Fitness: Bafana’s head start?
Sport24 columnist Rob Houwing (File)
Touch wood, don’t walk under the ladder, whisper it softly, and all that … but Bafana Bafana do appear to have stolen a march on several teams in the able-bodied department as the big 2010 kick-off finally looms large.
The host nation won’t win the World Cup, or at least go a long way in it, on a clean bill of health alone. But it does no harm.
Of course a Tshabalala limb could snap or a Pienaar hamstring pop – perish both thoughts, quickly! -- even in the cursed period as this piece is penned. That, to borrow that golden cliché, is the nature of sport.
But as things stood, South Africa looked in fine fettle from a fitness and conditioning point of view, which is more than you could say about many of the other 31 teams counting the hours to the tournament now.
Two key factors, partly linked, can probably be said to have contributed to this satisfyingly stable state of affairs: one has been coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s strong reliance on local-based players for his final squad and the other the opportunities this presented for various highly-focused “camps” because of the altered structure of the domestic competitions to cater for the home-staged World Cup.
Many influential Bafana players have thus had unusually generous spells in an environment conducive to the conditioning regime desired, mostly out of the competitive club arena, by their fitness coach Francisco Gonzalez.
Some of them have been unusually candid in admitting that their levels in certain areas of conditioning were found to be far short of ideal in the initial Brazil-staged camp, but that by the time they got to Germany for another meaningful squad stint there, they were well on the path to more acceptable standards.
Little that Gonzalez has done, of course, will be able to alter a lingering perception that South Africa will still come up generally a little shy on height and brawn against more cynical and “direct” opponents at the event, but it can certainly be said that the players look near-unanimously fresh, hungry and as toned as they could possibly be.
This has translated in the lead-up to a way-better-than-expected Bafana run of successes in friendlies, even if crustiest analysts will strongly guard against these being an accurate barometer of things to come, as “warm glow” turns to more authentic, unforgiving heat.
Meanwhile, however, several blue-chip World Cup teams, having only recently plucked their stars back from the ever-gruelling leagues of Europe, in particular, are labouring under the strain of injury catalogues – some of them doubtless spinoffs from the burdensome 2009/10 club landscape in the northern hemisphere.
For starters, some signature-team captains have been ruled out for the full tournament duration: notably Michael Ballack (Germany) and Rio Ferdinand (England).
Ballack may be well into his 34th year but the big, 98-cap midfielder has remained something of a fulcrum of the German side in much the same way as Lothar Matthaus – he of five World Cup tournaments – was before him.
Then there are some essential playmakers or kingpins who will not get onto South African fields at all: Ghana, for instance, are lamenting the demoralising absence of Chelsea’s Michael Essien.
The Ivory Coast are sweating on their own captain Didier Drogba (forearm fracture) of the same London club, and Holland holding thumbs that Arjen Robben will shake off a hamstring injury.
Champions Italy may only see midfielder Andrea Pirlo after their Cape Town opener against Paraguay, as the dead-ball specialist – voted third-best player at the 2006 World Cup – battles back home in Milan to overcome a calf ailment.
Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, while training with Bafana’s group opponents in Kimberley, hurt his left foot in a collision with a team-mate and was reportedly racing against time to be fit for the opening-day match against France.
It won’t suddenly hurtle them to status among the tournament favourites, but at least Bafana Bafana appear to be entering the World Cup with a full and sprightly tube of Smarties.
And that happy event may well be linked to the fact that they’ve boxed clever in the build-up months, often leaving soccer balls themselves in the cupboard as they fervently addressed aspects more greatly involving weights and running shoes.
Dare one say it, their upward performance curve has been pronounced enough to just raise the possibility that their Group A may turn out to be a “group of death”, thus giving them a fighting chance of progressing from it.
You wouldn’t have ventured that when the draw was made, given that South Africa seemed so, so far adrift then of all three listed opponents …