Bafana and Egypt in pressure pot

The sun is finally shining a ray or two on South African sport.

Bafana Bafana are through to round 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations. We don’t quite know how and many believe it’s undeserved. But we’re there. And that, in this dark moment, is good enough.

Think of what we’ve had to endure in a mere month. Banyana Banyana faltered at their maiden World Cup, the Proteas never arrived at theirs and the Super Rugby semifinals played out without concern for us.

A similar fate was scheduled for Bafana. Until, it turns out, a tough scrap against our sparsely-populated desert neighbours was good enough, after all. Call it mathematics, luck, a shot in the dark … we’re there now and still have the opportunity to achieve something great.

Of course, destiny can only do so much to assist the performance. South Africa’s overly passive approach in the last-minute loss to Morocco was troubling. Coach Stuart Baxter knew a draw would do and duly set out to do as little as possible to sully the 0-0 scoreline. It worked for 89 minutes but, lose sight of the initiative and you’re always liable to be punished.

“The people that think ‘well, you know you got through the back door’ or whatever … we were seconds away in a couple of games from getting through on our own power,” Baxter said on Wednesday, the morning after Mali beat Angola to secure South Africa a spot in the next round.

“People would have then said that was a great performance. But that’s what our game is about, it’s about perceptions. One refereeing decision, or one missed shot can change perceptions.

“We’ve got this opportunity now to play against the host nation in front of a load of people in a very, very hostile environment. That’s the time you want people to stand up and I think the group are looking forward to it.”

That second part is not what’s in dispute. Egypt represent a daunting prospect: the Afcon pedigree, the talent-laden squad and a default ability to fill any ground in this tournament. Until this decade, which was kicked off by political instability, the North Africans were the team to beat on the continent. As the most successful team in Afcon history, they’ve won seven titles, three of them consecutively between 2006 and 2010.

This year they made qualifying for this stage look fairly easy — although certainly not playing fantastically — dismissing everyone in their group without conceding a goal.

The chinks are there, however. Uganda strolled into their box with worrying ease in the last outing. Mohamed Salah’s curling free kick came very much against the run of play and the 2-0 final score was a flattering conclusion.

The Pharaohs are also dealing with a nasty off-field scandal that could prove distracting. Attacking midfielder Amr Warda was expelled from the squad after allegations emerged that he sexually harassed women online but he was reinstated after the side’s senior players came to his aid. His first opportunity to return comes against Bafana.

“We need to believe in second chances,” Salah urged the nation on Twitter. A veritable god in the country before the fiasco, the recent Champions League winner’s stubborn support of Warda has tarnished his standing somewhat. Whether that will have any effect on his ability to single-handedly dictate the direction of a game remains to be seen.

All in all this Egyptian iteration is solid, if not sensational. It’s a vast improvement on the post-revolution years but some way off the silky dynamism of the glory days of Mohamed Aboutrika, et al.

At the very least there’s enough room for Baxter to take his shot. The public pressure may be of a very different kind to that of his opponents, but it can be equally burdensome.

Much of the critique has centred on the Scottish coach’s headstrong refusal to break with his preferred choices. The benching of Premier Soccer League (PSL) player of the year Thembinkosi Lorch, in particular, has been met with countrywide groans every time the line-up is released.

There’s also the belief that star player Percy Tau should be given a freer role; that paragon of consistency Hlompho Kekana is underutilised; or who should be between the sticks … but as Baxter insists: “Team selection is always an issue for media and supporters because that’s what opinion is. People have different opinions. If I asked all the PSL coaches, who were very well informed, they would probably have different opinions as well. So if you take media and you take supporters as well, then you’re going to get a myriad different opinions, which is our game.”

The defence has been mostly stable, Baxter went on to say. Attack has been the main issue. Something that can be rectified by improving its efficiency by only “15%”.

As to whether he would make any significant changes, he was more cryptic. “I think we’re going to do exactly the same as we’ve done now; we’re going to look at the opponent, see which player we think fits them badly and try and build a game plan around that. There’s no great time to start moving between systems, but we can during the game if we have to.”

Pressure is a common theme leading up to kick-off at Cairo International Stadium. Under-fire Egypt know their demanding public will not easily forgive a failure to progress to a home quarterfinal. Bafana are equally aware that a third loss from three of four games will invariably see the axe swing in multiple directions.

What could stay the execution is a demonstration of a little ruthlessness — no matter who’s on the pitch.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


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