There was no mea culpa from Bafana Bafana after a disappointing exit from the Africa Nations Cup, but rather a revival of the old mantra about “building for the future”.
While the mandate of the current team remains ensuring a competitive performance at the next World Cup in Russia, and participation in Equatorial Guinea would have been a good experience – gathering exercise along the way – the side does now sit at something of a crossroads.
The Nations Cup exposed a poverty in the coaching, preparation and tactics and, although coach Shakes Mashaba would have learnt much, like his players, there needs to be a much more serious approach than the folksy formula that has worked until now.
In his six months in the job, Mashaba has proven a skilled team builder and confidence generator, and is clearly much loved by his players. His old-fashioned values have culled from the side those he feels do not have the requisite passion and commitment, leaving a squad that has proven itself in the face of some adversity in the qualifiers.
But the fortnight in Equatorial Guinea exposed serious limitations and raised the question about what exactly the ceiling for this side is. They lost two matches in Mongomo not only because of missed chances, as the coach afterwards told everyone who would listen, but also because they were tactically outsmarted.
Mashaba himself admitted they reacted too slowly to the two changes Algeria made to open up the flanks and penetrate relatively easily through the South African defence. This masterstroke by a well-drilled and well-informed coach went largely unnoticed amid the Bafana foibles, including an own goal, a missed penalty and a goalkeeping howler.
The draw against Senegal exposed poor defensive organisation as South Africa again gave away a lead. But the ball watching that allowed Kara Mbodji to deny South Africa victory was again patently in evidence in the last game against Ghana, suggesting the promised “fixing of mistakes” is just a throwaway line at press conferences to appease journalists’ questions.
As to what happened against Ghana, Mashaba said: “We gave it away in the second half. What we did is that the boys decided to go and sit back and invited pressure. If you look at the two goals we conceded, it wasn’t because we were bad in defending. The only thing is we went to crowd the penalty area and obscured our keeper – that is why he wasn’t able to save those two goals.”
The truth, however, is that South Africa were pegged back by Ghana’s midfield dominance, overrunning the South Africans by pushing an extra man into midfield and then keeping Bafana captive in their own half. Mashaba did not respond to this until it was too late, bringing on Reneilwe Letsholonyane only after Ghana’s equalising goal that ended Bafana’s hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals.
If the stated aim of performing with aplomb in Russia is to be achieved, it is obvious South Africa’s insular view of the world game needs to change. Mashaba, again by his own admission, is not one for bothering about the opposition’s potential or, as evidenced by his training, working on getting key aspects of the game spot-on.
Not that simple
To compete at the top level, coaches must cover all bases with a high level of precision. Mashaba might console himself – and seek to explain to the home audience – that missed chances cost South Africa in the end, but it was not that simple.
In six months’ time, they will start all over again with the qualification for the next Nations Cup in 2017. The hosts were to be Libya but a replacement will be announced in April. October, the start of the World Cup qualifiers, will also add to a busy agenda.
Having set something of a foundation, the national team now need to improve the standard of their work. Mashaba also needs to reconsider his selection policy and temper his insistence on total subservience from his players.
More form players from the league need to be brought back to the team, starting with the goalkeeping department. Allegedly wayward characters like Thulani Serero and Ayanda Patosi can add a match-winning quality. It is surprising that Mashaba is not prepared to manage their alleged impertinence.
The coach certainly has a strong enough personality to galvanise their focus in the right direction. And they will add considerably to South Africa’s potential.