From boys to men – Bafana make SA be­lieve

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

WHEN Bafana Bafana land in Nige­ria this morn­ing for Wed­nes­day’s fi­nal African Cup of Na­tions qual­i­fier, they will for a change en­joy the full support of the coun­try and the gov­ern­ment.

The feel-good fac­tor once again en­veloped the se­nior na­tional foot­ball side after they earned qual­i­fi­ca­tion for Af­con 2015 in Equa­to­rial Guinea with a 2-1 win over Su­dan in Dur­ban at the week­end.

Their ta­ble-top­ping per­for­mance was im­me­di­ately met with words of en­cour­age­ment from swimming star Chad le Clos, var­i­ous gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives and busi­ness­man Pa­trice Mot­sepe, who con­grat­u­lated the squad in the chang­e­room at Moses Mab­hida Sta­dium Satur­day af­ter­noon. Whereas in the past the big­gest joke about South African foot­ball was that they could qual­ify for events only as hosts, this time Bafana earned their ticket to the Jan­uary-Fe­bru­ary show­piece with a game to spare.

Goals from Thu­lani Serero and Tokelo Rantie en­sured South Africa put an end to their qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign on top of their group, re­gard­less of the out­come against the de­fend­ing African cham­pi­ons in Uyo on Wed­nes­day.

South Africa have 11 points from three wins and two draws, and can­not be over­taken by Nige­ria and Congo, who each have seven points.

Coach Shakes Mashaba, in his first spell with the se­nior side qual­i­fied South Africa for the 2004 edi­tion of the Na­tions Cup and pre­vi­ously took the Un­der-23 side to the Olympics. Re­cently, he guided the Un­der-20 side through their qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the African Youth Cham­pi­onships.

And while he praised his men, he re­it­er­ated that they would treat the fi­nal game like any other.

“I would like to say con­grat­u­la­tions to the play­ers. We are still left with one game ... I know peo­ple will think it is go­ing to be a walkover. No, we are go­ing to put out our best team. It is more than three points at stake when we go to Nige­ria. It’s go­ing to be another tough game,” the coach ex­plained.

This clash ef­fec­tively marks the be­gin­ning of the squad’s prepa­ra­tions for the 16-team tour­na­ment.

Against Nige­ria, Mashaba might be with­out striker Lehlo­honolo Ma­joro who failed a fit­ness test on the eve of the Su­dan game due to an an­kle in­jury. Serero, who was sub­sti­tuted by Reneilwe Let­sholonyane fol­low­ing a Man-of-the-Match per­for­mance against Su­dan, may also be doubt­ful be­cause of a thigh mus­cle com­plaint. That opens the door for striker Moeketsi Sekola, who made his de­but as a sub­sti­tute for Bon­gani Ndu­l­ula.

Hav­ing qual­i­fied, the squad will be re­warded for their achieve­ment by the sports min­istry. Fol­low­ing his ad­dress to the squad be­fore the game, Sports Min­is­ter Fik­ile Mbalula said: “The depart­ment would con­tinue to recog­nise ex­cel­lence and re­ward teams for the ex­cel­lent work done for the coun­try”.

“Af­con is im­por­tant for South Africa. I think all of us didn’t ex­pect that we would be here with the pos­si­bil­ity of qual­i­fy­ing. It’s good for the na­tion, the team and their fam­i­lies to qual­ify for Af­con. In­ter­na­tion­ally, they will be re­spected by their peers for qual­i­fy­ing, which is a big achieve­ment in it­self. It shows that they can stand their ground,” Mbalula con­cluded.

With a new cap­tain in Dean Fur­man, who took over after goal­keeper Senzo Meyiwa’s mur­der, and a sprin­kling of young in­ter­na­tion­als and other fresh faces, the side em­barks on a jour­ney filled with hope and ex­cite­ment.

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