Bafana Bafana to take on David and Goliath
Nouakchott and Banjul are not on the average football fan’s bucket list but, as from Wednesday, these are venues with more than just a passing interest for Bafana Bafana supporters.
The Mauritanian capital is where South Africa will play in September in their first away game in the qualifiers for the 2017 African Nations Cup finals. They will go to Banjul, in the Gambia, towards the end of the campaign in June next year.
But matches against the two lowly ranked West African nations are overshadowed by being paired with Cameroon in the same group.
It is a third successive campaign that South Africa has been drawn alongside one of the continent’s heavyweights. For the 2012 finals Bafana shared a group with Egypt and for the last tournament in Equatorial Guinea it was Nigeria.
On both occasions South Africa got the better of their feared rivals although both Bafana and Egypt did not qualify for the 2012 tournament, instead allowing lowly Niger to go through in comical circumstances for a maiden Nations Cup appearance.
Neither Gambia nor Mauritania are likely to match that feat this time round but might yet play the role of spoilers in a group where only the winner is guaranteed a place at the finals in 2017, which are to be hosted in Gabon.
South Africa begin their campaign in mid-June – when their players are supposed to be off on holiday after a long season – at home to Gambia before going to Nouakchott in September.
Next March will see back-to-back crunch games home and away against Cameroon followed by Gambia away and a final qualifier in September 2016 with Mauritania.
In total there are 13 qualifying groups to determine the field for the next Nations Cup with the winner of each group guaranteed a berth at the finals, along with the two best runners-up.
This does allow South Africa the possibility of some breathing space, but Bafana’s aim will be to make sure of top place in the standings and leave out any reliance on permutations.
Here is a brief guide to the three teams they face in Group M.
The Indomitable Lions were South Africa’s first post-apartheid opponents in 1992 and have had several friendly scrimmages with Bafana since but never played each other in a competitive assignment.
Cameroon’s fortunes have mirrored Bafana’s of late – a disappointing run of form leading to a major overhaul of the team – with particular emphasis on youth.
South Africa went with a 17-year-old centre back in Rivaldo Coetzee; Cameroon for the last Nations Cup qualifiers turned to 19-year-old Fabrice Ondoa in goal.
Ondoa is on the books at Barcelona and, despite now being a seasoned international, is still a long way off making a club debut.
German coach Volker Finke has battled to maintain consistency, guiding Cameroon to the World Cup in Brazil and recent Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea but then watching the team implode. The German is something of a footballing intellectual with innovative ideas from his days coaching in the Bundesliga. But in Cameroon, his job is in constant peril as sideline critics, notably the former striker Roger Milla, snipe away and demand constant change.
Gambia cheated blatantly to win the African under-17 championship in 2005 and again in 2009 but since the introduction of x-rays to measure bone density and establish conclusively the real age of teenagers, they no longer win at youth level. Those two continental title winning squads failed to kick on at senior level, where Gambia have no achievements.
The cheating finally caught up with them in May last year when they were suspended from all Confederation of African Football competitions.
Their national team, coached by local Peter Bonu Johnson, only played its first match in 18 months two weeks ago when a selection of locally based players beat Mauritania 1-0 in a friendly. The Scorpions have a large number of players based in Scandinavia and their aged goalkeeper, Pa Demba Touray, once a regular in the Swedish league, has been playing for Santos in Cape Town in the National First Division.
Mustapha Carayol, who is from Middlesbrough, and teenage defender Sulayman Marreh, who plays at Spanish club Granada, are the better known players but have not yet played for the national team.
After years of being on the fringes of the African game, Mauritania have made a sudden switch in vision and now participate with enthusiasm in all continental competitions, famously qualifying for the African Nations Championship in 2014 in South Africa for their first-ever tournament experience.
They recently appointed Frenchman Corentin Martins, who as a player won a league title with AJ Auxerre, to coach their team. His first two matches were a recent friendly loss to Gambia followed by a 2-0 home win over Niger. He can call on a handful of French-based players but the bulk of the selection remains mostly local.