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Bafana Bafana find their mojo in Egypt

Sport

AFCON

Bafana Bafana find their mojo in Egypt

Thembinkosi Lorch of South Africa celebrates goal with teammates during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals last 16 match between Egypt and South Africa at Cairo International Stadium, Cairo, Egypt, 06 July 2019. EPA/Samuel Shivambu

South Africa did the unthinkable in Cairo on Saturday night. Knocking Egypt out of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations was something coach Stuart Baxter said would be a ‘national disaster’. That might be true for the hosts, but it’s a national revelation for Bafana Bafana.

Those not acquainted with the misadventures of South Africa’s national football team might be calling for an investigation after they dumped Egypt out of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

Who were the imposters that played so dismally in the group stage and how much ransom was paid to release them for the last 16 match?

If you’d glanced at the tournament previews ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, you probably saw the line: “With Bafana Bafana anything is possible.”

But those who have immersed themselves in Afcon over the years will know this is true for the whole tournament.

There is no other soccer competition like it. It’s brilliantly bonkers in the best possible way. No other tournament can script these kinds of story-lines. With this year’s jamboree expanded from 16 to 24 teams, the potential has multiplied. We’ve seen it already. Madagascar beating Nigeria. Benin knocking Morocco out. Pick any squad and you’re likely to find at least one player whose personal journey will tug at your heartstrings.

And then came South Africa.

Hopelessly uninspired in the group stages, Stuart Baxter talked up the potential of a “national disaster” ahead of their last 16 meeting against Egypt.

Because you just never know with Bafana Bafana.

This was going to be 90 minutes – or 120 if it must – of sheer bloody- mindedness or a complete catastrophe.

It was the latter – but not for the team you’d expect. The national disaster has already claimed a host of casualties, with Egypt’s coach and his entire technical team given their marching orders by the country’s FA boss. Right before he quit the job himself. Dramatic? Maybe. But this is the Africa Cup of Nations. Its acronym might as well be DRAMA.

Soccer, when played without the exaggerated theatrics that have become a blight on the modern-day game, is one of the most beautiful things on the planet. You might imagine that in a parallel universe, it’s viewed with muted nods and stern claps in the same way you watch a ballet.

But this was a cabaret, old chums. And Sifiso Hlanti was the master of ceremonies. Thembinkosi Lorch might have been singing the tune, but Hlanti conducted it.

More so than almost any other South African player on the pitch.

Imagine for a second, Hlanti in elaborate cabaret get-up, tap dancing and singing: “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket.”

Because that’s exactly what he did to Mohamed Salah. He wasn’t the only one tasked with marking the Egyptian talisman, but he sure had him on close watch.

Mo Salah, orange, vs Sifiso Hlanti, blue. (Original graphic by whoscored.com.)

While the Pharaohs have been careful not to pin the hopes of an entire team on the shoulders of one man, the psychological damage of having your star burn out can’t be shrugged off.

And yet, this shouldn’t haven’t have been a surprise. For all their misgivings in the group stages, South Africa’s defence did their job. It’s the effervescence of the attack that let them down.

But, like a Cape Town tourism brochure, you just need to add some water for it to start bubbling.

On Saturday, it finally bubbled. Much earlier than in their other games, South Africa showed a willingness to go on the attack.

It wasn’t until 85 minutes it took off.

Across a few seconds, somebody had unlocked the cheats on the console remote.

Through ball, back. Through ball, side pass. Balance. Control. Strike.

Down arrow. Side arrow. Triangle. Side arrow. X marks the spot.

And no commentator’s inability to say the team’s name was going to ruin it.

The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations had a new hero in the diminutive Thembinkosi Lorch. While many expected Percy Tau to steal the show, Lorch fleet-footed the ball into the back of the net – and seemed like he wanted to apologise for ruining the party as he sat in the post-match press conference.

“When I scored, I thought it was not a goal because of the silence in the stadium. Normally when you score, people celebrate, but it dawned on me that I had hurt the feelings of more than 80,000 people,” Lorch said.

But those fans applauded South Africa off the pitch.

The 25-year old Lorch is the antithesis of a modern-day footballer. But, like so many players at the tournament, his story is one of the threads that weave together the magic of a sport we love.

The goal was dedicated to his late brother, who died last week. His journey to the top nearly didn’t happen because when he was first scouted he didn’t have an ID document.

Sport’s narratives can sometimes distort reality. But we cling on to them with all our might because we need that distraction from reality. We need the belief that the fairytales can be our reality.

And when you are the team in charge of charting those dreams – asked to do so when nearly 100 million people are willing you not to do so – you need a moment that feels completely unreal.

So, as the clock ticked ever closer to midnight on Saturday, reality veered out of view. In living rooms, shebeens and bars, those who’d been watching stood with mouths agape, sound spilling out beyond control. Others were stunned into silence. Some a combination of the two.

Ask those in Egypt what that moment sounded like – and they might swear that they’d heard it.

You don’t need to like sport or even care for its distractions, just come to the cabaret.

This was Egypt’s party. But it’s South Africa’s now. And you’re all invited. DM

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