By Salim Masoud Said
Sixteen years ago a relatively unknown coach by the name of Shakes Mashaba led South Africa to the Sydney Olympics. It looked like just another stage, another first, in the development of the post-Apartheid Africa; a phase of development which promised a brighter future.
Owen Da Gama now manages proceedings but the inimitable Mashaba will be watching on with great interest as – he hopes – the wheels continue turning into achieving the target of qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
Preparation has been dominated by a cacophonous debate on the validity of the inclusion of the over-aged pair of Itumeleng Khune and Eric Mathoho. The latter gives the Bafana Bafana backdoor some desperately needed muscle at the heart of their defence, though, some have lamented, at the cost of tournament match experience for younger centre backs. It is Khune’s selection which has especially received the fans’ ire, as it will probably mean the demotion of Jody February, the thrice penalty-saving hero, to the bench.
The rationale for the Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper’s being named was February’s lack of game time at club level, but Khune, though captain of the national side, has spent much of the last two years hampered by injury.
How they qualified
It all came down to a toe-to-toe, winner-take-all clash with hosts Senegal in the third place play-off of AFCON U23 to book their place in Rio. South Africa would of course emerge triumphant with Jody February proving that, unlike his surname, he wouldn’t settle for being second best.
Having already saved a spot-kick during normal time, the Ajax Cape Town goalkeeper added a hat-trick of saves in the shoot-out to help his side to victory on penalties. You would think the goalkeeper would have every right with being comfortable with being baptised as a penalty-saving specialist, but, hailing from a country which has become renowned for its self-entitlement when it comes to football, he showed remarkable modesty.
“I am no penalty specialist,” he began. “I am at a loss for words, just happy. We showed that with passion, determination and a lot of sweat we can achieve things as South Africans. This is a good start for things to come,” he said.
Three key players
Itumeleng Khune – As one of the overage players in the Bafana Bafana squad all eyes will be on the 29-year-old to provide inspired performances, they’ll certainly need their last bastion of defence in what is a tough group. Though the African continent has rarely produced goalkeepers with the premium bonus of excellent distribution, Khune is a novelty. He is excellent and exuberant with the ball at his feet, worth the match-fee alone just for that part of his game. Unfortunately, it’s the part of his game which his country will probably need the least. His form has been questionable in the last few years, particularly his penalty-area authority.
Rivaldo Coetzee – In line with principles of the Ajax school of thought, the wonderfully named Ajax Cape Town defender shows remarkable composure when in possession of the ball, with calmness and clear-headedness qualities which are second nature. Larger-than-life South Africa coach Shakes Mashaba had no reservations in calling up the teenager to the full senior squad during AFCON 2015 qualification and then making throwing him into the starting XI. Injury would end his tournament prematurely in the second game against Senegal but he showed enough flourishes to make clear what the fuss was about in the first place.
Keagan Dolly – The 23-year-old has had a stellar year with South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns, capped off by an impressive display in national colours in South Africa’s 4-0 thumping of Gambia last month. Though somewhat unheralded for he is infinitely more a creator than a finisher, fans of domestic South Africa football will know all about his blossoming quality. “More is still to come, watch this space,” Dolly promised after the aforementioned thrashing of Gambia. The Olympics could just be the platform he needs to show the ability in his locker.
Like the senior team, Owen Da Gama’s side’s strength lies in the pace they have throughout the team and their rapid transitions from defence to attack. If they are able to limit opponents space in their defensive third, they should have enough pace and trickery to cause problems of their own.
The level of their team spirit has been called into question with the inclusion of the overage, but two steady players shouldn’t break a bond that was strong in Senegal. They showed great resilience amidst adversity in their final group stage game against Tunisia and hosts Senegal, and they will need to show similar mental fortitude to progress from Group A with Brazil (the hosts), Denmark and Iran awaiting them.
South Africa’s glaring weakness will be their lack of goals. Good things are expected from the Lille forward Lebo Mothiba, though he has little in terms of top level experience. The other options in attack don’t offer the required deadly touch in front of goal. It is a problem that is exacerbated by the injury lay-off to Phakalani Mahlambi, who was excellent down the right wing at the U-23 AFCON and was one of the main sources of creativity.
Another weak point is a lightweight defence which has struggled against physically imposing forwards. As previously mentioned, Mathoho’s inclusion will negate this weakness to a point but it remains a tough task to expect them to go far in this tournament with that weakness in mind.