Bafana vs Ethiopia: Losing won't be a total loss
A defeat against Ethiopia would be disappointing, but it could give Gordon Igesund the chance he needs to plan a sustainable climb to respectability.
Do or die, now or never, high noon, last throw of the dice … Whatever your preference is, Bafana Bafana find themselves in that position as they meet a resurgent Ethiopia in the World Cup 2014 qualifiers in Addis Ababa on June 16. If Ethiopia win they will go five points clear of South Africa thus giving the East Africans an unassailable lead with one round of matches to play in September.
Put another way, a loss to Ethiopia means that South Africa must start preparing for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco and the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
A loss will also have implications for the careers of some of the better players of the current generation. Those hovering around 30 years of age, such as Morgan Gould (30), Siyabonga Sangweni (31) and Reneilwe Letsholonyane, who turned 31 in camp this week, may as well hang up their national team boots after Sunday's match.
The pace and rigour of the international football scene are hardly forgiving of men in their mid-thirties.
On the plus side – if there is a positive to be taken from not qualifying for a World Cup – defeat might give Gordon Igesund the opportunity to build his own team around some younger players who he has identified as the future of South African football, such as Ayanda Patosi, Dino Ndlovu and Kermit Erasmus.
Four years of experience without the pressure of needing to win the immediate next tournament will give these youngsters, still in their early 20s, time to hone their skills and adapt to Igesund's methods and the demands of the international game.
It is patience and the ability to look at the long term – not good fortune or a coach with a magic bullet – that has seen Ethiopia's rise as an emerging power on the continent.
The country's football was plunged into a crisis in 2008 after Ethiopia's legislature decided to fire the head of the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) on the grounds that the national team's performances were a national shame.
As per their rules, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and Fifa refused to recognise the political appointment of officials and suspended the EFF.
It was only when the politicians realised that Fifa would not budge from its demand that the football association be elected and led by football people that the politicians relented.
Ethiopia was then readmitted to Fifa in July 2009.
The new president, Sahlu Gebrewold Gebremariam, stated then that his mandate was to "facilitate a renaissance in Ethiopian football". Under his leadership Ethiopia, the 1962 Africa Cup of Nations winners, are increasingly looking as if they are reclaiming their own glory.
The "Walia Antelopes" or "Black Lions" – named after a unique population of lions with dark manes native only to Ethiopia – have been painstakingly creating a team cap-able of matching the best on the continent.
Their Fifa ranking is 106, 46 places below South Africa and they are nine places behind South Africa in the CAF rankings (10 and 19), but their slow progress up the rankings ladder doesn't reflect their strong revival.
This is underscored by their pole position in the mini-league qualifiers and the fact that they qualified for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations after a 31-year absence.
The fans of the only African nation never to have been colonised have responded heartily to the revival of their team. In South Africa for the Cup of Nations, the Ethiopians had the most passionate and colourful support of all visiting teams.
Bafana Bafana should not be fooled by having won "away" to the Central African Republic last week. The encounter against Ethiopia will be the ultimate test of playing away.
Addis Ababa is 2 326m above sea level and the thin air might be a factor, especially towards the end of the match, when lungs have been tested to their limit.
Bafana will face a team that realises it has never been this close to qualifying for the World Cup. The players will also be loath to disappoint the expected capacity crowd waving gold, green and black flags.
Ethiopia have kept matters in their own hands. They have won all their matches and were happy to drop their only points when they held the then Pitso Mosimane-led Bafana Bafana to a one-all draw in Phokeng, North West, exactly a year ago.
With hindsight, Ethiopian coach Sewnet Bishaw's men might feel that, with a little ambition, they could have gone for the maximum against a South African side who share with their fans the propensity for treating with disdain teams whose players they do not often see on TV.
Be that as it may, the Ethiopians are reaping what they have sown. The universe seems to have colluded with the team's meticulous planning. Bishaw admitted they were lucky to beat Botswana after they scored their goals against the run of play. In the same breath, he attributed the result to forethought.
"Today, we were lucky. Fortunately for us, we had prepared for this situation and we were not under pressure because we are already top of the group. My players created few chances today but converted them. That is what matters in a football game. I think we also defended well because, despite Botswana dominating, they did not have many clear chances at goal," Bishaw said after last week's match.
A victory in Addis for Bafana Bafana will be sweet. It will mean the possibility of South Africa mixing it next June with the world's best in the land that made joga bonito (play beautifully) a footballing creed.
But defeat might just be the long-term medicine that South Africa need to start planning for a sustainable climb into world football respectability. As Ethiopia demonstrates, there are no shortcuts to creating a lasting legacy.