Of champs and chumps

Bafana Bafana fans should take heart that it’s the Springboks and not the football side taking on the Azzuri of Italy this weekend. Bafana are, not for the first time, in a precarious position to win or bust.

They take on African football journeymen Sierra Leone at the Super Stadium in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, on Saturday knowing that anything less than three points will dash any hope of taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola in 2010.

The Springboks, who play at Newlands in Cape Town at 2pm, do not have such concerns. The Azzuri are the world’s football champions, but no-hopers in rugby. The Italians are to world rugby what Bafana are to football — just a hopeful nation that takes part in the sport.

So nondescript is this Italian side that there are those who argue that the match should have been stripped of its Test status. The argument is that Tests are just that — a test of strength against opponents of equivalent weight.

The Italians’ weakness explains why their coach Nick Mallet suffers under no illusion that the Italians are going to make a match of it.

‘It’s not easy to say we can look for positives after not securing the win. To be honest, it’s not an ideal tour playing the world champions here and then Argentina away,” said Mallett, who, as Bok coach, lead South Africa to a world record-equalling 17 Test wins on the trot.

Ironically, Mallet lost his job after complaining about the high 2000 Tri-Nations ticket prices. Now he has brought a second-string side of a B-rate nation for a match priced at Test-match rates.

He has gone to the unusual extreme of asking the home fans to show some kindness to his charges.

‘When we have our best team together, we are always going to be competitive. But looking to this week, it won’t help the players to be nervous and worry about reputations.”

Bafana are, despite the apparent denialism of their countrymen, just as sad a bunch as the Italians. And the sooner their fans learn to adjust their expectations, the better.

Around the same time that Bafana fans will be biting their nails, rugby fans will be enjoying biltong with the only concern being whether Butch James’s replacement at flyhalf, Francois Steyn, is an adequate replacement for the World Cup-winning number 10. Speaking of number 10, Bafana Bafana will hope that Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar adds scoring goals to the intelligent play he and Orlando Pirates’ Teko Modise have been conjuring for the team.

While Bafana experimented with a new captain — Macbeth Sibaya in their loss against Sierra Leone last week — the Boks will have a stand-in skipper in Victor Matfield.

Matfield replaces John Smit who returned to his French club Clermont after the two Tests against Wales.

Smit’s commitment to the national course is another difference between the Boks and Bafana.

While the better Bok players are willing to give up anything to play for their country, South African football always has to beg the likes of Benni McCarthy to spare a week or two in the interest of his country.

One can only imagine how bloated McCarthy’s head would have been if he were a key member of a really top team in Europe, instead of spending most of his time on the bench of mid-table Blackburn Rovers.

Bafana had a stand-in captain when they lost last week. But not even the most pessimistic Bok fan would regard Matfield’s captaincy as a bad omen.

Especially when one considers that the Italians will be without 13 of their first-choice players for the match at the Newlands’ ground in Cape Town.

If ever there was a time that a South African institution was required to show mercy to fellow Africans, it is now. Failing to qualify for Angola will be a football disaster of unimaginable proportions. It would mean that South Africa would go to the World Cup without having had a serious trial run to establish its readiness for football’s biggest spectacle.

Rugby and football are serious matters in this country. The fortunes of the national teams are up there with the price of electricity, crime and John Hlophe as matters for serious discussion and, when the occasion warrants it, impeachment of the guy in charge.

Thankfully, there are still many South Africans who don’t buy into the silly theory that rugby is for whites and football for black South Africans. For them, it will be a Saturday afternoon that will go a long way towards establishing whether the new week will be a productive one.

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