Before Bafana Bafana departed for their ‘must-win’ Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier against Mauritania on the weekend, Shakes Mashaba was asked what kind of surface his side will be playing on. His answer? Grass. As it would turn out, Bafana Bafana would play on artificial turf, perhaps an explanation for why their performance was so artificial. The South Africans were beaten 3-1 by a team ranked 42 places lower than them.
Now, upsets happen and they make sport great, but Bafana Bafana were an embarrassing excuse for a football team on Saturday. That they failed to do even the most basic homework – on the conditions – tells you everything you need to know about where this team are heading. Mashaba and his team did not once practice on artificial turf during their preparations for the match and while the coach said analysts watched some videos, Bafana were completely floored by Mauritania.
While South Africa had the usual woes to deal with: poor finishing (or in this case, virtually non-existent finishing), they also had to deal with a clear lack of mental preparation. Basic errors, the kind of stuff you expect to happen in the pub league were the hallmark of Bafana’s performance at the weekend. A cringeworthy error from Itumeleng Khune, who let a long-range free kick slip into goal, saw the North African side draw first blood. Lack of discipline, which included a yellow card for Dean Furman and a red for Siyabonga Zulu added to Bafana’s woes. Zulu’s professional foul on Ismaël Diakité was not only needless, it was foolish, but it was far from the worst mistake Bafana Bafana made as they dropped to the bottom of their qualifying group.
‘Crisis time’ is an overused phrase in the era of professional sport, particularly football. The hire-and-fire culture in leagues and teams across the world mean that it is easy to get caught up in a moment or one particular result, especially the ‘upsets’. For Bafana, though, it is crisis time. It would be unfair to lay all of the blame at Mashaba’s feet, he can only do so much with a group of players he only sees from time to time and who don’t play together often. But if Mashaba is not to blame, then who is?
When Mashaba first took over the reins, it looked as if he would finally inject a group of apathetic losers with a little bit of the vigour they so desperately needed. He made bold selection decisions, which sometimes paid off. But, before too long, it was back to the same old, same old.
When South Africa played out a goalless draw against Gambia in the Afcon qualifier earlier this year, Mashaba shouldered the blame. In that match, South Africa missed a host of chances and Mashaba insisted that the problem is at league level.
“We always try and address problems at the wrong level … the national team level,” Mashaba said, according to the Premier Soccer League’s (PSL’s) official website.
“We’ve developed habits here now, good, bad, ugly straight and we can’t change them at this level. Never! You can’t. They have to grow up with it. We need to get highly skilled and qualified manpower to work at the grassroots level. And those people must be well looked after because it’s not an easy thing.
“There are 16 teams in the PSL. We have got 16 coaches plus their co-workers. All of them, they talk about scoring goals as the problem. And where do we get those players that are playing in the national team?
“From the very same clubs. Now we expect when the national team gets together for four days, and it’s not even four days, how do you solve the problem of scoring goals? We bring players in, we guide them and that is all. We’re not making players here.”
And Mashaba has a point. Anyone who has cast an eye over the local PSL in recent times will know that the quality is woeful. The passing is inaccurate and boring, set pieces are awful and the wild shooting to try to find a wonder goal borders on embarrassing. But those who ply their trade in the PSL have little to lose. They have cushy jobs with cushy salaries and will rarely be pushed out of those jobs for their reputations precede them. And what reputations they are. In South Africa, the PSL footballers are big fishes in a very small pond. They can earn enough money on home soil to not be tempted to try to play overseas, even for second-division teams in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Contrast that with other top-ranking African teams and it becomes clear that the problem is as much a developmental problem as it is an attitude problem. Until that changes, South African football will remain in the doldrums. DM
Photo: South Africa fans react after their team lost to Uruguay following their 2010 World Cup Group A soccer match at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria June 16, 2010. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez.
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