Crucial Afcon derby awaits Bafana

Keeping score: Ivorian forward Jonathan Kodjia gets the ball past South Africa’s goalkeeper, Rowen Williams, when the teams faced each other in Cairo. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

Keeping score: Ivorian forward Jonathan Kodjia gets the ball past South Africa’s goalkeeper, Rowen Williams, when the teams faced each other in Cairo. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

Prepare for an ardent, emotional encounter when Bafana Bafana and Namibia face off in a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) Group D clash at Cairo’s Al Salam Stadium this Friday.

It’s a fixture that contains all the ingredients of a big football derby. It’s a derby with a twist, though, in that Namibia are the upstart, emerging neighbours and Bafana the big brother strutting around with far better resources. Expect passion aplenty.

A small country in southwest Africa, with a population of only 2.6-million, Namibia doesn’t have all that much of a football pool to draw on.
Nevertheless, they have a proud tradition of punching above their weight as a football nation. Expect the Namibians to be fired up, confident and highly motivated to silence their noisy neighbours (who, in contrast, have a population of about 57-million).

Namibia’s coach, Ricardo Mannetti, certainly understands the special meaning of the fixture, particularly because he is well versed in the way football operates in South Africa. He’ll have a plan.

Mannetti, now 44 years old, was a teammate of mine at Santos. We were at opposite ends of our careers back then. He was starting out; I was finishing off. Let me assure you, he’s primed for this clash against Bafana.

Back in 1997 then-Santos player-coach Duncan Crowie went to Windhoek to watch an international between Namibia and Cameroon. He and a few Santos officials were there to watch Mohammed Ouseb, with a view to signing on the player. Although they had an opportunity to negotiate with Ouseb, Crowie had also been impressed by the industrious schemer in the centre of the Namibian midfield that day: Mannetti. So, when Ouseb eventually opted rather to sign for Kaizer Chiefs, Santos offered Mannetti a contract.

He joined us at Santos a few months later and became an influential presence in our midfield. During that time, Mannetti had an opportunity to go on trial at Manchester City in England.

An astute thinker about the game, as a player he was obsessed with the ball. He always wanted it, and he always placed himself in a position to get it. He was no mere timid presence in the squad — he was strong-willed, commanding and not afraid to speak his mind. Now, as a coach, his determined self-assurance has rubbed off on the players. His forthright manner has translated into some forthright performances from his Namibian squad.

Mannetti knows he doesn’t need to motivate his men for the game against Bafana — this is a special match for Namibia. And, with Mannetti having insider knowledge of South African football, together with his tactical nous, Bafana will have to make sure they are at their best.

Namibia, as witnessed in their opening 1-0 loss to highly rated Morocco, are not a team to be under-estimated. Against Morocco, they scrapped for everything, worked tirelessly and, in the end, emerged from the defeat with their heads held high.

Mannetti has acknowledged the strength of Group D, saying he is fully aware of the strengths and limitations of his squad. This is Namibia’s third Afcon campaign — 1998 and 2008 are the other two — and they are yet to win a match. It’s a statistic they’d love to change.

As for Bafana, coach Stuart Baxter’s greatest strength is, ironically, more often than not his greatest flaw. This idiosyncrasy was again abundantly evident when the South African national football side lost 1-0 to Côte d’Ivoire in their opening Group D fixture on Monday.

Baxter’s coaching philosophy is based on sound defence. He is famed for bringing structure and organisation. This was conspicuous during a successful spell with Kaizer Chiefs (2012 to 2015). But, for all the shape and solidity of the Baxter style, it results in an approach that is overly cautious and stunts creativity.

Now, as Bafana head into their second 2019 Afcon game, Baxter will have to find it within himself to unshackle his players. The need for balance between defence and attack is axiomatic but there is no doubt, based on the performance against the Ivorians, that Bafana have to show a lot more initiative and play with greater flair and energy.

Baxter wasn’t too unhappy with his team after the narrow defeat in the opening match, saying: “I thought the players put in a great performance.”

Nothing wrong with that, I guess. On the surface, it is hard to find any fault. The South Africans, at times, held their own against a very strong and talented Cote d’Ivoire side. The big problem is to be found in the Baxter approach. Bafana were so intent on keeping the opposition out, they forgot they possess an attacking threat of their own. But we saw none of it.

There is so much creativity and verve in this Bafana squad, but it needs to be unlocked and encouraged. Nobody is suggesting that Bafana go gung-ho and launch at the opposition without any thought of defence, but it’s pointless just sitting back and absorbing pressure from the opposition. Sometimes the Bafana lads need to be more assertive in going forward. And, for that to happen, Baxter has to free the legs and, even more importantly, the minds of his players.

Against Namibia, Baxter and Bafana have an opportunity to be different. Victory is crucial if the South Africans want to give themselves a shot at qualifying for the knockout stages of the competition. The defeat to Cote d’Ivoire has put Bafana on the back foot, but all is not lost. There is the possibility of reaching the last 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams. But, to do so, a positive result against plucky neighbours Namibia is paramount.

In reflecting on Bafana’s defeat to Cote d’Ivoire, there are a few areas to shine the spotlight on. Baxter’s decision to pick Ronwen Williams in goal, rather than Darren Keet, proved to be inspired because the SuperSport United man produced some brilliant saves against the Ivorians.

Width, though, was a problem. Lebo Maboe and Themba Zwane played too narrow, which resulted in Bafana offering very little down the flanks. The plan was obviously to make space for the wide defenders — Thami Mkhize and Sifiso Hlanti — but the strategy backfired spectacularly. It left hectares of territory behind Mkhize and Hlanti to exploit, which allowed the Ivorian wingers to get in behind Bafana’s defence with alarming regularity.

There was a definite lack of innovation in central midfield, where Dean Furman and Kamohelo Mokotjo are simply too similar in approach. There was also the absence of any animation and purpose in going forward, which left Bafana’s two most potent weapons — Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba — with nothing to work with.

Bafana also conceded possession far too easily, failed to exhibit any physical presence, the opposition was never under any pressure and, crucially, the trademark Baxter transitional style of play was conspicuous in its absence.

Those are the negatives. The positive spin is that, in football, as in sport in general, defeat is just a lesson. Whatever went wrong against Cote d’Ivoire can be rectified against Namibia. No doubt, it is uppermost in the thoughts of Baxter and Bafana. A big performance is needed this Friday.

More than that, once the Namibia challenge is negotiated, a greater test awaits Bafana in the final group match when they tackle Morocco on Monday.

Rodney Reiners

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