If South Africa hopes to progress to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, the team has to beat Ghana on Tuesday night, and hold thumbs that results elsewhere go their way too. The task at hand might be a bridge too far, but at least Shakes Mashaba has shown signs of getting the team on the right track. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
For Shakes Mashaba, the honeymoon period is over. For the first time since his appointment as coach, he finds himself backed into a corner. South Africa are all but out of the Africa Cup of Nations. With one game remaining, against Ghana, they have to win – and hope that Senegal beats Algeria – in order to qualify for the next round.
A loss to Algeria and a draw against Senegal led to a rude awakening.
Both those results could have looked very different for South Africa. Against Algeria, they were left to lament missed chances and individual errors. Against Senegal, Bafana Bafana were more convincing, but their inexperienced was laid bare. Mashaba decided to drop goalkeeper Darren Keet, who erred on more than one occasion against Algeria. In his place was Jackson Mabokgwane, who was adequate between the posts, but also erred when Senegal headed home for their equaliser. Instead of staying on his line, Mabokgwane was caught wandering, allowing Mame Biram Diouf to head home on the stroke of half-time.
From there, South Africa could not recover, and their greatest failure was the inability to complete passes. Mashaba’s men were simply incapable of building pressure and slowing the game down. By the time the full-time whistle blew, they had a completed pass rate of just 65 percent, an unacceptable rate at this level of competition.
While much of that is possibly down to inexperience, there is also another telling statistic. Of South Africa’s 23-man AFCON squad, 18 play league football in their home country. This is the highest number for any team competing at the tournament. Mashaba is well-known for favouring home-based talent, but the South Africa’s Premier League simply isn’t on par with bigger leagues. Not a single Senegalese player plays in Senegal’s domestic league.
Congo Coach Claude Le Roy has described South Africa as “a beautiful envelope”. On the outside it looks great, but packed inside is a “letter with many mistakes”.
That analogy has been spot on for most of South Africa’s disappointing AFCON campaign. Their silky football has been a breath of fresh air, but the telepathy is missing. While in reality things are unlikely to change before their final fixture, Mashaba has faith.
“We still have another game to play, so don’t write us off just yet. Football has its own miracles. With one game to go, we can still surprise a lot of people,” was his simple response when he was asked whether he thought the team could still make it into the quarterfinals.
The coach, though, is under no illusions as to his team’s shortcomings. Lack of goals through lack of taking shots has been hampering their progress.
“We still have a chance, but then we have to win the game and score three goals. Anything is possible, and I believe we have the beating of Ghana. We will solve that problem of finishing, and I can tell you one team will pay dearly. The problem has been scoring goals, but the day we score it’s going to be five,” said Mashaba.
While five goals might be a bridge too far, at least Mashaba is aware of where his side might be lacking. While he has been stubborn in some of his decision-making, particularly with squad selection, he has done a solid job up until now. He has a few detractors, but there is no reason to be calling for his head yet, whatever happens in Bafana’s final group outing.
Considering nobody even expected Bafana Bafana to qualify for AFCON before Mashaba took over, making it to Equatorial Guinea is a bonus. Perhaps the ire has been borne out of the expectations created through the qualifiers. After the team finished unbeaten and top of their group, ahead of defending champions Nigeria, many can be forgiven for being optimistic.
In reality, though, South Africa lags behind compared to some of Africa’s other top contenders. That has been the case for a long time, and it’s not something that is going to change overnight. While in the past, results like South Africa’s at AFCON would have been seen as “mediocre”, this time, there is a future plan. Mashaba has laid out a future plan for his team, one which relies on those committed to the national side to take the team to the top.
The mistakes South Africa have made at AFCON have far too often been rookie errors, but Mashaba has picked a squad which is largely made up of rookies. Whatever happens against Ghana, this will be another brick in Mashaba’s education foundation, which he hopes will lead South Africa back to at least some of their former glory. DM
Photo: Senegal’s Lamine Sane challenges South Africa’s Tokelo Rantie during their 2015 African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match in Mongomo January 23, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings