“I have told the players not to fear anybody because we have no reason to feel inferior. The boys are ready. The players know why they are here and they know what it means to wear the Bafana jersey.”
Pride and patriotism have formed one of the cornerstones of Mashaba’s team building. So much so that he left Thulani Serero out of his squad for the tournament. Serero is one of the best midfiedlers of his generation, but for Mashaba, best in talent doesn’t necessarily mean best for the team.
He did not turn up for the Boxing Day mini-camp and that is most likely what set Mashaba off. Mashaba is a man of conviction. He showed that when he decided to cut ties with May Mahlangu, a player who claimed fatigue when he asked to be excused from a training camp. It is understood that Serero, too, said that he was tired, although Mashaba’s explanation was more cryptic.
“Serero is not in the team; other players proved to be better than him,” the coach said when he announced his squad.
Better, in this instance, might simply mean better committed. In an interview with Ajax Amsterdam TV, Serero admitted that he did not really expect to make the team and wasn’t too bothered that he hadn’t. Speaking at a training camp in Qatar, where Ajax are busy with a mid-season training camp, the midfielder said: “I was not chosen for my national team, so I had to come back and train with the team,” Serero said. “And now all my focus is here.”
When asked if he was disappointed to miss out, he responded: “Nah, not really. For me, no. I think you kind of expect it as a footballer. You can’t always put your hopes on getting selected, but (you should) be open to the possibility that you won’t be.”
Serero has had issues with his commitment to the national team before, with Gordon Igesund also sending him on his way during his Bafana tenure.
Of course all teams and their coaches want their best XI on the field, but there is no point in selecting players who would rather be elsewhere.
It has been quite some time since Bafana Bafana have had somebody at the helm who is not afraid of sticking to his vision and making unpopular decisions. Safa’s trust in his approach is equally encouraging. But a tough time awaits if South Africa are going to lift that trophy.
Bafana have played one warm-up fixture already, drawing 1-1 with Cameroon. Their campaign will begins on 17 January with a match against Algeria, before squaring off against Senegal – and the coach is taking the challenge in his stride.
“In the next two matches we will know what to expect and what we need to do. The matches will allow us to get familiar with the conditions, with the heat and with the atmosphere of the fans,” Mashaba said.
Since Mashaba took over as coach, Bafana have made great strides. While they might still be outclassed by the best teams in Africa, at least their optimism no longer seems completely delusional. DM
Photo: Shakes Mashaba (Photo: eNCA)