Bafana to avoid bungle repeat
Itumeleng Khune (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg - South Africa face Morocco in Durban on Sunday knowing a win or draw secures an Africa Cup of Nations last-eight slot and even a loss will not necessarily end their title dreams.
Victory for the 2013 hosts guarantees they stay top of the Group A table and a draw would also keep them in first place unless Cape Verde defeat Angola and finish with a superior goal difference.
However, if Angola win the first clash of two Portuguese-speaking countries in the 56-year Cup of Nations, Bafana Bafana (The Boys) will go through on the head-to-head rule even if they are beaten by the Atlas Lions.
It is a safe bet that South Africa coach Gordon Igesund is fully acquainted with these scenarios given the embarrassing bungle that cost the team a chance of competing at the 2012 tournament in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea.
No South African Football Association official, nor then-coach Pitso Mosimane, nor anyone in the team understood the head-to-head rule, and played for a draw at home to Sierra Leone when they needed a win to qualify.
Adding insult to injury for 40,000 spectators in Nelspruit watching the qualifier, and millions of TV viewers, the team danced and sang their way around Mbombela Stadium celebrating what they later discovered was a 'failure'.
Public broadcaster SABC added to the confusion with its TV and radio commentators, unaware of how the head-to-head rule works, telling the nation Bafana Bafana had made it.
"The nation should know that our head coach, his assistants, and the players are fully aware of all the permutations regarding our match against Morocco," were the reassuring words of a team official who requested anonymity.
Although South Africa have often found it difficult to crack open defences of teams from the north of the continent, they do boast a good Cup of Nations record against Morocco with wins in 1998 and 2002 and a draw nine years ago.
Igesund rang the changes after a dismal showing when lucky to draw 0-0 with debutants Cape Verde in Soweto last weekend and the five newcomers repaid the faith placed in them with a 2-0 triumph over Angola.
"I was very happy with the team that started and I was very happy with the team that finished," said Igesund, who is hoping to emulate the South African side that lifted the trophy when they last played hosts 17 years ago.
The coach said he had to give much thought to how he would approach Morocco, who have drawn 0-0 with Angola and 1-1 with Cape Verde, and are desperate to avoid a fourth consecutive first round exit since finishing 2004 runners-up.
"Playing defensive football is not my style. However, I cannot go out there and open up, leaving us vulnerable to counter-attacks," said the coach who has won a record four South African Premiership titles with four different clubs.
Lucky to be only one goal behind against Cape Verde, the Atlas Lions came good in the closing stages with substitute Youssef El Arabi equalising and almost snatching a winner as his header flashed just wide of the far post.
"What is important for us is to reach the knockout stage," stressed Morocco coach Rachid Taoussi. "We have talented footballers, but sometimes lack teamwork. It is a bitter reality I am striving to change."
Suspended Morocco playmaker Younes Belhanda is ruled out as is injured South African Lehlohonolo Majoro while fellow striker Tokelo Rantie is doubtful after twisting his ankle against the Angolans.
The Group A winners stay in Durban and will probably face Mali or Democratic Republic of Congo in the quarter-finals while the runners-up travel south west to Port Elizabeth for a likely game against four-time champions Ghana.