Shakes Mashaba was right when he said the best team lost, but that is just too often the case with South Africa in major competition.
The Bafana Bafana coach was quick to claim tactical superiority after a disappointing start for his team at the Africa Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea. It leaves them with a mammoth task of grabbing two victories in successive matches against formidable West African opposition to achieve their objective of a next-round place.
Although they might have made many sit up in admiration with their performance, the cold reality is that the team’s continued participation is in real peril. South Africa again proved that they know how to play but it is the act of winning that is still a sought-after competence.
Bad luck played a major part in Monday’s reversal against top-ranked Algeria at the start of their tournament but there was also the customary slip of concentration and tactical naivety that keep the team from achieving its full potential.
A missed penalty is most unfortunate and properly put down to bad luck. But the manner in which it was taken illustrates South Africa are not as well planned as they should be at this level.
According to the coaching staff, Tokelo Rantie is one of three players delegated to take penalties in what seems more of a random afterthought than a vital detail. The way that captain Dean Furman explained it afterwards, there was no designated kicker – it was up to whoever wanted to take it.
“TK went up to take it. He is our lead striker so it is not as if it was something unusual. It is unfortunate that he hit the crossbar. These things happen in soccer.”
Indeed they do and Rantie should carry no blame. But the haphazard way in which the kick was taken leaves the impression that taking care of all of the finer aspects of planning for such a game is not a priority for the technical team.
Then there is a lack of variety in approach and an inability to switch mode when the game calls for it.
“After we missed the penalty, we did not keep possession like we normally do,” said Thabo Senong, one of the assistant coaches. “We showed signs of anxiety and a lack of confidence. We gave the ball to the opposition. This is a problem with African players.”
That generalisation is patently not true, as the tournament’s first week has already evidenced. The likes of Algeria, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire – all Africans – have kept their wits about them, coming from positions of adversity to take points in their opening games.
South Africa’s coaching staff, by their own admission, also missed the key switch in the Algerian approach after the penalty.
Their coach, Christian Gourcuff, brought on two strikers in rapid succession and, most importantly, switched Yacine Brahimi to the left, from where Algeria’s second goal came with worrying ease. “We reacted late after they had got the second goal,” Senong said.
Bafana could make at least three changes for Friday’s match against Senegal, which will spell elimination if they lose.
Mulomowandau Mathoho will return in defence, replacing the injured Rivaldo Coetzee, and Reneilwe Letsholonyane will be added to the midfield, which faces a tough evening against a side that was very impressive in the qualifiers and that displayed the requisite patience and mental application to come from behind and beat Ghana in their opening game.
South Africa hope to find the opposition defenders ponderous and get behind them in the same way they created several good chances against Algeria.
“They might be physically stronger than us, but that is no advantage for them,” said Thuso Phala, who scored Bafana’s goal on Monday. “Their physical aspect might be an advantage but we have a way of playing around them. We are quicker and have more agility.
“We showed against Mali how we can deal with big strong players. We played them off the field,” said Phala, referring to an impressive 3-0 win over Mali in Libreville, Gabon, in Bafana’s last warm-up game before they arrived in Equatorial Guinea.
After Senegal on Friday night, South Africa must also get past Ghana in their last group game on Tuesday.