There have been some blood-curdling, horrendous days in the annals of Bafana Bafana of late, but the pathetic dross served up in Phokeng on Sunday was arguably the lowest of the low.
Katlego Mphela’s late equaliser should not gloss over a dreadful performance in an opening qualifier that has already put their place in the World Cup 2014 playoffs in serious doubt. Winning your home game is the mantra of most successful teams and Bafana could not do it against a side ranked 138th in the world, and on paper at least, the weakest team in Group A.
Bafana could not even win the game in the stands on Sunday, their fans all but outnumbered and certainly outsung by their Ethiopian counterparts, who celebrated at the final whistle like they had already qualified for Brazil.
Bafana had two weeks of intensive training for this game, but played for much of it as if they were strangers to each other, their play worryingly one-paced and, as usual, devoid of a cutting edge.
Ethiopia defended stoutly and proved effective on the break, Egypt-based Salahidin Said rifling in a superb opener following an error from Tshepo Masilela.
For a long time a defeat loomed that would surely have cast doubt on Pitso Mosimane’s reign. Even this draw, though it might have bought him some time, has to put his position in the balance, especially if Bafana fail to win in Botswana on Saturday.
Mosimane’s Bafana have now gone an astonishing nine games without a win, a nation’s excitement morosely reflected in Sunday’s appalling attendance.
Bafana did start reasonably brightly, Anele Ngcongca coming in from his right-back position, but seeing his shot pushed behind for a corner by Ehiopian ’keeper Sisay Bancha.
Ngcongca then flicked a pass through for Siyabonga Nomvethe that ought to have been dealt with by Ethiopian centre-back Biyadiglign Elyas. The latter, however, made a hash of it, and Nomvethe rushed in, but lashed his shot across the face of goal.
It seemed like only a matter of time before Bafana would go in front, and Masilela won a free kick down the left, Steven Pienaar’s effort tipped over by Bancha.
Slowly, however, Bafana began to lose their passing rhythm, even Pienaar giving the ball away a worrying number of times.
Ethiopia, meanwhile, perked up, handing out a couple of warning shots. There was an ocean of space being left between left-back Masilela and Tshabalala on the left-wing, and as Reneilwe Letsholonyane gave the ball away, Tafese Tesfaye moved into the gaping chasm, but his shot was too close to Itumeleng Khune.
Then Alula Girma had an effort from a similar position, but his shot was weak, In between, a Mphela free kick was spilled by Bancha, but he was able to recover. And it was Ethiopia who went in front just before the half hour mark.
A pass from Tshabalala back to Masilela was not the best, but the Bafana left-back compounded matters, giving the ball away to Said, who strode forward an smashed an unstoppable shot past Khune.
The massive Ethiopian presence inside the stadium was understandably ecstatic, and Bafana looked stunned, unable to rouse themselves into any real threat before the half was out, also losing Masilela to injury, replaced by Punch Masenamela.
Mosimane made another change at the break, bringing on Oupa Manyisa for an out-of-sorts Letsholonyane. Still, Bafana battled to get out of second gear, as the Ethiopian goalkeeper began to borrow from the Khune book of time-wasting, Bancha rolling on the ground like he had been taken down by a Phokeng sniper.
Pienaar was still battling to exert any sort of influence on the game, but one superb cross did find Mphela with 25 minutes to go, his header well saved by Bancha.
Punch Masenamela was also giving Bafana a little more life with his forward runs down the left, and combined particularly well with Modise once the Sundowns midfielder came on with 16 minutes to go. But the Bafana goal came from the source where most Bafana goals come from these days – Mphela.
The striker might not have done much of note all game, but when it mattered he popped up, capitalising on a defensive mistake to curl a shot beyond the reach of Bancha, his 23rd goal in 46 internationals.
Pienaar then capped an awful day by arriving unmarked in the box and skying a wonderful opportunity for a winner miles over the bar. Ethiopia held on and Bafana’s World Cup qualifying campaign has begun as their 2012 Nations Cup efforts left off – with a distinct whimper.