The hysterical reaction to Bafana Bafana’s early exit from the African Nations Championship reflects longstanding frustration with the team.
Although Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula jumped off the deep end, and should not be given the oxygen of publicity, the record of underachievement by South Africa’s national team hit a new low last weekend, and was met by another barrage of abuse and predictable promises of introspection from sports politicians, whose drawing board is tatty from all the times they have had to “go back to it”.
Although they were dressed in green and were called Nigeria, the side that South Africa lost to on Sunday was not much more than a motley collection of the best Nigerian players left at home while the cream of that country’s talent plays outside of their league – about 200 players scattered across the world.
The poverty of their choices was reflected in the selection of the like of Gbolahan Salami, once on the books of Mamelodi Sundowns but who never got a game in the Premier Soccer League (PSL), and Joshua Obaje, who played only a third of the matches for Black Leopards last season when they were relegated from the top flight of South African football.
Yet they looked nothing like a bunch of journeymen. Nigeria imposed a physical presence on the match, bullied South Africa off the ball, took their chances and left the arena with a comfortable success against, on paper, a vastly superior side.
The contrast in approach was key.
Nigeria played as though they actually believed they could beat South Africa, never mind the difference in the number of caps and international experience. They have always had a deserved arrogance and swagger.
In contrast, Gordon Igesund played with just one recognised striker, erring on the side of caution with five across the middle. This included two wide players, whose service was easily dealt with by the two Nigerian central defenders outnumbering poor Bernard Parker.
Avoiding defeat rather than going out to win was, sadly, Bafana’s priority. Often that backfires, as coach Joel Santana learnt to his cost about five years ago.
This is Igesund’s fourth tournament failure – after the Nations Cup, the Cosafa Cup in Zambia and the World Cup qualifiers – which prtovokes questions about his acumen at top level, particularly his ability to motivate and create a winning atmosphere around the team. His nervous disposition and search for ready-made excuses means he lacks some of the gravitas needed for this, the toughest of all jobs.
There are mitigating factors for the Chan and Cosafa tournaments in that the coach was not allowed to pick his best players and not given time to prepare properly.
But, at the same time, any team selected from among the top achievers in the PSL must dominate the region and be able to perform competitively at a tournament such as the Chan.
It is hugely ironic that at the last Chan three years ago, Simon Ngomane was made coach and was left to pick players from the third division plus a few offcasts from the PSL deemed surplus to their club’s requirements. They were called “Amabinneplaas” and given no chance, yet they reached the quarterfinals before losing to the powerful Algeria.
Igesund launched a spirited defence of his record after Sunday’s loss in Cape Town, trotting out the statistics and making a reference more than once to the win over Spain. That friendly success over the world champions in a meaningless international is now the lifeline he clings to.
Igesund awaits his fate. It is likely to be nothing for the moment, as the cash-strapped South African Football Association does not have the resources for a ready solution.
It was interesting that Danny Jordaan, its newly elected president, made no effort to defend his team and players at the end of Mbalula’s tirade on Monday.
Just how motivated the squad will be when they come together again in March for the match against Brazil will be interesting to see.