Is this the Bafana Bafana revival we’ve been waiting for? After years of underwhelming performances, failures to qualify and flops on the biggest stage, Ephraim Mashaba seems to have found the magic formula at last. It is perhaps telling that this current South Africa side lacks the big names and their vast numbers of caps that Gordon Igesund’s stale, moribund teams often had. Though this isn’t his first stint in charge, he has made a refreshing change despite being branded the ‘cheap option’ when he was appointed in July.
South Africa qualified unbeaten from what appeared to be a tricky group; though they did benefit from Nigeria’s struggles, they beat Sudan home and away and also won in Congo, which was enough to convince some of the doubters. This is the first tournament they have qualified for outright since 2008 (after qualifying for two as the host nation), removing a millstone that has weighed around their neck for the last few years.
Of course, also weighing on the minds of players and fans is the death of Senzo Meyiwa. The Orlando Pirates star had quickly established himself as captain of the side in the first four matches of the campaign in the absence of the injured Itumeleng Khune, keeping clean sheets in all of them. His murder profoundly affected South African football, but the team went on to secure qualification playing for him.
Being handed the toughest group in the tournament will have dampened expectations of neutral observers somewhat, but Bafana Bafana remains one of the most popular African national sides and there will be immense pressure from the fans back home, especially as they have now shown a glimpse of immense quality.
If you have been scarred by the painful performances under Gordon Igesund, fear not: this is much more attractive. Mashaba, who has always been a form-over-reputation selector, tends to favour a traditional 4-4-2. In this case, this has usually been headed by the little-and-large partnership of 5-foot-8 Tokelo Rantie and 6-foot-3 Bongani Ndulula, who contributed an average of a goal a game between them. The main supplier has been Ajax playmaker Thulani Serero, who has finally begun to deliver on his enormous promise, but he has surprisingly been left out of the squad. All of this is backed up by a defence that kept four clean sheets in a row. The result is a side that concedes few without sacrificing attacking intent.
The defence – One of the remarkable aspects of South Africa’s exceptional defensive record in qualifying was that the defensive line-up was different in five of the six games. Initially beginning with a back four of Anele Ngcongca, Eric Mathoho, Thabo Matlaba and Thulani Hlatshwayo for the first two games, only Mathoho would play in every game. 18-year-old Ajax Cape Town centre-back Rivaldo Coetzee was brought in for the game in Congo, becoming the youngest player to represent Bafana Bafana, while Sibusiso Khumalo and Tefu Mashamaite also made appearances. Despite this instability, and the loss of the inspirational Meyiwa, they conceded just three goals in six games.
Inexperience – With Steven Pienaar retired and the likes of Siphiwe Tshabalala, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Bernard Parker, Tsepo Masilela and Bongani Khumalo not featuring under Mashaba, there is a noticeable lack of senior players in the team at the moment. Reneilwe Letsholonyane was the most-capped player to feature in qualification, and even he was sent off in his only start against Nigeria. Most of the players starting are around 24-25, but don’t have many caps to their name. While this has had its obvious benefits, with little baggage from the Igesund era, it could leave them exposed when facing the best sides in Africa in the Cup of Nations.
Tokelo Rantie – The 2014-15 season has seen the skilful 24-year-old blossom into South Africa’s lead striker, filling a hole they have struggled with in recent years. He scored four goals in qualifying and was in form for AFC Bournemouth in the Championship until dislocating his shoulder in November, but recent indications are that he should be back playing before the Cup of Nations.
The Hipster Choice
Dean Furman – The one time Chelsea and Rangers youngster, now of League One’s Doncaster Rovers, took over as captain after Senzo Meyiwa’s death, having been the midfield lynchpin throughout the campaign. Quietly underrated for some time but is now a leader in this inexperienced Bafana Bafana side.
Ephraim Mashaba – This is Mashaba’s second stint in charge, with the first ending in acrimonious circumstances days before the 2004 Cup of Nations, which he had led the team to, after dropping high-profile foreign-based players and falling out with Safa. However, just over ten years later, he was welcomed back with open arms and has seemingly halted the team’s decline.
Group stage exit – Though their qualifying performances were promising, it’s asking a lot of this team to beat Algeria and Ghana.