Bafana vs CAR: Beware the Bangui beast

Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune has taken over as Bafana Bafana captain. (Gallo)

Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune has taken over as Bafana Bafana captain. (Gallo)

For Bafana Bafana, unfamiliarity can breed contempt. Too often in the past, the national team have swanned complacently into an encounter against obscure opponents, only to discover too late that obscurity does not imply incompetence. You don’t need your own YouTube highlights compilation to play YouTubic football.

Coach Gordon Igesund takes pride in his meticulous preparation, but he can’t have spent too many hours this week googling the key players of the Central African Republic, who confront Bafana in Saturday’s World Cup 2014 qualifier in Cape Town.

That’s just as well, because the boys from Bangui have a sketchy online presence.
But they will have a very real offline presence in the shadow of Signal Hill on Saturday. By all accounts, the Wild Beasts (“Les Fauves”) are a hard-boiled crew who justify their nickname with gusto. The kingpins in the side are the attacking midfielder Foxi Kéthévoama, of Kazakh side FC Astana, and the defensive midfielder Eloge Enza Yamissi, of French top-flight club Troyes.

Never mind the names – the numbers speak volumes. “Les Fauves” saw off a tough Botswana 2-0 in Bangui earlier in the campaign, and they’re ranked 52nd in the world – eight places higher than Bafana. Yes, those rankings can be a bit misleading, but they don’t tell porkers.

No matter how competent the ­visitors may be, Bafana have to ­triumph – preferably by a margin of at least two goals – to keep their Brazil 2014 dream alive. Currently ­stumbling along in third place in Group A with two draws, Bafana still need to travel to Bangui and Addis Ababa, where the odds of away victories are remote.

Cruel tone
In Europe these days, experts are talking about ditching the away goals rule. Because of the increasing uniformity of conditions, the argument goes, it’s now almost as easy to score and win on enemy territory as it is to prevail at home. Not in Africa, where too many hairy variables come into play. Arduous travel, wild weather variations, smelly officiating and shoddy pitches all serve to load the dice in the favour of the hosts.

So Bafana must ensure that charity doesn’t begin at home – and Igesund has set a suitably cruel tone with five axings ahead of this encounter. Bongani Khumalo has gone from skipper to nobody since the Africa Nations Cup, on the grounds that he has been inactive for his club PAOK Thessaloniki. Thulani Serero, Katlego Mphela, Lehlohonolo Majoro and Siboniso Gaxa have also been booted.

The upshot of Khumalo’s exit is a brand-new central defensive pairing, as Siyabonga Sangweni is out injured. The talented but inexperienced Eric Mathoho is likely to partner his Kaizer Chiefs teammate Morgan Gould, a commanding presence who would likely have starred in both the World Cup and Nations Cup campaigns had he been fit.

Dropping Khumalo was a gamble, but probably a wise one – and this may have been the right time to pull the plug, ahead of a home fixture. Even though Bafana’s defence hasn’t been that bad of late, Khumalo is simply not a captain, and it would have been politically untenable both to strip him of the armband and keep him in the squad. It’s up to Khumalo to save his Bafana career with sustained – and unanswerably strong – club form.

Itumeleng Khune is a natural and convincing successor as captain. The keeper’s place is unchallenged for the foreseeable future, and he seems to have both leadership ability and the required appetite for talking to the media. But Igesund should instruct him to give up his part-time career in physical theatre. Khune recently blamed his notorious time-wasting antics in November 2011 on his youthful folly – but then proceeded to suggest that the art of ­faking injuries is a legitimate ­element of the art of winning. Which is not the case.

Sparkly passing fare
With any luck, the good people of Cape Town will be treated to more of the sparkly passing fare dished up by the midfield trio of Reneilwe Letsholonyane, May Mahlangu and Dean Furman towards the end of the Nations Cup campaign.

Furman has savoured his return this week to Cape Town, where he was born. And he’s also been buoyed by a promising loan move from Oldham to League One leaders Doncaster Rovers, who are poised for promotion to the Championship, England’s second tier. The tenacious midfielder becomes a free agent at the season’s end, so there is every chance of climbing the ladder if he excels in South Yorkshire.

His mongrel factor should keep him in the starting line-up ahead of Kagisho Dikgacoi, but his control and passing under pressure can be a little mangy. More exposure at this level may help to refine his game, and he brings enough energy and tactical nous to compensate for his technical shortcomings.

Yet again, Bafana’s biggest sore point is up front, where Mphela may be missed, however sluggish he has looked in recent months. It will be interesting to get a proper look at the hefty Dino Ndlovu, who will likely get a chance to plough the ­central furrow. But Ndlovu’s pedestrian scoring record in Israel over the past two seasons – 12 goals in 46 league games – doesn’t suggest he’s a ­serious rival to Mphela or a long-term solution.

Bafana’s hopes for an emphatic win rest on the form of Bernard Parker, whether he prowls on the left flank or in Ndlovu’s orbit. The Kaizer Chiefs star owes Igesund a big performance.

On a dreamy autumn afternoon in Cape Town, it might be easy for Bafana to forget how pivotal this game is. If they drop any points, they will likely forfeit any hope of ­savouring dreamy afternoons in Brazil next June.