Lessons in telepathy

Despite football’s modern affectations, it remains a simple game. Remove the layers of agents, endorsements, bumptious security detail, tactical regurgitations and technology that promises to pinpoint where exactly on your star striker’s bum that late-night junk food binge is being stored, and it remains ridiculously simple.

Football is still about two teams of 11 players each, with both sides contesting a ball. The team in possession tries to hold on to the ball constructively enough to stick it into a metal rectangle. The other attempts to apply enough pressure to prevent this, regain control of the ball and, likewise, score.

Granted, modern balls appear to be designed by fetish-club enthusiasts with poppers hangovers — think Jabulani, the official World Cup ball with its ethylene vinyl acetate and thermoplastic polyurethane make-up, sensory pimples et al — but at least they’re still round.

And so the game remains simple. This appeared the single most important ethos being inculcated into the 29 players who gathered in Durban this week for the start of Bafana Bafana’s first pre-World Cup training camp.

Early in the week the drills at the Chatsworth Stadium were all about possession and quick passing — especially in tight spaces.

The recreation of match-day scenarios by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s staff meanwhile emphasised the importance of his midfield in the strategy of simplicity.

When defending, the focus was on midfield shape and pressure, with Lance Davids the defensive pivot. Usually it was Teko Modise and Siphiwe Tshabalala revolving around the Ajax Cape Town midfielder, closing down space and applying pressure on attackers as Davids provided the screen for his defence.

In attack Davids was again the anchor with Modise at the attacking end of what often resembled a midfield diamond. Tshabalala and his Kaizer Chiefs teammate Reneilwe Letsholonyane tucked in slightly, finding space, availing themselves for a pass and trying to keep the attacking momentum building. Expansiveness came from the overlapping fullbacks, usually Orlando Pirates’ Lucas Thwala on the left and Mamelodi Sundowns right-back Siboniso Gaxa.

This looks the likely starting line-up — with a centre-back pairing of Matthew Booth and Supersport United’s Morgan Gould, and Pirates’ Gert Schalkwyk shadow-supporting Katlego Mphela up front — for Bafana’s friendly against Zimbabwe on January 27 at the Moses Mabhida stadium.

Any experimentation will be conducted by Parreira on January 23, when his team will face Swaziland in a non-international status practise match at Chatsworth Stadium. Then the Brazilian is likely to test players such as Pirates’ Andile Jali and the Sundowns pair of Siyanda Xulu and Matthew Pattison.

Pattison’s irrepressible movement and availability to receive a pass before dispensing with the ball quickly, especially, will come under scrutiny in the next few days as Parreira susses out options for the right blend of discipline and adventure from his midfield.

Although the Brazilian coach’s claims earlier in the week that between 65% and 70% of the eventual 23-man World Cup squad will be locally based may be an exercise in motivation more than anything else, the vital importance of the camps — even without Bafana’s overseas-based players — cannot be underestimated.

The camps are about physical conditioning, coherence on the pitch and ensuring that, come the World Cup, even those on the periphery of the Bafana squad have developed a tactical awareness that is instinctive and fits into a predefined system.

Commenting on the focus on possession football during training, veteran defender Booth said: “It’s the Brazilian way: keeping possession, keeping shape so that we build a platform to do what we do best, which is go forward and hopefully score goals.”

Parreira apparently favours the single midfield anchor, rather than the two enforcers often used by his predecessor Joel Santana. The latter approach saw Bafana bereft of fluidity when in possession and placed strain on attacking midfielders such as Steven Pienaar and Modise, who had to drop deeper to receive the ball. This blunted the team’s creative impetus when going forward.

Now the onus is on the team as a whole to develop greater positional and tactical awareness through regular match and practice sessions together. This is being augmented by physical conditioning and testing similar to the approach used so successfully by co-hosts South Korea during their run-up to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup: ensure that there is a telepathic understanding throughout a team that is ready to outrun anyone — Usain Bolt aside.

It’s a simple plan: one that suggests that Parreira may have a few Bob Seger albums among all the samba rhythms in his CD collection. For as the Detroit rocker sang: “Simplicity it works for me/ It keeps me runnin’ hard, and sharp and true/ I focus on the basic stuff/ And pretty soon I’m comin’ up on you/ I break you down, size you up/ I see a path and then I bust a move/Before you know we’ll hit you babe/ I finish and I’m on to somethin’ new”.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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