Good, bad or Benni, Carlos Alberto Parreira has made his final squad selection. Phathisani Moyo assesses the chosen 23 who will have the ball at their feet and the hopes of football fans on their shoulders
The South African skipper is the first player to reach 100 caps, the most capped player in the team. So Mbazo (the “Axe”) is not short of experience to marshal the defence and captain Bafana Bafana in their most important assignment yet. He is a tough tackler on a good day, blessed with great timing. Although a strong leader, the Portsmouth defender can be erratic at times. Skilful players, in one-on-one encounters, have often exposed the weaknesses in his game. Still, with Matthew Booth seemingly out favour with Parreira, Mokoena is a certainty to start in central defence. Wearing the armband has not hurt his chances either.
Khumalo is a tough central defender. He has made the most of Booth’s drop in favour and the injury to SuperSport teammate Morgan Gould to almost guarantee himself a starting place alongside Mokoena in central defence. Being skipper at club level means the Bafana rearguard will not be short on experience. The tall SuperSport captain is dependable in the air and quick on his feet, attributes that have impressed his coach. But Khumalo has only 14 caps to his name and it will be interesting to see how he copes with World Cup pressure.
Dikgacoi is the best defensive midfielder in the country — there is no better player at reading the opposition attack — and his ability to win possession easily makes him a key part of the Bafana game plan. The Fulham player also packs a great shot from outside the box. But a major worry is that since his move to the English Premiership last year he has not played enough games. Although Fulham have used him mainly as a substitute, Dikgacoi was in irrepressible form in the 5-0 demolition of Guatemala. He did enough to convince most that he is even ahead of the on-form Thanduyise Khuboni.
Parreira, and indeed the rest of South Africa, wishes he had at least five more players with his ability. The skilful Everton midfielder is the best player by some distance in the Bafana line up. Versatile, he can play on either the right or left side of the field and has been touted as a possible Bafana Bafana captain. This is hardly surprising given that Pienaar is coming from a fantastic season in the English Premiership where he was named the Everton Player of the Year. How well he plays in this tournament will have a strong bearing in how far the team goes. Blessed with great vision and the ability to score crucial goals, the tireless midfielder fits snugly into Parreira’s counterattack approach to football. Playing Katlego Mphela as the lone striker means part of the goal-scoring duty rests heavily on Pienaar.
The left-footed winger’s game has flourished under Parreira after an almost frustrating spell for his club, Kaizer Chiefs. He is not only playing the best football of his life but seems to be impressive in handling the added responsibility of taking free kicks. Tshabalala, now a seasoned campaigner with 35 caps and seven goals for his country, is most dangerous when on the offensive. He cracks stinging drives from a distance that defy his diminutive stature. The Chiefs player is expected to alternate with Pienaar, Teko Modise and Mphela in taking set pieces that fall for Bafana outside the penalty area. Parreira’s willingness to allow Tshabalala and Modise to play traditional South African shoe-shine piano football has further boosted his performance and confidence. Definitely in the starting XI.
He has big shoes to fill in the absence of leading Bafana goal scorer Benni McCarthy, who was controversially left out of the 23-man squad. Mphela has been used as a lone striker in the friendly matches that have served the country so well. But, although the team has gone unbeaten for 11 games since Parreira’s return, the country’s number one hit man has struggled to find the back of the net. The three goals he scored in front of the home fans have been via the penalty spot. Mphela’s ability in front of the goal is undoubted. He is the leading premier soccer league goal scorer and has rattled the net 14 times in 31 appearances for Bafana. A problem will arise should injury or suspension rule him out. Finding a replacement striker to lead the attack will be difficult in a department viewed as Bafana’s weakest link.
He will be the first choice as goalkeeper unless injury decides otherwise. The Kaizer Chiefs shot stopper has been the safest pair of hands in the land for a long time. He is one of the most exciting goalkeepers to emerge from South Africa and is brilliant at starting counterattacks. But sometimes he is too quick to release the ball resulting in the opposition coming back quickly to put his team under pressure. Of major concern, Khune appeared to be in considerable pain after being injured in the first half of the 2-1 win over Columbia, and had to be substituted. It will be interesting to see whether he will hang on to his place in the starting line up after recovering from injury. Moeneeb Josephs has been a good replacement for the Kaizer Chiefs player.
The reigning Goalkeeper of the Year has proved why he is a deserving recipient of the award. He came in as replacement for the injured Khune against Columbia and what a show he put on. The Orlando Pirates goalkeeper had a glorious game as he denied Colombia’s countless spirited attacks in search of an equaliser. He followed the performance with another superb outing against Guatemala. In that game he went a step further, when he kept a clean sheet, including saving a penalty. The two displays may have cast some doubt in the Bafana bench on who to trust with the gloves on June 11 against Mexico.
The Maccabi Haifa defender is the only regular overseas club player besides Pienaar. The brilliant left back has been a revelation for the national team since making his debut in 2006, before he had even signed a professional contract. He was one of the bright sparks in Bafana’s fairy-tale run in the Confederations Cup. Gifted with speed and precise crossing abilities when joining attack, Masilela’s experience in playing in the competitive Champions League is an asset. He is naturally the first choice for the left back position and, if his current form is anything to go by, the hard-working defender could be one of the players to look out for in the Bafana line-up.
While Masilela is the left wing back, Gaxa is tipped to complete the back four with Mokoena and Khumalo in central defence. Gaxa appears to be ahead of Lance Davids and Belgium-based Anele Ngcongca for right back. The Mamelodi Sundowns defender was one of the better players in the Confederations Cup last year. The dependable 26-year-old has relegated Ngcongca to cameo roles in the national team.
Modise has, like Tshabalala, slowly rediscovered the form that made him a household name in the 2005-2006 season. The Brazil camp appears to have breathed life into the Orlando Pirates midfielder, who is again playing some good football. Modise was a pale shadow of his explosive self before the trip to Brazil and had even been benched at club level. He appeared to get worse after a disastrous Confederations Cup campaign. Thank goodness Parreira has timeously reinvented the talented player. It will be interesting to see how the Brazilian uses Modise, Tshabalala and Pienaar, three skilled players whose games appear similar. Moreover, the trio is in top form. Modise will be further buoyed by the 50 caps he has collected. He only made his international debut in 2007 and became the fastest player to achieve that milestone.
If there is a player who is certain to keep Khumalo and Mokoena sweating about starting in the Bafana central defence it is the extremely popular Booth. He is not the most skilful player in the world, but he knows how to get the job done — by keeping things simple. The towering defender was a darling of the fans during the Confederations Cup but has found himself out of the first XI since the return of Parreira. A seasoned campaigner, Booth brings some solid cover for the defence on the bench. His height is an added advantage should South Africa meet tall opponents, such as France, a country with many big players.
Khuboni is one player who has won the hearts of the fans. Barely months ago nobody outside the establishment of Golden Arrows knew about this player, let alone his undoubted talent. It took the expert eye of Parreira to spot the marvellous defensive midfielder. Today he is giving tried-and-tested talents, such as Dikgacoi, a good run for their money. He won three man-of-the-match awards on his way to cementing a place in the 23-man squad for the World Cup. The coach has shown a lot of faith in Khuboni, which he has repaid with some solid performances. He is even ahead in the congested midfield pecking order of players such as MacBeth Sibaya and Lance Davids.
The FC Twente player is the second choice as striker and is resigned to being that — the coach is unlikely to play two strikers in this tournament. But if the fans needed a reminder of what he is capable of, the thunderbolt he unleashed against Guatemala was pure class. He may be even more clinical in front of goal than Mphela, but playing alone upfront is simply not his game. He has nine goals in 28 appearances.
A late surge in the closing stage of the season appears to have paid off for the veteran striker. He has played in several European leagues and brings a wealth of experience to the team. He also played in the 2002 Fifa World Cup and scored the winning goal in the 1-0 victory over Slovenia. But as one of three strikers, Nomvethe is likely to be used only as an impact player in the later stages of matches. This would suit the 32-year-old — he still possesses lightning speed which could prove a handful for any tiring defence.
The utility player is regarded as a mystery man in some quarters because he has never played for a PSL team. The 22-year-old left for trials early in his career with Anderlecht before ending up at Genk in Belgium. Tipped as one of the most likely players to be dropped by Parreira, Ngcongca proved many pundits wrong. The fact that he can slip easily into many positions must have counted in his favour. He is comfortable in central defence, right back and in the heart of midfield.
Sibaya’s club, Rubin Kazan, has just won the Russian league and he brings much experience to the team. He has 57 caps, which include those he earned playing at the 2002 Fifa World Cup. As part of the congested midfield selection, and given that he is coming from a long injury lay off, his chance of kicking a ball in this tournament appears slim. There are just too many names in the midfield — Reneilwe Letsholonyane, Pienaar, Tshabalala, Modise, Khuboni, Lance Davids and Surprise Moriri.
The Orlando Pirates player may have created a beautiful goal for Letsholonyane but he will have to contend with being the cover for Masilela in the left back position. But he is a useful member of the squad. That he can score crucial goals complements his game. Despite playing as a defender, Thwala won the Orlando Pirates Golden Boot award last season after scoring eight goals.
The tall Golden Arrows centre back will battle it out with Booth to be the number one replacement for either Mokoena or Khumalo. Having him on the bench could just be an asset if Bafana Bafana progress further than the second round of the tournament. Defenders are most likely to pick up cards and be suspended. It is here that the 28-year-old could come in handy.
Hard work has paid off for the 30-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns attacking midfielder. He has shrugged off a nagging injury to bounce back into the national team. Moriri’s strongest attributes, which should see him enjoy more game time than the other bench warmers, is that he is very effective playing behind the strikers. Given that Mphela will be alone upfront, Moriri could be the obvious tactical change to breathe life into the attack when the chips are down. His knack of scoring important goals at crucial moments of the game will be in his favour when the coach is looking over his shoulder for a change that could rescue his cause.
Davids is another midfielder who could see little action in this World Cup. The defensive midfielder’s break could come in the wing back position, where he will fight for recognition with Gaxa and possibly Ngcongca. Besides being a useful defender, Davids can also play as a wing. At 25 time is on his side to stake a claim in the national team after the World Cup.
The hard-working Kaizer Chiefs player in the middle of the park makes him one the most influential players for both club and country. Letsholonyane offers many options but the large contingent in the midfield may just deny the world a chance to see this great player’s talents.
The Maritzburg United goalkeeper has not featured in any of Bafana’s preparation games. As the third choice pair of hands behind Khune and Josephs, it is highly unlikely that he will get a game. However, he will be satisfied with his inclusion in the final squad ahead of veteran Rowen Fernandez.