/ 9 October 2014

Form finally wins favour with Shakes

Back for Bafana: Midfield maestro Reneilwe Letsholonyane.
Back for Bafana: Midfield maestro Reneilwe Letsholonyane.

It did not take long for the Bafana Bafana experiment to end as the reality that success trumps development hit home to the new national team coach, Ephraim Mashaba, quicker than expected.

The strengthening of the squad for the coming games against Congo-Brazzaville to give South Africa a realistic chance at African Nations Cup qualification sees the much-trumpeted “Vision 2022” – building a winning team for the future – abandoned in favour of a more pragmatic approach.

Ultimately, the success of the national team has a major hand in stimulating the development of the South African game and it is necessary to prioritise qualifying for the Nations Cup in Morocco. This now, thankfully, seems the main mission.

The inclusion of the Kaizer Chiefs pair of Reneilwe Letsholonyane and Tefu Mashamaite means the coach set aside the policy of picking players aged only 27 or under and used the criteria of form instead to put out a stronger side.

Letsholonyane has been on fire since the start of the season and, although he might be 32, has a more effective work rate than almost all his younger colleagues in the Premier Soccer League.

A fighting chance
Together with the return of Thulani Serero, whose omission for the last two qualifiers against the Sudan and Nigeria was bizarre and never properly explained by Mashaba, suddenly gives Bafana much more of a fighting chance on the artificial surface at Pointe Noire on Saturday afternoon, never mind next Wednesday’s return match in Polokwane.

Kermit Erasmus is back to strengthen a frontline that is ridiculously mediocre – a reflection of the paucity of striking talent in the country and also some strange choices.

Letsholonyane must be laughing up his sleeves at how he has been able to prove two successive Bafana coaches wrong. Gordon Igesund left him out of the Brazil friendly in March when he sought to head off the inevitability of a heavy defeat by claiming he was using the game for future development. Two months later that path was abandoned and the dreadlocked midfielder was back for the friendly internationals against Australia and New Zealand.

Letsholonyane’s form in recent weeks meant Mashaba could no longer ignore the potential input he could give the national side.

The 29-year-old Mashamaite’s call-up is an admission that although South Africa beat Sudan convincingly in their opening group qualifier, the defence looked shaky. The partnership of Mashamaite and Mulomowandau Mathoho has ensured Kaizer Chiefs have conceded just two goals in seven league games this season.

Defensive midfielder
Serero played as a defensive midfielder for the first time for Ajax Amsterdam in a surprise switch at the weekend but will be best for South Africa, tucked behind a front two. Erasmus will hopefully be designated to lead the attack after Tokelo Rantie and Bongani Ndulula failed to convince in the previous qualifiers.

The games against Congo will surely determine South Africa’s fate as they seek a top-two finish to qualify for the finals in Morocco just after the turn of the year.

Congo top Group A, with a 100% start after the first two rounds, and a home win in Pointe Noire this weekend will take them to the brink of qualification – and leave Bafana six points adrift. If Nigeria achieve a full haul of points from their two games against Sudan at the same time, then Bafana, who have four points, must win at least one of the two games against Congo to stay relevant.

In reality, however, a draw away in Pointe Noire followed by Polokwane success is essential for Mashaba’s side.

Congo’s win in Nigeria last month was a huge upset, among the biggest in years in the Nations Cup qualifiers. But it has as much to do with the opportunism of the Congolese side as it does with a Nigerian line-up distracted by the wrangling of officials within their football federation and uncertainty over the future of coach Stephen Keshi.

Congo’s key players are striker Thievy Bifouma and midfielder Delvin Ndinga, who was absent in last month’s qualifiers because of injury. Bifouma is a French-born striker with Almeria in Spain and has only recently won his first cap for the Congo, scoring two goals in the 3-2 win in Nigeria, and the 26-year-old Ndinga plays for Greek champions Olympiakos, having previously been a major attraction in France’s Ligue?1.

Wiley Claude le Roy will be well prepared for Bafana. He is the most experienced coach in Africa, having been to a record seven previous Nations Cup tournaments with 31 games in charge at the finals.

Congo were actually eliminated in the preliminary stages of the qualifiers by Rwanda but then restored to the competition after one of the Rwandese players was found to have two identities. So far they have grabbed at the opportunity.

It remains to be seen whether South Africa take a similar gap this weekend.