Pharaohs aren't buried yet
Pitso Mosimane is acutely aware of the daunting task facing him in probably his toughest challenge since taking over the South African coaching post from Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira: Saturday night’s crucial African Nations Cup qualifier against Egypt at Ellis Park stadium.
Three months of sustained political unrest in the land of the Pharaohs resulted in the ousting of Hosni Mubarak from the country’s throne, something unthinkable only a few months ago. These events brought the North African country to a virtual standstill, affecting recreational activities such as domestic football.
And when the political dust settled on the Pyramids of Giza the seven-times African champions found themselves having to negotiate a tricky away assignment to qualify for the 2012 African Nations Cup tournament against table-topping Group G South Africa in Johannesburg.
“They did not become seven-times African champions for nothing,” observed Mosimane.
“They earned their spurs in the school of hard knocks.
They are a polished outfit, very professional, and have assembled a team packed with quality. We respect them all right, but we are not scared. I think we can match them all the way.”
With the majority of the squad members plying their trade in Egypt, coach Hassan Shehata has assembled a squad shorn of match practice. And even the team of the century, Al-Ahly, which supplies the majority of players to the national team, reportedly lacked spark against SuperSport United in an African Champions League tie in Cairo last week.
“They certainly looked flat and we not only matched them,” said United striker Kermit Erasmus, “but we could have easily beaten them. We failed to convert easy chances and hit the crossbar twice during the game. I have no doubt that if Bafana Bafana can put them under constant pressure they could well claim a famous scalp.”
Yet Mosimane does not want to get overly excited or carried away. He is aware that for the first time in years Bafana appear to have an advantage. Even though the groggy Egyptians resemble a punch-drunk boxer who has gone the distance with Smokin’ Joe Frazier, they remain one of the most dangerous foes on the continent.
Perhaps their unstable state of mind and lack of confidence emerged when they applied to the Confederation of African Football (CAF), requesting the continental body to postpone the fixture until June.
But Mosimane saw through their ruse and refused, demanding that the fixture should go ahead as scheduled. He reassured the Egyptians that there was no political unrest in South Africa and their safety would be guaranteed.
Mosimane does not want to dwell much on the incident, for he is streetwise enough to know that it’s the same tactics used by Cameroon a few years ago. They were on the verge of failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup but requested a postponement of their match against Gabon, fired their coach and regrouped. Then they put together a winning sequence of six matches to qualify.
“When I took over this team at the end of the World Cup,” said Mosimane, “my aim was to restore our dignity and pride; to regain our status as the number one-ranked country in Africa.
“To achieve that objective we have to pit ourselves against the best Africa has to offer. We have already beaten Ghana and Cameroon and were competent against Spain and Brazil, while defeating France.
“We want to qualify for the  African Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. We also aim to qualify for the 2013 edition in Libya and then, of course, the Fifa 2014 World Cup in Brazil as well as the African Nations Cup in Morocco in 2015 before hosting the continental event in 2017.”
Mosimane has been stung by the raging debate that swirled up like a whirlwind this week following his decision to drop skipper Aaron Mokoena for this clash. However, he is not spending sleepless nights fretting about the storm around him and clearly has a long-term plan to gradually bring youngsters into the senior team.
This was evident when he selected several sprightly, yet inexperienced players like Andile Jali, Thulani Serero, Ayanda Xulu, Darren Keet and Eric Mathoho. Mosimane seems to have a vision and only his harshest critics have failed to see that through his selection policy, he is putting building blocks in place for the future.
Egypt quietly jetted into the country on Monday, no doubt aware that defeat by South Africa could mean automatic elimination following certainly the worst start to any qualification programme in their history. They were held to a draw by lightweights Sierra Leone at home and shockingly went down 1-0 to flyweights Niger to prop up the bottom of Group G.
“I do not think that Pitso Mosimane needs my advice,” said Mohamed Abdoulaye Oumara, the Niger striker who was injured when his country stunned the Pharaohs. “But we achieved our objective by squeezing them in the middle. We starved them of the ball by crowding the midfield but stretched them down the wings and it worked like a charm,” said the TP Mazembe striker.