How Bafana found a backbone



The Bafana squad is in a good place right now. In his early days, coach Molefi Ntseki has executed a smooth transition, while maintaining a co-operative yet competitive environment in the squad.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take that for granted. How easy would it have been for the disorder of the Soweto Derby at the weekend to brew animosity in the national setup? Yet, although Ernst Middendorp and Rhulani Mokwena glared and hurled innuendo at each other at the post-game presser, any animosity between the players called up seemingly dissipated by the time they boarded the plane to Ghana on Monday evening.

Again, the ramifications of ultra-competitive club football are not trivial. Just this week, England’s best player, Raheem Sterling, was dropped after he apparently tried to revisit hostilities with Joe Gomez that began in the fiery Manchester City–Liverpool game. It harkens back to when the El Clásico war was a legitimate threat to the eminence of Spain — possibly the greatest international team this century.

But we appearto have sidestepped those nasty potholes. If anything, Amakhosi’s Lebogang Manyama was called up as a last-minute replacement precisely because of the bustling role he played in that game. Red-card recipient — and one of the proponents of “thuggish behaviour”, to quote Mokwena — Eric Mathoho was already there and no one has dared to suggest he pack his bags. (As a side note, Ntseki also insists he’s patched things up with Middendorp — a coach who took exception to what he perceived as a lack of communication during the last international break.)

Manyama joins a midfield that is popping with attacking options. The latest of which is Mothobi Mvala —the slick Highlands Park attacker called up for the last camp but still hunting his first cap. Playing in the first division for two years, his stock has risen alongside his club’s. It’s no coincidence that he was summoned for the Mali game straight after the MTN 8 final. Now in the squad, he is eager to stress just what it means for his development.

“The guys have welcomed me very well,” he said this week. “Thanks to the senior guys in the team: they never made me feel like a small player. They’ve been motivating me and pointing out my mistakes, so it’s been a good camp for me. I can see that there’s a lot of things I’m going to learn from them and I’m going to grow as a player as well.”

Mvala, of course, has already been exposed to Bafana pedigree. Highlands coach Owen Da Gama was an assistant to Shakes Mashaba and would have worked with Ntseki during his time as under-23 boss.

It was Da Gama who pulled a disbelieving Mvala aside during training to inform him the call had come into head office to request he be released. It’s easy to understand his shock: the attacking section of the side is packed with overseas players and marquee local names. It would be easy to be daunted by the competition for a couple of select spots.

“Not at all,” Mvala countered. “It motivates me to know that I’m going to learn a lot from those guys. If I get a chance to play, I’ll grab it with both hands. But competing with guys like Bongani [Zungu], I can tell you that I’ll come out of this camp as a different player. I’m always ready. If I get a chance I’ll do my best.”

This Bafana iteration arguably offers fertile ground for development that is greener than any other in recent memory. Knocking hosts Egypt out of the Africa Cup of Nations added a sense of clout to this team. It also further hardened Sundowns and SuperSport players who have enjoyed success across the continent over the last few years. It no longer feels as though South Africa will be cowed when the team travels to the more inhospitable grounds of West and North Africa.

Ronwen Williams is one of those who has made the rest of Africa his backyard and believes he is now harvesting the benefits.“It’s a mentality thing. I think our mentality is much stronger as a team now,” he insisted. “That’s the main thing in football: your mind. If your mind is solid, you can be solid as a team.

“It’s a different ball game [continental football]. They come with a lot of different tactics to win the game,” Williams said.“It’s not easy and on the other side you’ve got the crowd. Things like that spur me on to silence them. You’re playing against all these megastars, it’s not easy.”

Despite being a part of the technical team that travelled to Egypt, Ntseki has made it clear he has no interest in talking up the relative success of Afcon. Reaching the quarterfinals might have been a step in the right direction but he wants the nation’s achievements to be more of the tangible variety.

The road to that goal continues on Sunday when Sudan are welcomed to Orlando Stadium for the second qualifier in three days.

After facing the brunt of the Ghanaian heat yesterday, Ntseki may be forced into straying from his experienced core when he selects his 11. Yet, there won’t be too much panic: an endemic mediocrity has now been replaced by a combative confidence and it’s rubbing off on everyone who enters this squad.

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Luke Feltham

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

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