Bafana squad taking shape

Bafana Bafana will gain a new level of confidence if they beat highly rated Chile in their friendly international at Polokwane’s Peter Mokaba stadium on Wednesday. Kick-off is at 8.30pm.

That’s the opinion of central defender Matthew Booth, who last week rejoined Mamelodi Sundowns after six years in Russia.

Said Booth: “Our confidence is sky high after a five-match unbeaten run. But beating Chile will see us not just start 2009 on a winning note, but set the platform for a successful Confederations Cup in June.”

What has impressed Booth is the new level of backing from the fans.
“What is very important is we have won back the support of the fans. It is so important to Bafana we have the fans behind us. The recent support has been absolutely fantastic.”

Booth said the next two friendlies against Norway next month at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium and Portugal in Portugal on April 1 will show the country “where we stand.” Said Booth: “Our goal is succeeding in the Confederations Cup. If we do well in that major tournament on home soil it would be a massive boost for next year’s World Cup. That is why Chile is vital. We cannot take them lightly and neither will they take us for granted.”

Bafana play Asian champions Iraq in the opening Confederations Cup match at Ellis Park on April 14.

But Chile are a closed book to the players, although head coach Joel Santana knows the team well and said he had done his homework.

Said Booth: “I only know of Mark Gonzalez who played for Liverpool, otherwise Chile are unknown. But most of the players come from Europe, and adding the fact they are fourth in the South American World Cup qualifying competition [and 30th in the world] shows they are a quality side.”

Ironically Gonzalez was born in Durban and could have played for Bafana but chose Chile. His farther, Raul, played for Moroka Swallows in the 1980s.

Booth made a stunning comeback to Bafana after being out in the cold for six years in the 2-0 friendly win over Ghana at the Free State Stadium last October.

He impressed Santana so much during that game that he has been a regular since. Booth is a major challenge to regular centrebacks, Spain-based Nasief Morris and Blackburn Rovers’ Aaron Mokoena, the team captain. Bafana need competition for places, especially at the heart of the defence.

But the former SA under-23 and national under-20 captain admits he is not fully match fit after the Russian season ended in November.

Explained Booth: “My contract in Russia ended in November. I decided to try my luck in England [with Sheffield United] but they wanted a player to hit the ground running and I lacked match fitness, so I decided to come home and accepted a good offer from Downs until the end of the season. I am working hard on my fitness. But I will be honest with the coach and tell him so he knows where he stands. But it is great to be part of the set-up.”

Booth is part of what appears to be a settled squad Santana has built in the past six months. Missing are a couple of injured players and others on the fringe, but the squad is taking shape at last.

Chile will be Bafana’s toughest examination since Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers last September. Bafana lost 1-0 in Port Elizabeth to end any hope of qualifying for the 2010 continental showpiece in Angola.

Bafana and Santana must not get carried away over friendly wins against third-rate Malawi, Ghana and Zambia. None of those teams are yardsticks as to progress made since that defeat by the Super Eagle last September.

But the 3-2 friendly win over Cameroon in Rustenburg in November was special, despite the Indomitable Lions not fielding their superstar striker, Samuel Eto’o of Barcelona.

The good news is the return from injury of Belgium-based midfield workhorse Elrio van Heerden, who should start.

The only non-starter is injured Everton midfield star Steven Pienaar, who has withdrawn from the game and was replaced by Free State Stars’ Sthembiso Ngcobo.

Possible starting line-up: Goalkeeper: Calvin Marlin: Defenders: Bryce Moon, Aaron Mokoena, Nasief Morris, Tsepo Masilela. Midfield: Elrio van Heerden, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Teko Modise, Siphiwe Tshabalala. Strikers: Benni McCarthy and Bernard Parker.—Sapa

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