Sport

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

After solid Afcon run, Bafana start long, hard road to clinch World Cup spot

After solid Afcon run, Bafana start long, hard road to clinch World Cup spot
Aubrey Maphosa Modiba of South Africa challenges Youssef En-Nesyri of Morocco during their Africa Cup of Nations match at Laurent Pokou Stadium in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, on 30 January 2024. (Photo: ©Weam Mostafa / BackpagePix)

After an impressive Africa Cup of Nations campaign, the work continues for Bafana Bafana. The 2026 Fifa World Cup is the next big target for the team.

South Africa is still basking in the warmth of their most memorable Africa Cup of Nations display in almost three decades. But Hugo Broos and his men cannot afford to rest on their laurels. The next mission – World Cup qualification – awaits the team.

Bafana Bafana are in a World Cup qualification group with Nigeria, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Benin.

They’ve already played Rwanda and Benin. They opened their qualification campaign in Durban with a 2-1 win over Benin in November 2023. In the same month, they were shocked 2-0 by Rwanda in Butare.

Mixed start

The mixed start was less than ideal for the South Africans’ ambitions to reach their first World Cup since participating as hosts in 2010. Nevertheless, the team bounced back from the Rwandan setback via their displays at Afcon in Ivory Coast. Now they need to ride that momentum and seize control of their destiny when they play Zimbabwe and Nigeria in early June.

The positive for Broos and his troops, besides coming off leading South Africa to their first Afcon medal since 2000, is the fact that group favourites Nigeria also began their qualification quest at a snail’s pace.

The Super Eagles, who prevented South Africa from reaching the Afcon 2023 final when they vanquished them 4-2 via penalties in the last four, played to two 1-1 draws against minnows Lesotho and Zimbabwe in their opening World Cup qualification fixtures.

As things stand, Rwanda top the group with four points. Bafana Bafana are second with three. The other teams are all on two points after two games. Benin are the exception. They are on one point, having lost one and drawn one.

There are still eight games to be played by all the teams, though, for a total of 10 matches. It’s still a long road before any team can book a spot to the 2026 showpiece, which will be co-hosted by Mexico, Canada and the US.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Morocco, Spain and Portugal to host 2030 World Cup — three games in South America

In the qualification phase for the Qatar-hosted 2022 World Cup, Bafana were edged out by the eventual winners of their group, Ghana, after finishing level on points (13 each), as well as on head-to-head and goal difference.

Ghana moved on to the third and final round of qualifying because they had scored seven goals to Bafana’s six from their six matches. The Black Stars eventually made it to Qatar after leaping over Nigeria on the away goals rule after a 1-1 aggregate score over two legs.

Bafana Broos

Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos talks to the media during the Africa Cup of Nations at Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium in Korhogo, Ivory Coast, on 15 January 2024. (Photo: ©Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

Simple qualification

Fortunately, after Fifa’s decision to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48, the additional knockout round that was necessary to determine the five African nations that would play in the World Cup in the past, has been abolished.

This time it is straightforward. The nine teams that finish at the top of the nine qualification groups will be heading to the 2026 football showpiece.

So, the equation for Bafana Bafana is ­simple. Finish at the top of the group and qualify. But it won’t be easy. World Cup qualification will be another step in restoring public interest and belief in the senior men’s national football side.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How Bafana Bafana learnt the art of shutting out noisy naysayers in quest for Afcon glory

“We are a nation that loves football. We are a nation that has an abundance of talent. And we are a nation that should compete [regularly] at the highest level,” said Siphiwe Tshabalala, who scored South Africa’s first goal at the 2010 World Cup.

Because of the country’s isolation during apartheid, South Africa has just two World Cup appearances in addition to the 2010 extravaganza. They earned two qualifications, in 1998 and 2002.

Broos is determined to add to this tally. It was another mandate of his when he was ap­pointed by the South African Football Association in May 2021, alongside qualifying for the 2023 Afcon.

“We want to qualify for the World Cup. [Especially] after so many years [of missing out]. We came close the last time [for the 2022 edition in Qatar],” he said.

Amid dwindling stadium attendance for Bafana Bafana games over the years, one of the criticisms of the team has been that it plays boring football, which makes watching them a chore. This notion has been amplified under the tutelage of Broos. But the Belgian is not perturbed.

“I used to get frustrated. But not any more. I just do what I want and [what] I believe is the right way,” he said.

The “right way” led to his team clinching bronze at Afcon. It also resulted in 12 games unbeaten before that World Cup qualification loss to Rwanda.

If they can repeat that trick for the World Cup qualifiers, they may just book their ticket for 2026. Even if it’s not through the pretty football that South Africans crave.

“When it comes to results… that’s what it’s all about. Sometimes you don’t need the best performance in order to get results,” said former Bafana Bafana striker Shaun Bartlett.

“In order to qualify for the World Cup, that’s what we need to do. We need to get points on the board. That’s important.”

Bafana are in action again next month. They will play two international friendlies against Andorra and Algeria on 21 and 26 March, respectively. Broos has said he will use the matches to further expand his pool of players.

The coach also reiterated that South Africa’s DStv Premiership, which falls under the Premier Soccer League (PSL), needs to improve if Bafana Bafana are to have any hopes of being a force on the global stage.

“Again, I will repeat it as much as you want, the PSL level has to increase. I’m very sorry,” said Broos on the Soccer Africa show. “Not physically or whatever… Tactical discipline and organisation. I see it sometimes when I go to PSL games. Then I wonder how they are playing.

“There is no tactical discipline, players are running everywhere. You can’t do that at an international level. You need tactical discipline and a plan.

“My opinion is that we don’t need to play like South Africans if we want to achieve something on an international level.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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