Bafana: Bongani’s gigantic task
Bongani Khumalo (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Fragility ... it is something the current Bafana Bafana side will take into the Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday, a bugbear considerably less associated beforehand with the winning class of 1996 when the tournament was last held in South Africa.
How could it be anything but?
The national side lie a lowly 84th on the FIFA ladder, and it is probably safe to say there is a countrywide state of collywobbles about the tournament opener against unfashionable yet higher-ranked Cape Verde Islands at the National Stadium on Saturday evening (18:00).VIDEO: Itumeleng Khune on his 50 caps
Lead-up friendlies have done little to lift the “fog”: South Africa fluffed a hatful of chances even as they dominated decent tracts of the Cape Town Stadium friendly against weakened Norway, who instead pilfered a 1-0 win, and then failed to provide any truly tangible sources of fresh optimism in a 0-0 snooze-fest against Algeria at Orlando Stadium.
These have not exactly been ways to send camp confidence sky-high; uncertainty remains the pervasive sentiment.
Even if they remain surprisingly in favour with bookies to achieve semi-finalist status at AFCON 2013, it is probably much more on the unscientific basis of home advantage than anything else.
Yet the public burden, like it or not, will stay close to immense on the current Bafana side to somehow emulate the heroes of ’96, when the nation was collectively still basking in post-democratic goodwill and patriotism and our sporting stocks happened to be high across various, high-exposure pursuits.
Sadly that broad spirit has greatly dimmed more recently (although outfits like the Proteas Test cricket side currently give cause for relief and delight, in a bigger-picture climate marked by economic uncertainty and political and labour tumult).
Under the circumstances, it is hard to escape a feeling that sound on-field leadership will be a key starting point to Bafana success - against the inevitable tide of ridicule and cynicism from many onlookers - at this AFCON.
The national psyche around our soccer was greatly more positive 17 years ago, at least partly because the 1996 tournament came at a time when Bafana could still be described as finding their way in world football after so many years in the wilderness - so any hiccups could be pardoned, and put down to naivety.
Life was an adventure then, and getting to lift the spoils, on that occasion, was one wonderful, goose-pimply bonus - not too long afterwards, South Africa soccer would peak at a heady 16th in the FIFA pecking order.
But it has been a bumpy, violently deteriorating route since ... and one of the crosses the current side has to carry mentally is the constant, inevitable reminder of the pure “gees” that powered Neil Tovey’s trophy-baggers all those years ago.
While Tovey wore the armband, around him were many genuinely seasoned pros who effectively served as priceless “leadership lieutenants”, if you like.
In an AFCON preview special on the BBC Sport website this week, one of those very components, then Leeds United-based Phil Masinga, cited “strong leaders on the pitch” as an essential ingredient to the triumph.
“It’s important to have a leader and in our team we had many leaders. We had the coach (Clive Barker), we had the captain (Tovey), we had Lucas Radebe
, who in his own right was a leader, we had myself and Eric Tinkler.
“There were lots of leaders who helped the coach and captain to ease the pressure on the younger players.”
Present Bafana players will also find envy hard to disguise when they examine more Masinga recollections of ’96: “We were lucky ... South Africa had two years of democracy and we had everybody behind us, including the journalists.
“The whole of South Africa was behind us, all politicians were behind the team; that added a 12th player for us.”
It makes you feel for Bongani Khumalo
, the national team’s AFCON 2013 skipper, who will almost certainly not be able to look
around him at this tournament and see such obvious nearby assistance as strategic or motivational inspirers.
Too many of the 2013 squad, frankly, may have enough of a battle on their hands assuring themselves of consistent starts, to be able to chip in with additional energy or focus for leadership.
Manzini-born stopper Khumalo, 26 earlier this month, is soft-spoken and articulate in the public domain.
They say he has an excellent work ethic in training, too, but an examination of his various strengths and shortcomings in City Press recently - a largely sympathetic one, for the record - also suggested that “he could be more vocal (in the midst of battle) as captain”.
He simply must be a presence, a lead-from-the-fronter in the fullest sense, if Bafana are to prosper at AFCON - a task not made any easier by the extremely unfortunate, premature retirement from the national side several months ago of Steven Pienaar
Currently one the leading drivers of Everton’s rare charge in the Premiership toward Champions League possibilities, little midfield dynamo Pienaar would have been one of sadly few Bafana players at AFCON to boast compelling credentials from one of the juggernaut world leagues.
It is impossible to know whether he would have eclipsed Khumalo in Gordon Igesund
’s thinking as captain, but his very presence in playing terms would have been a tonic enough.
If he manages, at AFCON 2013, to join the modern pantheon of iconic, successful South African sporting team captains like Francois Pienaar, John Smit, Gary Teichmann, Graeme Smith and Bafana ‘96 predecessor Tovey, Khumalo will have done very, very well.
The man will need plenty of support and perhaps even bigger spoonfuls of luck ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing