Sunday Times

Now or never for Bafana

- ● By MARC STRYDOM strydomm@timeslive.co.za

● Molefi Ntseki has promised to face the storm of his judgment day today in Bafana Bafana’s decisive 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Group C qualifier against Sudan at Al-Hilal Stadium in Omdurman head-on.

He will need to. South Africans are strange. They regularly castigated Ntseki’s predecesso­r, and former head coach he was assistant to, Stuart Baxter, calling him a “plumber” and demanding a South African as coach.

A South African was appointed — albeit one lesser known at the level, though who had gained experience over years spent in the background, and who clearly needed time to learn on the job. And despite immense challenges he took the team to the verge of Nations Cup qualificat­ion.

The more scathing of fans will feel it is making excuses for Ntseki, but given the challenges he has faced, it becomes hard to judge the coach on his first year-and-a-half.

For this camp against Ghana — where the head-to-head permutatio­ns rendered Thursday’s 1-1 draw at FNB Stadium a training game — and Sudan, a Fifa circular stating clubs did not have to release players decimated squads, and Ntseki did well to salvage a team.

Today Ntseki faces potentiall­y two storms. One is Sudan, who have hit form to surge to nine points from a win at home to Ghana and away against Sao Tome and Principe on Wednesday. Ntseki has rightfully

Ntseki took the team to the verge of Nations Cup qualificat­ion

questioned Sudan’s extra day to travel and prepare, compared to Bafana (10 points).

The other will be if Bafana lose, and fail to qualify — a win or draw will see SA through. For a coach so harshly judged, that would make Ntseki’s position uncomforta­ble.

“I might not be the best philosophe­r, but they say if you are faced with a storm, you can’t turn and take the direction of the storm. At times you need to stand strong until the storm is over,” Ntseki mused after a performanc­e against Ghana that SA will need to improve on to get their result in Omdurman.

“And I think all the challenges since I took over — the xenophobia, Covid, and the players being refused to join in camp — have made us very strong. It has made the whole team believe in each other. And if things continue going like this it means we are going to qualify.

“The players and everybody want to better the position in the last Afcon [quarterfin­als]. And I think now that we will play in the Afcon.”

The task for Bafana becomes harder because Bongani Zungu on Tuesday agreed to join the team in Sudan, but Rangers emailed a refusal on Wednesday. Zungu’s best midfield replacemen­t, Andile Jali, did not travel because of an injury against Ghana.

Temperatur­es of close to 40C for the 4pm kickoff are another obstacle, as is Sudan’s desire for a first Nations Cup since 2012.

Percy Tau has recovered from the knock that saw him limping against Ghana, and is the key performer in attack again. Left-back Sifiso Hlanti joined the squad late on Friday evening after documentat­ion issues.

A 3-4-3 formation was interestin­g for the options it presented in defence and attack at home against an under-strength Black Stars, but missed chances cost Bafana.

In extraordin­ary conditions, SA have not played a convincing 90 minutes in the qualifiers. Ntseki, though, deserves to be judged on two things — whether he reaches Cameroon 2021 (delayed to January and February next year by Covid-19), and how well Bafana do there. Step up to the plate and face the storm, Bafana and Mr Ntseki.

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