Mashaba shakes up our expectations

Coach Shakes Mashaba is confident he can lead a rejuvenated Bafana Bafana to victory at the Africa Cup of Nations. (Gordon Harnols, AFP)

Coach Shakes Mashaba is confident he can lead a rejuvenated Bafana Bafana to victory at the Africa Cup of Nations. (Gordon Harnols, AFP)

The new-found buoyancy in South African football is reflected in the dramatic shift of focus during the past six months — on top of winning performances by the national team.

South Africa, according to coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba in his address to the media midweek as the team headed off for the Africa Cup of Nations finals, have the ability to win the continental crown on February 8, energised by mass support and confidence after finishing top of their qualifying group, eliminating defending champions Nigeria in the process.

Last Sunday’s 1-0 win over Zambia in a warm-up friendly at Orlando Stadium further stoked the confident nature of the predictions, a far cry from the timidity of the prognosis put forward in August when Mashaba first took over.

Then, Bafana Bafana was going to be “building for the future”. Now, just months later, “we are trying to emulate the success of 1996”, said Mashaba in a reference to the pinnacle of Bafana achievement when they won their only Nations Cup title.

“We are coming back after the 10th [February] after the final is played. We have packed our bags expecting for a long stay there,” he added.

“In 1996 we set the standard that we are championship material. With this team we are trying to revive that spirit and show that we are one of the best.”

Such a dramatic shift in sentiment is fair enough, given the unbeaten run since Mashaba took over. It is a refreshing change from the wishy-washy predictions of previous coaches. But whether it is anything more than hot air will be revealed over the next weeks.

South Africa are unbeaten in their last nine internationals, since the 5-0 drubbing by Brazil at Soccer City in March. But four wins over Congo, Sudan (twice) and Zambia, plus five draws, are hardly evidence of a dramatic ascension to a place among the continent’s footballing superpowers.

The team has surprised with its results, although there were many incidents of good fortune along the way. What they achieved cannot be disputed, even if their confidence might lack some perspective.

Often self-belief can make up for other deficiencies and so departing for Equatorial Guinea with a swagger ahead of a testing tournament is a positive. It must be hoped that Mashaba adds on-field planning and tight tactics to offer a real winning recipe.

South Africa will start with a tough assignment on January 19 against top-ranked Algeria and then play Senegal and Ghana in an exceedingly difficult programme.

South Africa will find the tournament will test them in a way they were not taxed in the qualifiers — not only the muggy heat but also the tough approach of their opponents, whose size will overshadow that of the Bafana squad — Eric “Tower” Mathoho aside.

Space to play will be at a minimum and mistakes in defence likely to be severely punished, which is what Congo and Sudan failed to do. The quality of opponent is vastly superior to those South Africa have faced in recent games.

Mashaba, by his own admission, pays little heed to the opponent and prefers to work on the strength of his own players. To date this approach has delivered the results.

But he will be up against opponents who will be prepared for South Africa and have a game plan to unpick the team.

Coach Alain Giresse of Senegal, for example, proved a superb tactician in picking apart Egypt in the qualifiers, with an approach that played the ball over the high line of the opponent and repeatedly caught them flat-footed at the back to set up a convincing win.

Bold words from the Bafana coach, such as “it will be good to beat the number one team on the continent”, might play well to a partisan public but need to be backed up with good preparation.

But Mashaba has had something of a Midas touch and, however Spartan his approach, he has done much to lift the mood around the team.

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