No time left for Bafana's learning curve
'We can take a lot of positives from this." It's the clunkiest platitude in contemporary sport – and that's saying something. Sadly, those nine leaden words will not fall into disuse any time soon, because they're a strangely effective self-therapy tool for the huddled masses of the defeated.
Try them yourself the next time you bang your shin on a table, drop your smart phone into a toilet or discover that you've wandered around all day with a large snollie dangling from your left nostril. Tell yourself: "I can take a lot of positives from this, you know. I'm on a learning curve."
But for Bafana Bafana the learning curve is looking suspiciously level. It seems more like a learning plateau in which the same lessons are learnt ad nauseam and the same positives are taken, year after year. The identity of the coach doesn't seem to make a jot of difference.
As he plans for this weekend's final Africa Cup of Nations dress rehearsal against Algeria, coach Gordon Igesund finds himself in a very familiar pickle: trying to fix his side's old inability to generate sustained pressure and score, despite often winning more than half of the possession. Bafana are rarely dominated; they specialise in 1-0 defeats that flatter the winners.
Many fans and football commentators are understandably gatvol with Bafana's softness in the box, and with good reason. But raging at the coach and individual players is not constructive. We love bashing a few individuals as the villains without proposing credible alternatives. So Katlego Mphela, boasting the best scoring ratio in Bafana history, was absurdly pilloried for missing chances in Cape Town.
(Leo Messi and Robin van Persie also tend to miss a few chances per match, so it's a good thing they're not South African, because we wouldn't want them either.)
Igesund's opponent in Cape Town has some simple but handy advice for him. Norway coach Egil "Drillo" Olsen outwitted Bafana on Tuesday with an under-strength side and he was forthright about the hosts' glaring weakness. "Bafana have good skill, they are a good team, but I think they pass sideways and backwards too much."
Elegant possession play
Olsen is no Pep Guardiola. He is quite open about his disdain for elegant possession play: he is a living legend of skop en donner footie. And being a committed communist, he believes above all in the power of the collective: for example, he likes to see five attackers who all earn exactly the same salary bombing forward in unison after a lofted pass. Not that his boys can't play a bit: witness young skipper Tarik Elyounoussi's slick winner and the tidiness of his general play.
Of course, Bafana can't play the Drillo way and shouldn't even try. Even he has moderated his approach in recent years as the Norwegian club game has grown more sophisticated. But he's right that Bafana need more "percussion" in the final third; more throws of the dice are needed. Some hopeful long shots and deep crosses from the fullbacks wouldn't hurt.
The more visits you make into the opposition box, no matter the route, the better your odds of scoring in any given attack. Defences are doubly vulnerable immediately after narrowly preventing a goal in the previous minute because they're tired, rattled and disorganised. This is why booing Mphela when his effort is saved is such an idiotic contribution. The chance means a goal is just around the corner, providing that both the players and the crowd stay positive.
Which raises the question: What sort of home crowd will Bafana see on Saturday at Orlando Stadium, and in the opener next weekend? The Capetonians set a fine precedent with their hearty support, and Afcon local organising committee (LOC) spokesperson Sipho Sithole says 50000 tickets have already been sold for the Cape Verde game.
A burst of progress has also been made on overall sales: 300 000 tickets have moved, and the committee's 500 000 target now seems reachable. However, many of those tickets "sold" have actually been allocated to host cities, which will distribute them as they see fit – and, inevitably, some recipients won't rock up on match day.
Back in June 2010, just minutes before the kickoff of the opening World Cup game, an entire block of seats stood embarrassingly empty – apparently because a wad of tickets had been forgotten in a desk drawer by a South African Football Association official. Danny Jordaan's LOC team came to the rescue by rounding up a horde of ushers to fill the hole in the crowd.
Unless Igesund and Bafana somehow get it seriously right against Algeria, there won't be enough ushers to fill the gaps at Soccer City next Saturday.