It doesn’t matter how Bafana got there, the most important thing is that they have made the nation proud by reaching the semifinals of the Confederations Cup.
The doomsayers may want to attribute Bafana’s tantalising showdown against Brazil on Thursday to downright luck, but a quick memory check reveals that Joel Santana and his charges had set a semifinal slot as a minimum goal in this tournament.
Admittedly, they have posted some bad results, like some other teams (save for Spain and Brazil). But fortunately the first phase of the tournament was decided over three games, and was not a knockout competition. There was always room to make up in the next match and for other results to go Bafana’s way, as they did.
Thursday is, however, a different prospect altogether. Bafana’s fate in the competition will be settled in 90-odd minutes. Finishing second in Group A means they take on the Samba Kings, a team that has a 100% winning record in the tournament. That Santana is Brazilian offers little comfort against the most-celebrated football nation in the world, who appear to be improving with each game.
The Egyptians may have flattered only to deceive when they stretched Brazil in their opening matching before narrowly losing 4-3. If anything, that game seems to have served as a wake-up call for Dunga’s side. They hammered the United States 3-0 in their next match and capped their group stage with a classy 3-0 demolition of world champions Italy on Sunday night.
Brazil’s game plan was the same in both matches — they caught their opponents on the counter. Santana will need to find an answer to Brazil’s devastating counter-attack to enhance his side’s slim hopes of upstaging this well-oiled machine. Missing the services of Macbeth Sibaya, through suspension — one of the better players in the Bafana team — means the job will be that much more difficult.
Bafana may have lost 2-0 to Spain, but their almost faultless first-half display was inspiring. The passing was crisp and accurate for a change, while the whole team managed to effectively maintain their shape.
It is this brand of football that South Africa need to play beyond their best if they are to shrug off the underdog tag and spring a surprise. One worrying aspect of Bafana’s game is the loss of concentration at crucial stages. The most glaring example was when they conceded the first goal against Spain shortly after Itumeleng Khune’s superb penalty save. Players chose to celebrate with the rest of the fans and paid a heavy price for the sudden lapse in concentration as David Villa redeemed his spot-kick miss with a goal during this period.
Thinking on and off the ball, as well as being alert at all times, will be crucial to the Bafana cause on Thursday. Tournaments like this have been known to produce surprises, and maybe the backing of the home crowd expected to fill Ellis Park will spur the team to shock their more illustrious counterparts — provided the hosts’ game plan includes mitigating the deadly Brazil counter-attack.