With the Soccer World Cup just days away, the win over Thailand ended a lean spell for Bafana and gave the team a much-needed confidence boost.
Hitching a ride with Bafana Bafana on their plane back to Johannesburg from Nelspruit on Sunday was revelatory. A few hours after the boys had inaugurated the Mbombela Stadium with a 4-0 rout of Thailand their celebrations were muted.
A steely calm prevailed during the 30-odd-minute flight. Forget champagne showers to celebrate the national team’s biggest win since a similar defeat of Chad in 2007. The trip was all about sipping apple juice and a quiet focus—a mood reflected by Siyabonga Sangweni: “Wives, girlfriends, children—none of that seems as important to the guys right now as the World Cup. It’s almost here and we’re never going to get a chance like this, in front of our home fans, ever again in our lives,” said the lanky defender who was scheduled to catch a connecting flight to his Durban home for a day off from camp.
Not that the Mail & Guardian was sitting with a planeload of monks, mind you. There was the odd attempt to charm the air hostesses, obviously. Also the usual light-hearted banter bred by familiarity after individuals are thrown together for a protracted period to achieve a common goal.
Siphiwe Tshabalala giggled with Lucas Thwala over a DVD recording of his choreographed goal celebration from earlier in the day. Teko Modise, with the oversize earphones that seem de rigueur for footballers clamped over his head, sat quietly poring over the Sunday sports pages—perhaps musing over an article questioning the calibre of the opponents Bafana have played so far (Swaziland, Zimbabwe, North Korea, all outside Fifa’s top 100) when their World Cup opening match opponent, Mexico, is set to play three top 10 teams in England, Italy and Holland.
But there was a general feeling of recognition in the Bafana camp that Thailand were nothing more than an amuse-bouche before the larger courses of playing Bulgaria (on Monday at Soccer City), Colombia and Denmark before the World Cup starts proper.
As coach Carlos Alberto Parreira had reiterated earlier in the week after a training session, the Thailand match was about “winning, but also playing well”.
As opponents, Thailand provided a great opportunity to build confidence, enjoy an international workout and not pick up any injuries.
Parreira was no doubt heartened to see striker Katlego Mphela finally get on the scoresheet (with two goals) after a lean spell and the slick interplay Bafana are capable of—epitomised best by the telepathic one-two between Tshabalala and Modise that led to Mphela’s second, and the searing exchange of passes that preceded substitute Siyabonga Nomvete’s disallowed goal.
The hours spent training is bearing fruit. But of concern—especially with Thailand missing four first-choice strikers and South Africa’s defenders largely unthreatened during the match—was the inability of Parreira’s fullbacks, Thwala and Siboniso Gaxa, to overlap more effectively.
With Parreira intent on playing two narrow midfielders to maintain shape around his anchor in the middle, it is vital for the fullbacks to raid—and he would have expected more from them in this sort of match.
A sense of relief was also palpable on the plane ride, which was especially laid on for the team by Mpumalanga Tourism and Comair, who are not their usual air carriers. To be playing on African soil again after the seclusion of camps in Brazil and Germany—and winning—was gratifying. The boys seemed especially buoyed by the wall of yellow sound that greeted their every move at Mbombela Stadium.
If anything, the match proved that, South Africans, as a people (regardless of colour and age), have always been ready for this World Cup—even if our government and the football association have often been caught lagging behind in their own readiness.
To describe the atmosphere as electric would be an understatement akin to calling Eskom power failures a simple trip.
Nelspruit was smothered in incandescent gold. Walking up to the stadium, the M&G bumped into a singing and dancing group of supporters. One was carrying a rather large cabbage with a South African flag stuck into it. “Sunday is a holy day and Bafana are going to eat a holy meal today. This will help them digest Thailand,” said the cabbage purveyor.
With Parreira’s tactics and training melding this team together, home support growing into a tsunami and the infusion of the overseas stars such as Steven Pienaar and captain Aaron Mokoena for the match against Bulgaria likely to take them up to another level, there is a growing sense that the match against Thailand was anything but the Last Supper for Bafana Bafana.