SA U23 chase Olympics berth

2011-11-25 15:20
Shakes Mashaba (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg - The SA Under-23 national team will start their final Olympic qualifying bid against Ivory Coast in their opening Group B match of the inaugural Confederation of African Football Under-23 Championships in Marrakech, Morocco, on Sunday.

"That is the game that will set the tone for us in the tournament and give us confidence for the next two matches," said defender Thulani Hlatshwayo.

"We have to get off on the right note."

The two-week tournament will serve as the final African Olympic qualifiers, with the top three teams progressing to the London Games next year, while the final spot will be decided in a playoff between the fourth-placed team and an Asian nation.

Hlatshwayo was confident that Bafana would make a winning start.

"I'm familiar with the Ivorian squad because we played them in Rwanda some time back when I was with the SA U-20 team," he said.

"They are not too different from us in terms of their physical make up and ability, but I believe that we can get the result we want."

Baby Bafana's preparations for the championships were disrupted by a tussle between SA football officials.

They struggled to string together the core of the team, with Premier Soccer League clubs refusing to release players, but eventually they put together a solid outfit.

The squad left for the North African state on Wednesday evening where, after resting on Friday, will have one meaningful training session on Saturday.

Coach Ephrahim 'Shakes' Mashaba will have fond memories of Morocco, where he led the national junior side to their first ever U-20 World Cup qualification in 1997.

Mashaba also guided the U-23 team to their only Olympic appearance at the Sydney Games in 2000 when - despite not making it past the group stages - they managed a memorable 3-1 win over a strong Brazilian team which included star player Ronaldinho.

Despite some of his regulars not being available, Mashaba had some depth from which to select in the available pool of players, and strongly believed his party was good enough to progress to a second-ever Olympic participation.

"I have no doubts that we have a team that will make the country proud by qualifying for the Olympics, and also doing well in London," Mashaba said.

"This team has set the standards for itself, going back to Sydney, and at the recent All Africa Games where we were runners-up.

"Now we want to win that gold in Morocco."

After struggling in friendly matches against Algeria in the build-up to the tournament, Mashaba hoped the South Africans would shine up front, with Rodney Ramagalela, Bhongolwethu Jayiya and Phumelele Bhengu tasked to find the back of the net.

"We went to Algeria, we played well and had good understanding, but the problem was scoring," Mashaba said.

"Once we start scoring the goals in Morocco, then people will realise who we are."

After their opening match, Baby Bafana face Gabon, on Wednesday, and Egypt in their final group stage clash next weekend.

Group A consists of hosts Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Algeria.

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