Cape Town – The reawakening of Bafana Bafana under the
stewardship of Shakes Mashaba gathers pace at a rate that will have surpassed
many long-suffering fans’ wildest dreams.
Of course the most obvious reflection of the improvement is
their group log-topping status at the midway mark of 2015 Africa Cup of Nations
qualifying, a point clear in Group A of second-placed Congo – South Africa’s
latest victims by a 2-0 margin in Pointe-Noir on Saturday.
If Bafana can also win the quick-turnaround return fixture
against the Congolese at Polokwane on Wednesday – catapulting them to a robust
10 points from four outings -- it will take all sorts of unlikely, late
mathematical events in the group for them to miss the cut for Morocco early
Keep in mind that the top two teams go through, and even if
that doesn’t do the trick because of a late wobble, Bafana are already well set
to be strong contenders for the bonus lone berth for best third-placed side
should that become an unlikely factor for them.
Here’s something to consider: if Bafana enthusiasts had known
a few months ago that their closing match away to Nigeria in mid-November had
every chance of being a dead-rubber affair, they would have had every right to
believe it was because the Super Eagles – a traditional continental powerhouse
and long-time nemesis for SA – had romped to early qualification.
After all, Nigeria and Algeria were the only two African
sides to reach the round of 16 at the Brazil-staged World Cup in mid-year, the
former advancing from Group F alongside eventual losing finalists Argentina.
Instead the Nigerians lie a humiliating (for them) bottom of
Group A with one point from a possible nine, and in grave danger now of missing
the Afcon cut despite their status as defending champions.
There had been widespread speculation ahead of the
qualifying race that the Super Eagles, who have reached four of the last five
World Cup tournaments, would surge to victory in the group, whilst it was also
made clear to Mashaba, upon his ascension to the stormy Bafana hot seat, that
he was not required to immediately produce the goods for a passage to the north
“We will not say to Shakes that he must qualify for Morocco
2015 ... that is not his mandate,” SAFA president Danny Jordaan was quoted as
saying in August. “The mandate is to build a sustainable Bafana Bafana team for
the next few years.”
Unusually for a South African national coach, then, the
64-year-old father figure appears to be over-delivering on his job sheet.
Whilst Bafana winning successive away matches – in Sudan and
Congo – with a bit to spare each time is a breath of fresh air in itself, a
different current statistic also says much about the new resolve and sturdiness
of his largely youth-flavoured charges.
South Africa, halfway through qualifying, stand alone with just
one other team, Senegal in Group G, among the 28 for maintaining a 100 percent
defensive record: it is desperately rare for Bafana to go two matches without
conceding a goal, never mind three in a competitive scenario.
Even if they fail to beat the Congolese at Peter Mokaba
Stadium but at least bank a point, there is still a further home-turf
opportunity, against Sudan (whom they have already conquered 3-0 in their own
den) to earn another victory that would take Bafana to 11 points, and a
definite Afcon ticket.
Under such circumstances, South Africa would make a closing
trek to the usually hostile terrain of Nigeria with not a care in the world.
And wouldn’t that make a very, very pleasant change ...
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