An honourable exit or a missed opportunity? South Africa’s achievement or lack thereof at their own Soccer World Cup has struck different chords. Those satisfied despite the ignominy of an early round elimination are juxtaposed with those frustrated at the general acceptance of yet another display of sporting mediocrity.
But what now? Where to for Bafana Bafana? The next step is the appointment of a successor to Carlos Alberto Parreira but, more importantly, a direction in which to take the team.
In just more than a month after the World Cup finals the team will play a warm-up friendly (against a team still to be announced) and in September they begin the campaign to try to qualify for the next Africa Nations Cup. The group includes Egypt, the defending champions, but also the relatively minor challenge of Niger and Sierra Leone, suggesting a trip to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, the co-hosts of the next continental championship, would be a realistic expectation.
Pitso Mosimane is widely expected to get the job, although he says he has not yet had any formal offer from the South African Football Association. His candidature has been backed by Parreira and seems a logical step if the side are seeking consistency and hope to build on the World Cup experience.
Defining the team’s style
Parreira feels he is leaving the job having given the side an identity, or “a face”, as he likes to put it. The style of playing the ball around, keeping it on the ground and circulating at high tempo has been his clarion call, although Bafana Bafana have played like this before under previous coaches.
It was Parreira’s assertion, right from the start of his tenure, that this would be the best option for a limited group of players who were devoid of any real experience and particularly given the paucity of proven goal scorers in South African football.
He was not as cautious as Joel Santana, but playing with just one striker up front always restricted the chance of there being a decent end product to all the ball possession and movement.
This World Cup is bringing into stark focus the latest trends in the game, which show a penchant for real attacking football again.
Teams are so well organised these days that defensive duties seem to take care of themselves, leaving more emphasis on taking the game to the opponent.
The approach of Mexico and Chile, in particular, point in the direction that Mosimane might like to take the side, if he is appointed.
‘We need strikers’
“I don’t think you need to dismantle a lot but some of the things showed we do need two strikers to give it a little oomph. Sometimes it might not be two but even three up front, like most of the South Americans,” he said. “The World Cup has changed back to the 4-3-3 and it has worked. The evolution of the most commonly used system is going the attacking way.”
Mosimane believes there is enough ammunition in a future Bafana Bafana armoury to play an expansive game. “We would struggle to find two out-and-out strikers, like [Diego] Forlán and [Luis] Suárez of Uruguay, but as we speak now, in this team only Katlego Mphela can give us the depth inside. Others are good strikers but maybe [play] better wide, and maybe the way the Mexicans played is a model for our next team. We need to find what is best for South Africa, but we need a powerhouse of a player to do that for us, and we showed glimpses of that in the World Cup, particularly against Mexico in the first game.”
But time will not be on the side of the new manager, with just a few months before the Nations Cup campaign. “There will be just one warm-up game and the problem is that for coaches now it is about surviving in the job, because it is win at all costs — and then you might not be prepared to take the necessary risks. Internationally, coaches don’t need too much time because of the quality of the players and their excellent conditioning. That is not always the case here. We are a small nation that huffs and puffs sometimes, thinking we’ll get there yet never getting to the destination.”
That, in a way, sums up a South African World Cup campaign in which opportunities taken might have produced a much more positive outcome.
“The fact is that we are still at the same place we’ve been at previous World Cups. That’s the truth,” said Mosimane. “But, okay, the good part was beating France, even if they were down to 10 men,” he said in a reference to two previous first-round exits, at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
“We were happy that this nation was behind the team, but my fear is whether this was a once-off or whether it will continue the same way. Have we stepped up now or was this just a momentary blip?”