There was some relief for Bafana Bafana when top striker Katlego Mphela boarded with the rest of his teammates for a six-hour flight bound for Niamey on Friday ahead of their Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Niger.
Mphela, third on the national team’s list of all-time leading scorers, took a knock on his left knee in Wednesday morning’s training session in Rustenburg, forcing him to sit out the afternoon and Thursday’s sessions as precaution.
“Mphela is here at the airport and will be travelling with the rest of the squad,” Bafana’s media officer, Matlhomola Morake, said shortly before the squad left.
There was no confirmation, however, that Mphela was fit to take the field on Sunday.
South Africa’s stand-in captain, Siphiwe Tshabalala, said there should be no excuses regarding the hostile reception and torrid conditions expected in the West African state.
The test of travelling up Africa is not a new experience for most members of the 23-man party, and the last time they were in Sierra Leone — October last year — Bafana returned with a credible 0-0 draw.
“It will be tough, and we are aware that our hosts might deliberately frustrate us,” Tshabalala said.
“We are mentally prepared for what is to come and have experienced players like Teko Modise, Morgan Gould and Mphela who are used to these conditions, and we cannot use a bad reception as an excuse.”
With Bafana ranked in seventh place on the continent, the team on paper should not find much trouble against the 27th-ranked Niger side.
While Niger will not field the same walkover team that lost 2-0 to the South Africans a year ago, and despite having won both their home qualifiers, the South Africans should outclass their hosts.
Niger pose a danger up front in their burly Russian-based striker, Moussa Maazou, a player that Mosimane singled out as a possible threat earlier in the week.
“Maazou is their big player up front. He has a lot of power and force, and he remains one player we should watch out for,” Mosimane said.
Bafana, who lead their group, can secure qualification this weekend for the tournament, which will be played in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon next year.
If they beat Niger, and Sierra Leone draw or lose to Egypt, the 1996 African champions will be a part of the continental showpiece for the eighth time in 2012. — Sapa