Bafana cowed, clobbered
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Nelspruit – This, sadly and mysteriously on such a poignant day on our calendar, was a return to the bleak trough for South Africa’s national soccer team.
Losing with valour to Uruguay in their second World Cup Group A match in Pretoria on Wednesday would have left us all feeling so much better than we do, while trudging back to work after the Youth Day public holiday.
But instead Bafana Bafana were drilled by a decidedly uncharitable and workmanlike Uruguay, and now their hopes of progressing hang by a thread.
The dream isn’t quite over, but an alarm nevertheless appears close to rudely ringing anew.
To put that clock on “snooze” mode, a desired fillip on Thursday would probably be a Polokwane draw between France and Mexico, which would then leave Bafana only one point behind both and still in with a fighting progression chance if they can somehow topple the French in Bloemfontein in their last game.
But even in that event, there would still be the simultaneous fixture between Mexico and Uruguay to fret about – South Africa’s best bet now is for their Loftus conquerors to go on to handsomely top the group, fuelled by a rosy goal difference after they put three past an insipid Bafana.
Victory for the 1998 champions over Mexico at Peter Mokaba Stadium, however, would dramatically damage further the prospect of Aaron Mokoena’s side sneaking into the next round and thus avoiding the shame of being first host nation to bow out at the first tournament hurdle.
What is key now is that South Africa at least recapture the spirit that marked their engrossing tournament-opening draw with the Mexicans.
It went missing, and then some, against Uruguay as they appeared scratchy, lethargic and sometimes even slightly fractious among themselves.
Mokoena himself confessed bluntly on the pitch afterwards: “Unacceptable … we didn’t play.”
Never mind that one or two contentious decisions and flashpoints went against Bafana: they were indicative, when all is said and done, of a team undeniably on the back foot and lacking spark or initiative for vast tracts of the game.
Even the vuvuzelas seemed to lose their once-united puff as disgruntled fans scurried for the exits, shoulders gloomily hunched in blankets or heavy coats, with as much as quarter of an hour left.
This was supposed to be a day marking a June 16, 1976 uprising, with tragic consequences, against apartheid-era education policies. Some suggested the gravitas of the landmark would ignite a special fire in Bafana’s collective bellies.
On the anniversary on Wednesday, any footballing “education” at the World Cup match was dispensed only by the South American visitors, powered by Diego Forlan’s skill and great gumption and the constant nuisance value of co-striker Luis Suarez too.
What went wrong for Bafana? Or, to put it just as starkly, why did so blessed little go right?
They were insecure and uncomfortable in just about every department, starting in goal where Itumeleng Khune, who would always prefer to shot-stop all day than collect crosses, one suspects, fell well short of his Soccer City standards last Friday – until he was sent off after conceding a penalty anyway.
The defence stopped short of being comical, although organisation was not a glowing feature and the sometimes too-theatrical Suarez seemed to drag poor Bongani Khumalo through the five-minute car wash and then back into it once more.
At least Katlego Mphela as the lone gun up front could mostly be absolved of blame for this hiding (although he wasn’t subtle enough with one decent heading chance) as it was in midfield that South Africa were the most abjectly overrun.
Ironically playing at the home of the Bulls, one of the country’s most physical rugby teams, Bafana’s relatively slight armada of men in the middle were bundled off the ball all too easily: either that or simply poor control would lead to their dispossession.
Steven Pienaar thinks he is fatigued after a harsh English Premiership season and as a consequence suddenly looks it, while Siphiwe Tshabalala’s golden day against Mexico now appears a distant memory.
He was innocuous and once, in the space of a single minute, he undercooked a free kick in promising (and that made a change!) real estate and then significantly over-weighted a corner.
Come on Bafana, whatever your onward fate, a meaningful redemption for this soulless showing is required against France if your renaissance of the past few months is not to fall to pieces …