Bafana Bafana

Twin cause for AFCON unease

2012-11-15 12:20
Gordon Igesund (Gallo)
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 Afcon.

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 them.

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 bypassed.

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” ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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