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SOCCER

Bafana qualify for Afcon, but they’re not a patch on ‘yester-heroes’

Bafana qualify for Afcon, but they’re not a patch on ‘yester-heroes’
Bafana players celebrate victory and Afcon qualification with head coach Hugo Broos after beating Liberia in Monrovia on 28 March, 2023. (Photo: BackpagePix)

South Africa are heading to the Cup of Nations in 2024. But issues still plague the quest to reclaim a spot as a continental powerhouse.

Cue the jubilation. Litter the streets in celebration. Bafana Bafana have qualified for a major tournament. A rarity.

The South Africans did it the hard way, squeezing 2-1 past Liberia in Monrovia on Tuesday, 28 March, to qualify for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Ivory Coast.

This crucial victory came four days after Hugo Broos’s men had squandered a comfortable 2-0 lead in Johannesburg to allow the Liberians to fight back and level matters in the dying embers of the match.

The 2-2 draw had the potential to harm South Africa’s hopes of booking a ticket to just their fourth Afcon in the past eight tournaments.

This was because Bafana Bafana’s group consisted of only three teams. Group favourites and World Cup semifinalists Morocco, Liberia and South Africa.

Zimbabwe were initially part of the group, but were kicked out after being banned for government interference in the country’s soccer federation.

After the stalemate in Johannesburg, Liberia knew that a draw of 1-1 would probably guarantee their passage to Ivory Coast – working on the assumption that Morocco would beat both teams in their respective remaining fixtures.

If the Liberians had managed to protect the 1-1 draw they held at halftime, both teams would have been on two points. The Confederation of African Football does not use goal difference as a separator in the event of a tie.

Rather, it employs the head-to-head rule. So, if both teams were still stuck on two points apiece at the end of the group phase, Liberia would have qualified because they scored more away goals during the two draws between the sides.

Thankfully for Broos and his charges, they dug deep in the blistering heat of Monrovia to score the winning goal and guarantee their spot at the continental showpiece, after missing out in the 2022 edition in Cameroon. As a result, the calculators that have become synonymous with Bafana qualification attempts can be put away.

“I think it was good to do that. We scored the first goal but it was a bit unlucky that we conceded a goal from outside the 16m area,” said the Belgian coach after the match.

‘Hundreds of feelings’

“When we scored the second goal, Liberia didn’t do anything any more. They just dropped the ball in our box and hoped it fell on their feet. And when you see both games, I think we deserved [to qualify],” he added.

“It is difficult to express my feelings right now. I feel enormous happiness: there are hundreds of feelings going through my body at the moment,” Broos said.

This joy is in direct contrast to the meltdown the Bafana Bafana mentor had after the 2-2 draw.

Of course, Bafana Bafana reaching the Afcon finals does not plaster over the fact that the team have regressed a lot since winning their one and only Afcon to date in 1996, as well as qualifying for two World Cups on the trot (1998 and 2002).

The team have since only managed to participate in the 2010 World Cup — and that was by virtue of being hosts. As for the Afcon, they failed to qualify in 2010, 2012, 2017 and, most recently, in 2022.

In 2019, they made it to the quarterfinals after vanquishing hosts Egypt. However, there was no continuity. After failure to get to Cameroon last year, it was Broos who was entrusted with rebuilding.

The now 70-year-old did take an unfancied Cameroon side to African glory in 2017. The South African Football Association (Safa) hired him hoping he could bring the same kind of magic to Bafana Bafana.

He has tried, shuffling his deck of players numerous times since his appointment in 2021. He is still trying to find the perfect combinations to make the team tick. This raises the question of whether Bafana can compete in Ivory Coast in January 2024. Or are they just making up the numbers?

Realistically speaking, should they encounter teams such as reigning African champions Senegal, or the Moroccans once more, they would be second-best. It’s a conundrum that the candid Broos has previously highlighted.

Players not good enough

“Those players [of the best African nations] are playing in great European teams: Fiorentina, Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain. We don’t have those quality players who are playing in Europe,” Broos said.

“Let’s face the problem of South Africa, and the problem is that the level of our Premier Soccer League is not high enough. We don’t make players with high quality.”

As the saying goes, though: games are not won on paper. When it’s 11 versus 11 anything is possible. That’s what South Africa will bank on in Ivory Coast. Especially if their overall display against Liberia is used as a yardstick.

As evidence of South Africa’s systematic struggles, while Bafana Bafana were wrestling Liberia to qualify for the senior Afcon, the under-23 side was denied the chance of going to their version — which takes place in Morocco from June.

The dream of heading to Morocco and, as a result, having a chance to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics, ended after a 0-0 draw against Congo-Brazzaville. With the first leg of the playoff ending 1-1, the Central African nation edged the South Africans on the away-goals rule.

This latest failure can also be linked to a concern Broos has raised — the fact that the country’s junior national soccer teams do not have permanent head coaches whose sole responsibility is to look after a specific junior team.

Rather, there are coaches who are employed on a part-time basis. It makes continuity very tricky. A change in this regard may play some part in helping Bafana Bafana in the long term.

However, it will not be a magic spell to fix the senior side’s continuous woes, which see it currently being just another African team, not the force it has the potential to be, considering the vast resources South Africa possesses. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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