By Tom Danicek
Before we get to it, consider the following: this is only the second time South Africa have actually qualified for an Africa Cup of Nations in the last 11 years. Done processing that? Fine, now consider this: since taking three sets of medals, of all kind, from the three continental tournaments between the years 1996 and 2000, South African sides have combined for a miserable three wins in the following nearly two decades of six tournament showings. That, for the sake of comparison, means that a whole generation of South African fans enjoyed about as much Afcon joy as any follower of Zimbabwe did since their maiden Afcon appearance in 2004 (two wins).
In other words: don’t let the numerous and particularly loud Twitter presence or the World Cup hosting rights fool you. We are not looking at any sort of a powerhouse and a perennial contender here, not anymore anyway.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the usually demanding fandom no longer expects fireworks. While not at all spectacular, South Africa qualified for this edition unbeaten and kicked the qualifiers off with an impressive triumph in Nigeria, so that’s something to base some reasonable ambitions on. As ever, Stuart Baxter’s squad selection is full of question marks, some of them embodied by last-minute naturalised players waiting for passports, and properly gelled together they may be not, but there’s little doubt Bafana have enough flair and technical prowess to stretch just about anyone.
Stuart Baxter returned to the familiar throne just a month before the Afcon qualifiers started and has shown a remarkable lack of tactical consistency for African standards. He’s at times flirted with 4-4-2 (November friendly with Paraguay) and even 3-5-2 (last qualifier against Libya with qualification still on the line) formations but has overall leaned towards a holding midfield of two and somewhat freely filled in attacking positions in front of it.
Bafana are one of the most vertical teams at the tournament, typically looking to advance the ball quickly and on the ground, while also not being overly fussy about where to shoot from and how. Their games therefore won’t be boring but could still make for low scoring affairs given their storied history of failing to hit the barn door when presented with golden chances (that’s what doomed them to failure pretty much everytime, especially in 2015 when they somehow bottomed their group with one point) couple with their outstanding shot suppression on the other side of the pitch.
South Africans have their own samba – they call it “shoeshine and piano” – meaning they are at their best and indeed proudest when allowed to play the game on their own terms. One half of football every South African still fondly recalls is when they were up 2-0 at half-time against Brazil in April 1996 basically by beating them at their own game, through gimmicks, before the main inspiration, “Doctor” Khumalo, was withdrawn in order to preserve the lead and the whole team collapsed to a 2-3 loss.
This side may not necessarily be capable of “shoeshine and piano” in its true sense, but they also have their game which they stick to – this time around it’s more of a pragmatic approach (which has been, quite crucially, lacking at the recent poor Afcons), coupled with good shot volume and elite progressive passing. But then again, there are no Seychelles waiting for Bafana in Egypt…
The Achilles’ Heel
It seems weird to say this about a defence that conceded just two goals in the qualifiers, a record technically bettered only by Ghana and Kenya who ended up being in a three-team group after the Sierra Leone suspension, but truth is, the back line inspires a little confidence in South Africans, at least in its current state.
Experienced centre back Thulani Hlatshwayo plays out of position at Wits (right back), his partner Buhle Mkhwanazi didn’t enjoy a good finish to the league season, and together they make for one of the more vulnerable CB tandems when it comes to aerial duels (which both Morocco and Ivory Coast can and will expose). The once preferred and more experienced right back Ramahlwe Mphahlele then achieved the unthinkable and brought all the South African fandoms together, including his own Kaizer Chiefs, to criticize his inclusion.
Finally, this is a team somewhat short on outstanding ball winners in midfield that, at the same time, likes to press rather high which is something an eager, quick side shall exploit. And again, Bafana are going to face just those sides in Egypt…
There’s absolutely no doubt who’s running the show offensively for South Africa. Percy Tau is in the league of its own, having comfortably topped South African players in the qualifiers in terms of productivity by registering 4 goals and 1 assist (2/3 goals against Nigeria bear his signature, too). He’s also one of the players who, in the words of Alan Shearer, constantly “ask questions” of defenders (2,18 progressive runs per game in the qualifiers) while leading his team’s pressing.
This all is why the whole country went into a full panic mode when Tau limped off the pitch after scoring a brace against Mouscron on May 11 and then missed the last two games of the league season.
It turns out it was just a bruise, though, and RU Saint-Gilloise just didn’t want to risk his Afcon, which is a tremendously good news for Bafana. After all, the left-footed forward, whose exact position is always hard to pin down, just wrapped up his first season in Europe with 26 goal contributions (13+13) in 35 appearances and in the end pocketed the award for the best player of the 2nd Belgian division.
The Hipster’s Choice
The great Micho has described Thembinkosi Lorch as a “lion in human shape” and “an atomic ant”, which would be enough for me to label the Orlando Pirates star our Hipster’s Choice. Granted, “the best player in South Africa” (again, Micho’s words, albeit obviously partial) and also the current PSL Footballer of the Season should not be a matter of hipsterity, but then again, we are talking about a 25-year-old who’s only made one competitive appearance for the national team, and only as a sub vs Nigeria in November.
That alone is a travesty given how many times he’s single-handedly saved the Bucs from dropping points, but that’s almost certainly going to change in Egypt, especially since Baxter doesn’t really have a nailed-on starter at right wing.
It feels like Stuart Baxter has been in charge for ages but that might only be the lingering memory of him being the coach who failed to keep the World Cup streak going in the run up to the 2010 debut on African soil. He couldn’t give Shaun Bartlett his Germany 2006 swan song, but this time around the Wolverhampton-born Englishman deserves a fair amount of credit for shaking the ground and then steadying the South African ship after the turbulent Shakes Mashaba regime. You’ll take this every day with a man, who was once fired two games into his stint in Turkey.
Yes, it’s been a rather painful process which involved two embarrassing losses to Cape Verde in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. And yes, Stuart Baxter remains as stubborn as they come and you always have to remember he fielded six defensive minded players to protect the Afcon qualification against Libya of all sides. But he has earned Bafana another chance at Afcon redemption, and that’s what really matters. For at least a couple more days anyway.
On paper, it seems as though at least two of their opponents in the group have all the tools needed to neutralize and ultimately beat South Africa, but Afcons usually don’t do papers, and Bafana have actually never ever lost to either Morocco (2-3-0) or Ivory Coast (2-4-0; both per Wikipedia), so feel free to go all yer da on everyone in the pub once they inevitably run over the Elephants right out of the gate. But waste no time, because then they are also inevitably drawing 0-0 with Namibia, having outshot them 31-2 in the process…