/ 29 March 2019

Wits hit by Bafana butterfly effect

Clever Boys: Sifiso Hlanti
Clever Boys: Sifiso Hlanti (left) and Buhle Mkhawanazi (right) of Bidvest Wits try to dispossess Libya’s Salem Roma of the ball during the 2019 Afcon Group E qualifier on Sunday. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

The residual ecstasy of Bafana Bafana’s victory over Libya continued well into the week. South Africa has been in a celebratory mood after the 2-1 win in Tunis that secured an African Cup of Nations qualification.

A hero’s welcome greeted the squad when they landed at OR Tambo International on Tuesday morning. Fans pawed at the players as they exited the arrival gate, desperate to touch the men responsible for getting us a ticket to a major competition once more.

Replays of Percy Tau’s delicious double were savoured on social media. His celebration has already become iconic — constant reminders on TV have burned it into memory the same way they did with Siphiwe Tshabalala’s dance in 2010.

Near the heart of Johannesburg you’ll find a more unexpected beneficiary of the morale-boosting win: Bidvest Wits.

“I hope so! Please God [let Wits benefit],” exclaims coach Gavin Hunt. “Hopefully we can carry on the form and see us through to the end of the season. I think we need to defend well until the end of the season and then who knows. We’re still in the league and still in the cup.”

Wits built the Bafana backline last Sunday. Darren Keet in goal, Buhle Mkhwanazi, captain Thulani Hlatshwayo and Sifiso Hlanti forming a back three.

The four held resolute for 90 minutes, only conceding with a contentious penalty call. The Mediterranean Knights enjoyed very few clear opportunities, even as the Libyan possession figures soared and the bottles from the unruly crowd rained down.

“It wasn’t easy, honestly,” says Mkhwanazi. “I think the referee was on their side, but we managed to get through. They got a penalty that wasn’t. Percy Tau gave us the victory on the day but the team as a whole really all played a huge part.”

After the international excitement, it’s back to the day job. On Wednesday morning, a day after the airport furore, the foursome are back in training at a chilly Sturrock Park adjacent to Wits University. There’s much grinding yet to be done.

The Clever Boys led the Premier Soccer League for the bulk of the season but have faltered in 2019 —surrendering the initiative to Mamelodi Sundowns.

It arguably began in the second week of January when Kaizer Chiefs visited. A flummoxed Wits side were picked apart from the returning Ernst Middendorp and seemed to leave their confidence on the pitch, yet to pick it up since. Leonardo Castro and Hendrick Ekstein put them in a trance they haven’t been able to snap out of yet.

Perhaps the “Fifa break”, as Hunt calls it, arrived at the ideal moment.

In either case, the wobble has far from derailed the campaign. The league is still anybody’s to win for now and Chippa United awaits in the Nedbank Cup quarterfinal this Saturday. A not-completely-unreasonable double is on the cards.

“We’re going to have to play like hell [to achieve that],” Hunt says with a laugh. “Because we were in such a good position, gee whizz. And then we let it go. Then we came back last week. But what’s gone is gone. We have to try to concentrate on the next six games and then obviously we’ve got the cup on the weekend. Anything can happen.” Wits have only won twice in the league during the eight-game stretch that began with the lame Amakhosi defeat. Even before that, home was certainly not where the heart was.

“I think the most important thing is we need to be a bit more confident at home. We haven’t been good; away we’ve been excellent. We’ve thrown games away. We should have won the league from home. There’s been four games at home this year where we’ve been leading and then lost them,” continues Hunt.

It’s the porous nature of the defence that has been a big worry for Hunt. And precisely why the Bafana outcome could be the required confidence boost.

Keet in particular has had praise heaped on him from all directions after the Libya win. Deservingly, of course. He plucked everything out of the air andwas on hand to deal with anything that passed his backline. All it took was that one game to signal the calls for him to be the national No 1 —even after Itumeleng Khune returns from injury.

“It’s not even a change of mind-set,” Keet says of turning his attention to the Nedbank Cup. “We want to come back and continue the progress we’ve made throughout the season. We’ve found some rhythm in the cup.”

As for whether the added focus on him is something to be concerned about … “There’s no pressure at all. I never feel the pressure — this is a game we love to play. There’s no pressure in anything we do at any moment. In the league we’ve struggled a bit towards the last few games but we carry on.”

In a funny way the pressure is off the whole team now. They had their time at the top and now that’s over. No more looking over the shoulder.

Instead, the focus can turn to playing their own game, however
clichéd that may sound.

Combine the second-hand smoke from an ecstatic nation and the season may yet be saved.