Rio in reach for U-23s

Young Bafana have two chances to qual­ify this week

CityPress - - Sport - DANIEL MOTH­OWA­GAE dmoth­owa­gae@city­press.co.za

The SA Un­der-23 na­tional foot­ball team is closer to qual­i­fy­ing for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games fol­low­ing a hard-fought 1-0 vic­tory over Tu­nisia at the on­go­ing CAF Un­der-23 Africa Cup of Na­tions in Sene­gal on Fri­day. Qual­i­fi­ca­tion will put a pos­i­tive spin on a bit­ter­sweet in­ter­na­tional year for South African na­tional teams fol­low­ing a mixed bag of re­sults amid high ex­pec­ta­tions.

The win on Fri­day saw coach Owen Da Gama’s team ad­vance to Wed­nes­day’s semi­fi­nal, where they will face the win­ners of Group B.

Hosts Sene­gal will play in the other semi­fi­nal, also on Wed­nes­day, against the run­ners-up of Group B, which were still to be de­ter­mined at the time of go­ing to print. Nige­ria, Al­ge­ria and Egypt were all in the run­ning.

The Sene­gal tour­na­ment car­ries much more than con­ti­nen­tal brag­ging rights, as three tick­ets to the men’s Olympic foot­ball tour­na­ment are at stake.

South Africa have two chances to reach Rio. A win in their semi­fi­nal will se­cure their place in Brazil. A loss will mean Da Gama’s side must rely on win­ning the third-place play-off match to qual­ify for the Olympics.

Only the top three teams from the eight-na­tion tour­na­ment in Sene­gal will rep­re­sent Africa in Rio in Au­gust next year.

Da Gama has ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve his side can fol­low the ex­am­ple set by Banyana Banyana, who have al­ready qual­i­fied for the women’s Olympic tour­na­ment, which will be the team’s sec­ond suc­ces­sive ap­pear­ance at the mul­ti­coded Games af­ter their de­but in Lon­don in 2012.

The South African men’s team re­ceived the full back­ing of the Premier Soc­cer League, which can­celled all fix­tures for the du­ra­tion of the Sene­gal tour­na­ment to al­low Da Gama to pick ar­guably the strong­est Un­der-23 side in his ten­ure.

Da Gama, who dou­bles as the Bafana Bafana as­sis­tant coach to Shakes Mashaba, re­mains on course to em­u­late the lat­ter’s feat of hav­ing qual­i­fied the team for the 2000 Olympics.

Just last month, the men’s Un­der-17s bombed out in the first round with a sin­gle point and no win at their maiden Fifa World Cup in Chile.

Ama­jim­bos’ set­back came shortly af­ter Baset­sana, the women’s Un­der-20 side, failed to reach the 2016 Women’s World Cup in Pa­pua New Guinea.

The men’s Un­der-20s, Ama­jita, also failed to qual­ify for the World Cup in New Zealand in May and June.

Banyana failed to qual­ify for the Women’s World Cup, but coach Vera Pauw’s charges made up for that with their qual­i­fi­ca­tion for next year’s Olympics.

Bafana re­cently brushed aside the dis­ap­point­ment of hav­ing ex­ited the Africa Cup of Na­tions in Equa­to­rial Guinea in the first round – along with fail­ure to qual­ify for next year’s African Na­tions Cham­pi­onship – by pro­gress­ing to the last round of the 2018 Fifa World Cup qual­i­fiers.

It is now up to the Un­der-23s to save the year with a win on Wed­nes­day to reach the fi­nal at the Stade Léopold Sé­dar Senghor in Dakar on Satur­day – and Rio next year.

PHOTO: BACK­PAGEPIX PHOTO: JAN KRUGER / GETTY IM­AGES

HAPPY CHAPS SA Un­der-23 play­ers cel­e­brate their win over Tu­nisia at the on­go­ing CAF Un­der-23 Africa Cup of Na­tions in Sene­gal, which serves as a qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment for the 2016 Olympic Games SUR­PRISE LEADER

Marc Leish­man of Aus­tralia came from be­hind to take the overnight lead

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