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The unbearable darkness of being a Bafana fan

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

There are very few things I truly care about. One of those things was once Bafana Bafana. Alas, the team has conspired to break my heart once too often. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The year was 1996. A gigantic, multi-coloured flag fluttered on the back of a Toyota Hilux that belonged to an acquaintance of my father. I’d never seen this flag before. I asked what flag it was. “BAFANA BAFANA”, my dad’s friend roared. As it turned out, it was the new national flag.

The mistake was made in a moment of immense excitement. The last time I had seen this man so happy was when he donned his traditional garb and ran around with a spear and a banner bearing Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s face two years before. A thought registered in my head: Bafana Bafana is a BIG DEAL. And one’s patriotic duty is too. Therefore care very deeply about them.

I won’t chart our national team’s fall from grace. After we won the 1996 African Cup of Nations (which prompted the histrionics described earlier), we’ve never really done anything significant as a footballing nation. Instead, we slid merrily into the gutter. Where we once counted ourselves the equal of Ghana, Egypt and Ivory Coast – we are now the drum roll at the end of a really bad pun.

In 2011, Bafana Bafana became the subject of an international meme after the team danced, thinking they had qualified for the 2012 Afcon tournament. Thanks to a poor grasp of the rules – if not mathematics itself – the boys thought they needed to draw to qualify.

As it turned out, we needed a win. Which we didn’t get. We only discovered this well after the match was over. It’s been a festering sore in the country’s side ever since. This is a side that in the 2009 Confederations Cup showed real promise under Carlos Alberto Parreira, and put up a decent fight in the 2010 World Cup. We even beat the 1998 world champions France in the group stages. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. And so it has been with Bafana Bafana ever since. It just never is enough.

Yet, there I was, at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, waiting to witness what I was sure would be a famous victory for our boys against the giants of Ethiopia. This match was kind of a big deal – this was a 2014 World Cup qualifier match. Leaving aside the fact that we automatically qualified for the 2010 World Cup as hosts, we have not qualified for an international tournament since the 2009 Afcon tournament. We have had a lot of pride to restore, for an unbearably long time.

I had hoped that this would be it. As my ungracious friend put it, this is a team that comes from a country where the majority of people only eat once a day. How hard could it be? Very hard, apparently. Very hard indeed. Bafana Bafana managed to eke out an unimpressive 1 – 1 draw. The home team’s goal came in the dying moments of the second half. Once again, Katlego Mphela saved us some face.

I’m sorry, but when does this sorry mess end? Let’s start with the head coach, Pitso Mosimane. Why on earth did he insist on a 4-4-2 formation when it was abundantly clear that the Ethiopians were intent on foiling Steven Pienaar, Siyabonga Nomvete and Mphela by packing the penalty area with as many red shirts as they could possibly fit?

In the second half, when the team adopted an open attacking formation, with two wing players, the East Africans were way more exposed and we crafted better attacking opportunities. One of the most astute creative midfielders in the second half – when Bafana decided to wake up and start playing football – was Teko Modise, who came on as a substitute. It’s difficult to gauge these things before the match, but surely Pitso should have recognised the hang-dog shape of Siphiwe Tshabalala’s shoulders, and started Modise ahead of the Kaizer Chiefs midfielder?

Pienaar, who has found a rich vein of form after returning to Everton in January, was placed very deep in the Bafana midfield. Too deep. Aside from one or two vague stabs towards goal, our captain was largely absent from the game – aside from the 3,479 instances when an Ethiopian pushed him over.

I don’t mean to crush Mosimane – but the levels of frustration I feel now are of biblical proportions.The players themselves seemed very uninterested. You tell me whose fault that is.

Oh, and dear South African Football Association, when will you stop faffing about and get on with appointing the best footballing mind in the country as head coach? Who, you ask? Gavin Hunt, obviously. Never has a man does so much, with so little, and got such minuscule recognition in return.

Suffice it to say, it will be a long time before I seriously consider spending another Sunday afternoon in the wilds of the North West, hoping against hope that the boys will do something that will put a smile on my face. All I have now is disappointment. Bitter, bitter disappointment. DM

Read more:

  • South Africa fail to qualify for Afcon 2012 – or why reading the fine print is so important in Daily Maverick;
  • Lament of a South African soccer fan: ‘Do you really want to hurt me?’ in Daily Maverick.

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