Twin cause for AFCON unease
Cape Town – A home defeat that simply served as a reminder
of Bafana Bafana’s ongoing doldrums status, coupled with spectator apathy and
later misbehaviour ... these were worrying events on Wednesday, only two months
out from South Africa staging the 2013 African Nations Cup.
The continental showpiece kicks off on January 19, so with
this country both hosting the event and having the not inconsiderable privilege
of entertaining Zambia, the defending champions, in the Nelson Mandela
Challenge, Soccer City in Johannesburg ought to have been a pulsating place for
a worthy lead-up match.
Only it wasn’t – the cavernous venue seemed well less than a
third full for the 18th version of this supposedly blue-chip
friendly international, and a decent percentage of the attendance appeared to
be animated and eventually gleeful Zambian expats, into the bargain.
Gallery: Bafana v Zambia
Video: South Africa v Zambia
Throw in the fact that the pitch, although patched up pretty
satisfactorily after the damaging effects of the Linkin Park concert a few days
earlier, still had notably sandy and uneven portions, and the occasion somehow
failed to live up to its billing.
It was made memorable to a degree, perhaps, only by the
beauty of Collins Mbesuma’s thunderous left-footed strike into the top corner
to separate the sides 1-0 on the night, a result that was sadly – from a South
African perspective – largely justified.
The seasoned, Orlando Pirates-based predator has thighs that
make him look more like a strong rugby scrummager, and he lived up to his
“Hurricane” nickname with his pile-driver that will warrant YouTube revisits
for some time to come and gave even the acrobatic Itumeleng Khune in the Bafana
goal not a prayer of stopping it.
The Zambians, as losing coach Gordon Igesund rightly noted
afterwards “looked like a team” and apart from mostly outsmarting Bafana, did
an excellent job of perpetually harassing their South African foes into
mistakes while in possession – of course some of the Chipolopolo players are or
have been based here, and thus well familiar with the lung-busting demands of
playing at high altitude.
The outcome, arguably, did not necessarily represent a
mortal blow to Bafana’s own Afcon prospects: this remains an experimental
period for Igesund, either voluntarily or injury-enforced.
Zambia remain (in 39th) a formidable 45 slots
above South Africa on the FIFA rankings, and will be among the favourites for
It is also worth keeping in the mind that, of the starting
troops who played so spiritedly in surrendering late to Brazil in Sao Paulo in
early September, only four – Khune, Bongani Khumalo, Dean Furman and Lerato
Chabangu – also began this fixture, indicating the extent to which “mixing and
matching” is currently taking place.
I still maintain that Bafana, rightly or wrongly, preserve
their most inspired (or perhaps that should rather read “resilient”?) football
for biggest stages, or at the very least when they have a swollen crowd behind
That was regrettably not the case on Wednesday, and that
very fact ought to – but quite probably won’t – remind SAFA that they miss a
trick in not dispersing reasonably attractive Bafana fixtures more consciously
around the country.
South Africa is soccer-mad beyond just the Highveld, which
obviously monopolises major club matches and whose residents may be weary of
forking out for the still-humdrum national team too often as well.
Already Afcon 2013 is controversially unbalanced
geographically, with Johannesburg, Nelspruit and Rustenburg getting the lion’s
share of the games and the significant metropolis of Cape Town completely
There is good reason to believe, based on recent Mandela
Challenge fixtures staged at coastal cities, that a healthier gate might have
been achieved in either Port Elizabeth (which at least has some Afcon activity)
or Cape Town for the Zambia clash, given the relative novelty of the national side
actually leaving the broad Highveld area.
Even for the 2010 version of the Challenge, when the USA
shamefully arrived with a palpable “second team” at Cape Town Stadium, a
near-capacity attendance of 52 000 was recorded, while the 2011 affair in the
Friendly City (Bafana 1 Ivory Coast 1) was also played out before an infinitely
more buzzing and robust crowd than that achieved on Wednesday.
To cap a forgettable night for South African soccer in
overall terms, the stoning of the Zambian team bus afterwards, reportedly
causing a head injury to a player, will cause some nervous ripples about the
possibility of xenophobia – something that consistently stalks the country’s
socio-political landscape – afflicting Afcon 2013.
My early hunch is that the event, on an array of fronts, is
going to prove “difficult” ...
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