From boys to men – Bafana make SA believe
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.