For a long time, Owen Da Gama has been working behind the scenes as an assistant coach in national teams.
The CAF Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) that starts in Senegal on Saturday will measure how Da Gama will fare as his own man in his bid to become only the second man – after Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba – to qualify South Africa for the Olympic Games.
After all, the man nicknamed “Rubber Doll” still has to prove why he was at one stage rated so highly and headhunted by Orlando Pirates chairperson Irvin Khoza to guide the former African champions.
Since he assumed the national Under-23 coaching role in December last year, Da Gama is now faced with arguably the toughest assignment as a national head coach.
“It’s an opportunity to showcase what I am capable of, to learn and grow as a coach,” he said, following the announcement this week of his 21-member squad to Senegal.
“I do get some sleepless nights, at times, but it’s normal for any sportsman to have butterflies in the stomach. But once we get there, there’s nothing to fear,” said Da Gama.
“We used the past camp to work on players’ mental aspect.
“We have prepared them for the worst in Senegal – anything from food [and] hotels to transport.”
Da Gama named a full-strength squad that mainly comprises players who ply their trade in the premier division, a luxury his predecessor Mashaba could ill-afford due to the club-versus-country challenges.
The squad boasts players with continental experience, such as defender Rivaldo Coetzee, who is also part of the Bafana setup.
In addition, Da Gama received massive backing from the Premier Soccer League, which has bent over backwards and suspended the Absa Premiership programme in support of the team.
However, the only uncertainty was if he would get the Pirates duo of Menzi Masuku and Gift Motupa on time, given that the Buccaneers have the CAF Confederation Cup final second leg to play against Étoile du Sahel in Tunisia on November 29.
“We have picked versatile players for any eventualities,” said Da Gama, adding “we are sure of about seven
to eight positions [in the starting line-up] for the sake
“We also have three different playing systems in place, and it is hard to read us.”
As a parting shot, the Bafana assistant coach warned that he would not overstate the readiness of his team and underachieve at the tournament, where three Olympic berths are at stake.
“The focus is on the first match against Senegal, and the rest will follow.
“Finishing top of the group will be ideal.”