Cape Town – On the surface, it may appear that Bafana Bafana’s final group fixture in the African Nations Championship (CHAN) is just another match on the road to qualification for a quarter-final spot.
But dig a little deeper, think bigger picture, and there’s the realisation of something far more important at stake: the quality and depth of South African football and the strength of its top-flight, the Premier Soccer League (PSL).
As Bafana head into CHAN’s Group A climax on Sunday, where they face Nigeria at the Cape Town Stadium (kick-off 7pm), head coach Gordon Igesund, his employers, the SA Football Association, and many PSL officials will have their fingers crossed. In short, in truth, defeat on Sunday will be extremely embarrassing for the host nation.
As things stand, Bafana top the group, along with Mali, on four points, with Nigeria on three and Mozambique pointless.
Igesund’s men need just a draw to qualify for the quarter-finals. But a loss to Nigeria – whom they’ve beaten only once in eight games – coupled with a win for Mali over Mozambique at the Athlone Stadium tomorrow, will see Bafana crash out of a competition they should, in theory and on paper, be cruising through.
For CHAN, countries are only able to select players from their local leagues. No overseas-based footballers are allowed. The idea is to offer such players a bigger stage upon which to exhibit their skill and an opportunity to test their readiness for international football.
In previous years, South Africans have never treated this competition as a high priority – it is not a Fifa-sanctioned tournament and clubs are not obliged to release their players. As such, PSL clubs’ reserve team players, out-of-favour footballers and even lower tier men, were selected.
This year, however, CHAN has become an important event. Igesund has gone all out to ensure that he has a strong squad and has made no secret of the fact that he wants to win the event.
Except for the omission of Orlando Pirates players – they are having to play some of their postponed PSL fixtures during this time – Igesund has the squad he wanted, even though Safa and the PSL had to persuade Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns to release their players.
So with a strong squad from the PSL, a league which is considered to be the best on the continent, surely Bafana should be able to achieve the success they desire at CHAN?
And that’s why Sunday’s game is about much more than just a quarter-final place. Bafana have to defeat what amounts to virtually a third/fourth-string Nigeria team, and then keep progressing in the competition.
Anything else would certainly be considered a deep humiliation.
Igesund spoke about his thoughts on CHAN, and his approach to Sunday’s match.
“This tournament is important,” said the Bafana coach. “Sometimes, I think people don’t understand why. In order to be seeded for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations, results in a competition like CHAN will be considered.
“This tournament is part of my long-term planning. Many say I should just have put in a young team, it doesn’t matter if we win or lose ... but it does matter!
“The pressure in Sunday’s game is no different to the pressure when we started this event. Look where we are, top of the group and we haven’t lost a match yet.
“We are in a good position and, importantly, we know exactly what we have to do. It’s in our hands.”
What is needed is a draw, at the least, to make the quarter-finals. But Igesund was adamant that there would be no suggestion of a defensive approach.
“My principle has always been to go out to win,” he said.
“It will be no different against Nigeria.”