/ 18 December 2014

Bafana’s chances may be undermined by too much optimism

Unreal expectations: Bafana's coach Shakes Mashaba.
Unreal expectations: Bafana's coach Shakes Mashaba.

To qualify for the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) and other continental soccer tournaments should be a formality for South Africa.

Consider the superior financial resources and facilities available to football here in comparison with most other countries on the continent, allied to the abundance of potential talent available among its 60-million inhabitants.

But you would not think so judging by the messages emanating from the South African Football Association hierarchy regarding Bafana Bafana’s qualification for the forthcoming 16-nation event.

“You have done an incredible thing for the country,” Safa president Danny Jordaan told coach Shakes Mashaba and his Bafana squad after a place in the Equatorial Guinea tournament had been cemented. “This has been a great year for South African football,” the Safa president said. “The gods of African football are smiling on us.”

“Success has come our way in every tournament in which we have participated,” said Safa chief executive Dennis Mumble. He was referring to qualification for Afcon, as well as the under-20 and under-17 African finals, and Banyana Banyana reaching the finals of the women’s continental event, although they fell at the final hurdle.

Exaggeration as the norm
Does this type of propaganda do more harm than good? Exaggerated praise and optimism and equally exaggerated condemnation in turn have become the norms in our football, precipitating the disappointments that have blighted Bafana in recent times.

And it’s happening again, with Safa proclaiming the magnificent achievement of reaching the 2015 Afcon finals and overlooking that this is only where the real business at hand begins.

In the same breath, Mashaba, although not underestimating the opposition, confidently proclaims Bafana are going to make it through what is an excruciatingly difficult opening round in a “group of death”, consisting of such formidable adversaries as Algeria, Ghana and Senegal – and then go on to reap even greater success.

Four previous Bafana coaches, Augusto Palacios, Ted Dumitru, Clive Barker and the most recent former incumbent, Gordon Igesund, have their doubts to varying degrees.

Dumitru, the most critical, does not expect Bafana to make it past the opening round and believes Safa and Mashaba to be living in a fool’s paradise. “Qualification for Afcon was achieved against modest opposition, and should have been anticipated, not hailed as a triumph.

“Nigerian soccer is in greater disarray than I can remember and this was shown by their failure to qualify to defend the Afcon title. Yet Bafana only managed to draw with them twice in qualifying encounters.

“Safa and Mashaba both initially proclaimed that the revival of South African soccer would be a step-by-step process leading up to the 2022 World Cup. Now they are claiming it has happened overnight.

“Is this a sign of immaturity, naivety or opportunism? I just don’t know.”

More settled and experienced
Dumitru says first-round opponents Algeria, Ghana and Senegal are all more settled and experienced than Bafana and, in the case of Algeria and Ghana, had the advantage of participating in this year’s World Cup tournament.

Algeria progressed to the last 16 and, although Ghana’s form was erratic in Brazil, which saw them being eliminated in the initial group stage, both demonstrated their mettle against Germany, with Ghana coming within a whisker of being the only side to beat the eventual champions in a 2-2 draw. Algeria bowed out of the tournament only after an extra-time defeat against Germany.

Palacios says it is not impossible for Bafana to come away from Equatorial Guinea with a creditable performance.

“But the odds are against them. Perhaps a little less than 50%. No one could have anticipated such a tough opening-round draw. I would be delighted if they make it into the second round, but I have my doubts.”

Barker, at the helm when Bafana gained their only Afcon success on home soil in 1996, says elements of complacency and over-confidence may be creeping in after the successful qualifying campaign.

“Doing the talking on the pitch instead might not be a bad thing if Bafana are to gain a second African Nations title. We’ll obviously be holding thumbs for them. But one has to be realistic and not minimise the fact that it’s going to be uphill right from the opening game against Algeria.”

Igesund said he wished Bafana “all the luck in the world” and congratulated Mashaba for continuing the momentum that had started to take shape during his tenure with the national team. “But obviously Equatorial Guinea is going to be a tougher challenge than the qualifying rounds and we’ll know better where we stand after the tournament,” he added.

Ghana’s recently appointed, Israeli-born, ex-Chelsea coach, Avram Grant, may have summed up the group of death accurately. “We won’t be underestimating any of the opposition in what is a uniformly tough group and will approach each game with the knowledge that we could be beaten.

“But if there is an element of some fear in our make-up, I’m sure all the other teams will also all be fearful of facing Ghana.”