Bafana pass test of character
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Friendly internationals are increasingly inappropriate gauges, but there was enough evidence in Saturday’s Nelson Mandela Challenge all the same to suggest that Bafana Bafana may just be back on the “up” after a tentative spell.
Let’s face it, some of their performances in the afterglow of the home-staged 2010 World Cup - where the national side did not disgrace despite their failure to advance from group play - had offered a worrying suggestion that they’d actually played above themselves at the mega-jamboree and that a correction to older, near-inept levels was merely taking place.
Certainly failing to qualify very recently for another African Cup of Nations tournament in 2012, even if it was under farcical, shambolic circumstances in many respects, was a sobering occurrence for long-suffering Bafana fans.
And when they conceded a probably preventable first-half own goal (via luckless, injury-enforced early substitute Siboniso Gaxa) to the continent’s current glamour team Ivory Coast in Port Elizabeth, the portents did not look especially good for a face-saving surge.
But give credit to Bafana, it certainly came in a second 45 minutes - plus fairly weighty stoppage-time period - where they mustered renewed energy and purpose to such an extent that they shaded the contest overall despite the 1-1 outcome.
Most neutral judges would have concurred that Katlego Mphela’s sweet free-kick strike to level matters was the least South Africa deserved after storming forward with urgency and playing some deft little triangles in the final third of the pitch after halftime.
You get friendlies of this nature these days that are soulless, meaningless and overwhelmingly anaemic, coming as they do as “irritations” between intense league combat the world over ... not this one, though, which often had a scent of gunsmoke as some studs went in a bit cynically from both sides although open acrimony was largely skirted.
Traditionally both muscular and athletic, the Ivorians seemed suitably up for it, whilst Bafana, generally conceding a fair bit in the tale of the tape, were likewise stubborn in their determination not to be cowed and players like Steven Pienaar - as ever, in his case - and Daylon Claasen got cheekily under the skins of more rugged opponents.
So the vibrant spectators at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium got a near-cracker of a contest, with commitment and fluidity not in short supply, although there were also some periods where the game lost its shape quite markedly.
It has to be said that South Africans might have been feeling rather more despondent on Saturday night had Arsenal’s Gervinho - dangerous even if not consistently so - not been refused a penalty when it seemed for all money he’d been sliced down in the area.
But then again, Bafana defender Morgan Gould was denied at the other end from a firm, close-range header that brought out a dazzling save from goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, and the South Africans monopolised both shots on goal and shots on target.
What a warrior that man Pienaar is: he so obviously relished getting an all-but full game after plenty of bench frustration at Tottenham of late, and reminds me of Springbok Schalk Burger’s “high pain threshold” zeal and appetite when playing for his country’s honour.
It was a pity - along with the missed opportunity to see ace striker Didier Drogba do battle in the Friendly City, of course - that the Ivorians were also unable to bring with them Newcastle United’s presently sidelined defensive midfielder Cheik Tiote.
Tiote, although slightly different in playing function, is like Pienaar in terms of willingness to work his socks off; his amazing engine has been one of the critical reasons for Newcastle’s surprise early-season surge to third place in the English Premiership.
Mind you, he can mistime (to put it politely) a few tackles so maybe his absence was useful in terms of a genuinely acrimonious fuse not quite being lit on this match.
Sometimes you can be left none the wiser after a home stalemate like this one, but considering that the Ivory Coast reeled out plenty of their stellar names and are ranked precisely 30 spots higher than Bafana on the current FIFA rankings, Pitso Mosimane’s side went some way in this fixture, I earnestly felt, to squashing fears that they are back in “decline” mode ...