The South African Football Association (Safa) and Bidvest Wits faced off in a tug-of-war for Phaka-mani Mahlambi’s services throughout the week leading up to the U-20’s departure to Zambia, to take part in the African Cup of Nations tournament that starts on Sunday.
Wits is reluctant to release their precocious star striker who has just returned to action after being sidelined for 10 months by a knee injury that required surgery, with chief executive Jose Ferreira claiming they are not obliged to release the player because the tournament does not fall on a Fifa-sanctioned date.
Safa president Danny Jordaan expressed his disappointment and said Wits’s hardline stance about Mahlambi went against the organisation’s “Vision 2022” when the U-20 players would be 24 years old and at the prime of their careers when the 2022 World Cup is played in Qatar.
“We must find a core group of players in that age category that must be exposed to a sustained international programme so that by the time we qualify for Qatar they should form the core of the Bafana Bafana team and the first step towards that goal is to participate in the U-20 Afcon,” said Jordaan.
“If we reach the last four, this very group will then qualify for the U-20 Fifa World Cup in Korea later this year. They will then proceed to form the bulk of our 2020 Olympic team. Some of them will be ready to take part in the 2019 Afcon in Cameroon.”
Chief executive Dennis Mumble made it clear that sanctions would be imposed on Wits should the team fail to release the player, though he was uncertain what kind of action would be taken.
One sympathises with Wits coach Gavin Hunt, who argued that Mahlambi’s development would be better served if he continued to play first-team football.
The squads of the seven other competing teams are made up of foreign-based players, which gives them an advantage over South Africa in terms of experience. This is where Mahlambi’s presence could make a huge difference.
Cameroon bring a squad of youngsters who play for France, Spain and Italy, as well as one from the United States. The experience of playing abroad would no doubt present the inexperienced South Africans with stiff competition.
Mali also bring a star-studded side with players from Spain, Belgium, Turkey and Austria, and hosts Zambia have five players plying their trade in Denmark, Spain, Israel, Austria and Portugal.
The coach of the youth team, Thabo Senong, was heartbroken when it became apparent that Wits were unwilling to release Mahlambi, but said he had managed to assemble a squad that would make the country proud.
Among the players he is putting his hopes on booking a World Cup ticket to Korea is Liam Jordan, ironically a former Wits youngster now playing for Sporting Lisbon’s Reserve side.
Jordan is clever and blessed with the ability to shield the ball and to turn into space. His major strength is his movement off the ball and the ability to position himself behind defenders in what is described as the blind spot.
Another player Senong hopes will hit the ground running in Zambia is Luther Singh, who now plays for Sporting Braga, in Portugal. The eMalahleni kid is a lethal finisher when attacking from the left or right wing.