Wanted: Bafana's new seer
The national coach needs to find a player with a built-in sangoma to replace the visionary skills of Steven Pienaar, writes Carlos Amato.
Not many footballers have an internal sangoma. You cannot buy one at Incredible Connection. Only the footie ancestors are authorised to implant such a prophetic sidekick into a player's brain and they rarely oblige.
An internal sangoma is about the size of a SIM card and sits on a couch-like structure nestled between the hemispheres of the brain. On behalf of the host footballer, he freezes the state of play in his mind's eye, as if viewing the field from high above.
Then he fast-forwards the action several seconds, viewing and comparing an array of potential futures at once. He selects the nicest future and helps the footballer to create it with an inventive pass so sweetly measured that time and space have sex in public.
This rare creative faculty is a future-tense version of ngonyawo lonwabu (the feet of the chameleon), to borrow legendary commentator Zama Masondo's metaphor for slow-motion replay.
Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, Jomo Sono and Doctor Khumalo all had internal sangomas. Steven Pienaar has one too. According to statistics from sports data company Opta, the Everton midfielder has engineered more goal chances than any other player in the English Premier League this season. Yep – more than Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, David Silva, Santi Cazorla, Paul Scholes or Hatem Ben Arfa.
Unfortunately, "Schillo" is not with Bafana coach Gordon Igesund on Friday night in Warsaw – and will not be for the foreseeable future. Enough has been said and written about Pienaar's exit and it seems irreversible. So Igesund has no choice but to find another intuitive playmaker to be the creative director of a Bafana renaissance at next year's Africa Cup of Nations finals.
It must be doubly frustrating that the most gifted candidate for that role, Ajax Amsterdam's Thulani Serero, is out injured with a groin tear and may not recover in time for the tournament. That said, the new coach is well versed in the value of experience and he should give the seasoned Teko Modise a proper chance to book the job against Poland.
At his best, the Sundowns schemer can read the hell out of a game and he seems a very different player these days from the angsty rabbit in the headlights we saw in 2010. But Modise has yet to prove he can truly impose his own tempo on an international midfield fray. His effectiveness is unusually contingent on his mood – if doubt comes knocking, his internal sangoma downs tools and he struggles to compete, let alone dominate.
There are other options. Sifiso Myeni is a rightwinger by trade, but his intelligent distribution in recent outings for Orlando Pirates suggests he may have the nous to operate as a central trequartista, roaming in the pocket behind the centre forward in a 4-2-1-3 formation. However, that role seems earmarked for the in-form Bernard Parker and Igesund may be reluctant to pick Myeni in an unfamiliar deep role, so he is likelier to get a run out wide in Warsaw or Nairobi on October 16.
What about using Lerato Chabangu as a playmaker? At the moment, it seems you could deploy the Swallows attacker almost anywhere in midfield and his defensive work rate would be useful at the apex of a midfield trio.
The same advantage applies to both Reneilwe Letsholonyane and May Mahlangu, who both have the aptitude for playmaking, but may not be entrusted with the job because they are not doing it at club level.
Dean Furman and Kagisho Dikgacoi looked compatible at the heart of the midfield against Brazil, but Mahlangu may get a run in place of Furman tonight. Either Thabo Nthethe or Luvhengo Mungomeni will turn out at rightback in the absence of Anele Ngcongca and Siboniso Gaxa. Portuguese-South African leftback Ricardo Nunes, employed by Slovakian MSK Zilina, is also tipped to make his debut in one of this week's games. Nunes is a tidy crosser, but he is no racehorse.
Fortunately, the speedy Poland winger Jakub Blaszczykowski is out of tonight's game with an ankle injury. The Borussia Dortmund raider would have given either Nunes or Punch Masenamela a grim night.
Fellow Borussia forward Robert Lewandowski will play though and Bafana's centrebacks, Bongani Khumalo and Siyabonga Sangweni, will need to sustain the robust but disciplined form they showed against Brazil to subdue him.
Igesund has suggested he wants more tactical variety from Bafana than in recent years. His predecessor, Pitso Mosimane, attempted to speed up the patient possession style that Carlos Alberto Parreira preferred, but still wanted the ball to stay on the deck.
But Igesund is more amenable to a bit of aerial bombardment and he has useful targets for crosses and lofted passes with the imposing Dino Ndlovu and the jet-heeled Tokelo Rantie as options up front.
It will be interesting to see whether the struggling Siphiwe Tshabalala retains his leftwing starting berth with the evergreen Delron Buckley and George Lebese raring for action.
For the playmaker, probably Modise, it will not be easy to mix up the routes of attack without losing rhythm and precision. In the Premier Soccer League these days, the breakneck tempo is too forgiving of both sides; frequent loss of possession in midfield is rarely punished.
The pursuit of hectic speed by many PSL coaches over the past decade has cost many of our midfielders the capacity to slow the game, protect the ball in the opposition half and pick out a telling pass. This has been a much bigger problem than the often exaggerated shortcomings of Bafana's strikers.
Upsets likely during cracker Afcon-qualifier weekend
Prepare for a revolution. Almost every Africa Cup of Nations tournament lacks one or two aristocratic sides, but the field of finalists at South Africa 2013 could be the most proletarian yet, thanks to the unforgiving format of the qualifying draw. This weekend the continent will be gripped by several cliffhangers – the decisive second legs of the final play-off round.
Egypt are already out, thanks to the insolent exploits of the Central African Republic, and a posse of other pedigreed countries are in real danger of eviction this weekend: defending champions Zambia, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Morocco.
Most at risk are Cameroon, who must reverse a humiliating 2-0 deficit at home against uppity ex-minnows Cape Verde. French coach Denis Lavagne has paid with his job for the team's first-leg humiliation. His replacement, Jean-Paul Akono, is the right man to spark a comeback – he masterminded the Indomitable Lions' Olympic triumph in 2000 and has convinced Samuel Eto'o to fly in to the rescue. But the islanders are no mugs. It will take something special from Cameroon to dodge a second successive failure to qualify and secure a long-awaited revival.
Herve Renard's Chipolopolo from Zambia have been working hard in Johannesburg this week preparing for a difficult outing to Kampala with a slender 1-0 lead over Uganda's Cranes. Zambia have a much superior squad to their neighbours, but brilliant play-maker Rainford Kalaba has been ruled out with a groin injury. Chipolopolo fans are not relaxed.
Nor will Daniel Bennett be this weekend – the South African referee will stroll into the eye of a storm in Canaan City, Calabar province, where Nigeria will host Liberia. Stephen Keshi's Super Eagles were held 2-2 away by Liberia's Lone Stars and should be very cautiously confident of securing at least the low-scoring draw they need to advance.
The mighty Ivorians will defend a two-goal advantage when they visit Dakar's Leopold Senghor Stadium on Saturday. The first leg was a 4-2 thriller and if the Elephants contrived to concede twice in Abidjan, the odds of a lockout on enemy territory must be slim – not least against forwards of the calibre of Senegal's Papiss Demba Cissé, Demba Ba and Dame N'Doye. This is the pick of the play-offs.
Ghana should survive their visit to Malawi, leading 2-0 from the first leg, whereas Mali go to Gaborone with a secure 3-0 advantage over Botswana. Elsewhere in the draw, the Democratic Republic of Congo are set to qualify under the wily stewardship of Claude LeRoy, taking a 4-0 lead to Equatorial Guinea. The talented Congolese have not qualified for the past three tournaments and would be an asset to South Africa 2013.
Mozambique are well placed to evict Morocco in Casablanca, having won the first fixture 2-0 thanks to strikes from Premier Soccer League stars Almiro Lobo and Elias Pelembe. The Moroccan player that "Os Mambas" need to contain is superb Montpellier play-maker Younes Belhanda.
Local organising committee chief executive Mvuzo Mbebe will surely be rooting for the Mozambicans, who will fill the stands with expatriate and travelling supporters and for Rahman Gumbo's gifted Zimbabweans in their away leg against Angola. The Warriors take a 3-1 advantage to Luanda.
Gumbo may be concerned by the iffy club form of defensive midfielders Esrom Nyandoro and Tinashe Nengomasha. But his troops will be doubly inspired by their government's dangled reward for qualification: a leafy residential stand in Harare's northern suburbs for each player in the side, valued at $30 000. The players may have preferred $30000 in cash, but nobody is complaining.
Zimbabwe have qualified only twice before for the Nations Cup finals – in 2004 and 2006. Their presence here in January could make the tournament unforgettable.
Mbebe and company will also be praying that the Ivorians, Cameroonians and Nigerians are all unscathed come Sunday night. Do not bet on it.