Our beloved Bafana Ba Shakes jetted into OR Tambo International Airport from Equatorial Guinea in the wee hours of this morning, hopefully with their heads held high, the lads will know that they played some great football at times during the Afcon tournament, and that they were robbed of a chance at testing their mantle in the knockout stages by a mixture of rotten luck, abysmal officiating and some poor tactical decisions. As we have had some time to calm down and retrospect on the missed chances, both literally and figuratively, its time for us to take stock of what occurred before the scabs develop and allow our wounds to heal in a manner that affords us the maximal opportunity to learn from the experience and come back even stronger. As the endless cups of Moringa Tea flow into The Boot Room, we invite you to sit with us and delve into the open investigation on a tournament we at GSV all expected to go very far in.
They say that in football, when things go right, we applaud the players and when they go horribly wrong, we are swift to chastise the gaffer; this may be true in many regards, yet we will not turn a blind eye to the fact that a ship has an appointed and qualified captain for a reason, somebody needs to be accountable for the decisions made, successful or otherwise, and Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba is the man in charge; the buck stops getting passed at the head honcho.
Bafana Bafana are a football side that qualified well for the 2015 African Cup of Nations off the back of impressive performances in an attractive and balanced 4-4-2 formation, a formation that played to the strengths of Mzansi Diski and allowed the players freedom to play a quick interchanging passing football game that had even the most ardent of Shakes detractors applauding in amazement. Undefeated in qualifying with 3 wins and 3 draws, scoring goals at a good rate and defending well, 9 goals scored with 3 conceded; one could understand the sense of optimism that surrounded large quarters of our entire football fraternity when the lads flew out to do battle on Africa’s grandest football stage. Despite the hullabaloo regarding the soldiers Shakes selected for battle and the ones he left at home to sharpen their spears, we had ourselves an army that seemed well equipped to win us the war; yet our successful battle plan was altered before our first battle and that resulted in our army looking unsettled when they needed to be confident in their abilities to win the battles that ensure that the army is victorious in the war. Our commander in chief should be held accountable for abandoning the 4-4-2 battle plan that won us the right to be in Equatorial Guinea in the first place and adopting a 4-2-3-1 scheme that has failed us in the past, a formation we did not recruit the necessary soldiers for and were badly punished trying to implement. The reality of our football is that we don’t have forwards that are adept at being regular and reliable goal scorers; it’s for that very reason that the more enlightened members of our fraternity understand why we have to go with two upfront and double up our chances of netting goals, Tokelo Rantie and Bongani Ndulula aren’t the greatest of forwards, yet when we combine them in attack, we have a greater chance of scoring goals.
The decision not to start Bongani Ndulula in the opening two encounters certainly backfired on us. ‘Drogba’ allows us to hold up the ball in attack and get our runners making moves in behind him, affording us a greater degree of penetration while creating clearer goal scoring opportunities and making full use of our possession when we go forward. Tokelo Rantie is a hard running forward that keeps defences on the back foot with his constant pressing and runs in behind, yet like many South African forwards in this current generation, Rantie plays more as an advanced forward than an out-and-out striker and that just means he often thinks like a midfield player and requires a pure striker to do most of the finishing or hold-up play to allow him the room he requires to make the most of his enterprising play. Bra Shakes made an error in not fielding the two from the start of the tournament and he made an even bigger error by not rectifying this when we were still in the competition; going forward, we need to ensure that we play to our strengths and not always go out of our way to pack the midfield when we ought to be playing a brand of football that we are more familiar with and ensuring that we secure the result before changing our tactics to contain the opposition better.
Darren Keet came into the 2015 African Cup of Nations as our undisputed number one, regardless of the derogatory remarks made about him by a certain national service broadcaster’s favourite pundit; he was confident and brave, brilliant against the aerial threat and commanding in the marshalling of his troops at all times; when heads dropped against Algeria, he had less to work with and he made the error of conceding a third goal that everybody and their momma would like to believe they would had kept out in those conditions. It was a moment of calamity, a blunder that every stopper dreads making yet it was not one that cost us the game as we were already showing nowhere near the level of desire we needed to show if we intended to get back into the game. Many would like to blame Keet for the second goal as well, it’s never a good sign when a keeper gets beaten on his near post at any level, yet the defensive line was already in tatters and Faouzi Ghoulam went on a overlapping run that was not properly tracked, he out manoeuvred Oupa Manyisa and had a clear run on goal; we can honestly state that the entire team as a unit needed to be held accountable for loosing concentration and gifting Algeria a way back into the tie when we should have shown some game management skills and retained possession far better after going one-nil up instead of trying desperately to get a second goal after the penalty miss.
Keet was dropped following the defensive horror show against the Desert Warriors and his replacement Jackson Mabokgwane was at fault for the goal against Senegal, he came out for a ball and stopped half-way, South Africa were punished and they failed to showcase the mental fortitude to come back and get a second goal in the tie. The group decider against Ghana saw a third goalkeeper start in the 3rdsuccessive game and Nhlanhla Khuzwayo held his own very well for most parts, he could have done better to deal with John Boye’s equalizer yet he too was at fault for the 2nd and killer goal as he showed an unwillingness to come out and clear a ball that his defence had failed to read or react to. Three games, three goalkeeping errors and egg on our faces; when one goes into an international competition and suffers the rotten luck we had when it comes to injuries, a 1st choice goalkeeper allows the defensive unit to have some sort of continuity and a voice they can trust when instructions are being given during the game. The gaffer needs to man up to his decision not to go into the tournament with an undisputed number one and for continuously chopping and changing gloves-men when the side were in desperate need of defensive leadership between the sticks. Going forward, we need to ensure that we settle on three players of equal quality to guarantee that we aren’t found wanting when the gaffer feels the need to make changes between the sticks for whatever reasons.
South Africa’s reigning Footballer of the Year is a quality player, cut from a different cloth and destined for success at the domestic level regardless of where he finds himself plying his trade in the coming months; yet the international scene is proven to be a different kettle of fish altogether, “Vila” seems better suited to coming in off the bench at the international level and allowing the side to hold onto the ball for longer with his driving runs into the opposition third as he eliminates defenders and frees up space for his teammates to manoeuvre into. His quality is harder to pick out when a defensive line is still rigid and mentally sharper in the opening stages of an international encounter, Vilakazi is a form player and his form is often dictated by how well those around him are playing at the time; bringing the lad on as an impact substitute around the 60th minute mark for a forward when the nation has an advantage would be the smartest thing for us to do as we would then be adding a different form of quality onto the pitch while subsequently adding numbers into midfield and giving the opposition less room to move the ball around in. Over time, Vilakazi could add a different dynamic to his game and allow us to play him in a greater number of positions or possibly even start matches more frequently, yet for now he is purely a no: 10; trequartista’s are luxury players, and when your side is as short for quality upfront as we have been since the sad and untimely passing of Lesley “Slow Poison” Manyathela, we cannot afford too many luxuries at the start of games against the better sides in international football.
We applaud Shakes Mashaba for the great football man that he is, yet as astute and strong-willed as he is, our commander-in-chief lacks the tactical nous to make timely substitutions and alterations to playing style and structure when the game needs them to be made; truth be told, that burden cannot be place solely on the doorstep of the gaffer, his capable assistants needed to show the aptitude to guide the gaffer in making those changes yet they seemed to sit back with arms folded and look on when a wise word or two in the gaffer’s ear would have changed the complexion of all three ties before they became unwinnable. We will need to ensure that Shakes ropes in a more tactically astute tactician like Steve Komphela, even if it is on a consultancy basis, to ensure that the side will tactically up to the levels he inspires them to be on mentally and emotionally; we have to add a greater balance to our technical staff and ensure that we have a solid grasp of how we play football, when we change our tactics and why we make changes and alter the flow of the game.
When one assesses the side we took with us to Equatorial Guinea, we see glimpses of the Vision 2022 that many of us were sold on, a lot of these lads will be peaking by the time the next football cycle culminates in 2018 at the FIFA World Cup to be held in Russia; so it would have been advisable for us to add a few more 18, 19, 20 and 21 year olds to our squad and see how they play at this level before reverting back to the 25, 26 & 27 year olds we are still trying to experiment with in a rebuilding phase. The squad average age for Bafana in Equatorial Guinea was 25, 5 years, that equates to more experience being called up into the side than we personally would have preferred; yet the lack of mental fortitude shown after thrice taking the lead and thrice being pegged back and being beaten twice is something we expected from a group of lads growing together on the international scene and not seasoned professionals still learning on the job at international level. When we needed the injection of youthful exuberance and an unknown quantity or two to check in and change the complexion of an encounter, we got a seasoned campaigner who is at a stage in his career where developing more to his game at the international level is a tall order. We as a football fraternity need to understand that growth is a slow process, yet a tree can only grow as well as the nourishment and care you afford it; Rivaldo Coetzee is proof that a young and talented player can make the leap from youth international to fully fledged international without looking like a fish out of water and learning from his mistakes at the highest level and thus being allowed the optimal platform to develop even further and become the star player he is destined to be. We need to understand that the time for half-stepping is over, we either go all the way in and rebuild our side or do away with the jargon and stop justifying the selection or exclusion of certain players by stating that we are building for the future. The criteria has been set, so the oldest footballer we should be calling up for Bafana Bafana right now should be an on-form and very capable 26 year old; that means the player will be in the peak of his powers by the time we end the current international cycle and begin blooding in new talented youngsters at senior national team level, the only exception allowable to this would be a goalkeeper as they peak later than infield players do and enjoy a longer spell playing at the elite level in football.
The decision to call up a large amount of locally based lads, the largest contingent at the tournament, is one that the gaffer is most accountable for; the squad came in from playing in a league where football is played at an out and out breakneck pace and game management is a craft yet to be honed by most domestic level minders. The side seemed to lack the mental fortitude to kill off a game, retain possession and carve the opposition open with structured play instead of going for the jugular and often over committing men in attack when they already had the advantage in the tie. It’s something we as a fraternity will need to address, considering our inability to make the most of our chances in front of goal, we will need to adopt a different approach to the game when we are in the lead and find a way to teach ball retention to the younger lads so that they do not turnover possession as much as we did in Equatorial Guinea.
All in all, we displayed a good improvement on where we were in the last football cycle, and we saw that we are still some way off the African benchmark for a top level football nation; that startling reality means that we are still even further away from the international standard and that puts our disappointment with the progress made into perspective. Yes, to become one of the world’s elite football nations, we will need to dominate Africa or become a serious role player on the continent at the least; yet we will need to shoot for the highest echelon possible if we are ever to develop talent with the tools to be successful on the grandest stages football has to offer. We need to reassess our national football development structures, that would entail us having a Technical Director to plan, implement and oversee such changes, and we also need to regulate that all professional football sides should have a youth academy that runs at an internationally acceptable level, working hand-in-hand with schools in their geographic locations to produce players that are developed with an internationally accredited Elite Player Development Performance Plan in mind. The time has come for us to stop talking about rebuilding, not just our senior national side, and start rebuilding our football fraternity into the house we all deserve to be living under; they say talk is cheap, and Bob’s your uncle mate we are a nation with too many talented lads and fertile goldmines to still be talking about doing the right thing regarding our football fraternity.