Johannesburg – When South Africa first qualified for the African Nations Championship (Chan) three years ago, they were made up of a team which could hardly be called Bafana Bafana.
Of the 23 who represented the country at the second edition of the tournament in Sudan in 2011, I could only recognise a handful of names and that’s mainly because those players had at one stage played in the Absa Premiership, or went on to do so in the years following that tournament.
Humphrey Khoza, Tiyani Mabunda, Edward Manqele, Myron Shongwe and Jacob Mokhasi are some who saw SA into the quarter-finals of the last Chan, topping a group that included Ghana, Niger and Zimbabwe with a 100 percent record.
It’s a great pity that while those guys, coached by Simon Ngomane, performed admirably under the circumstances, they were not awarded caps and were commonly referred to as a “development team”, even when some of them were over 30. Shongwe scored three goals to finish alongside a host of top scorers as South Africa lost to Algeria in the quarters. But in official records, those goals – just like most of the players who did duty for the country – are nowhere to be seen.
As the third Chan kicks off in Cape Town on Saturday night, South Africa have an almost full team and it would be imprudent of us not to demand that Gordon Igesund’s men perform better than their largely unrecognisable predecessors.
Granted, preparations have been less than ideal with Kaizer Chiefs initially withdrawing their players and then releasing them at a late stage. Bafana also had to cancel a training camp just after Christmas and have had no meaningful friendly ahead of Satuday’s opener against Mozambique. The experience of Reneilwe Letsholonyane and Tsepo Masilela will also be missed after the Chiefs duo pulled out due to injuries.
But in spite of all the chaos and misfortune, I have no doubt that Bafana have the strongest team in the tournament – way better than Nigeria, their Group A opponents and one of the favourites.
At least this strength is on paper. My calculations say that all but four of Bafana’s players have been capped before, with 19 players making up a total of 353 caps. Captain Itumeleng Khune, Bernard Parker and Siphiwe Tshabalala have 210 caps between them, while the likes of Thabo Nthethe (16 caps), Lerato Chabangu (28) and Katlego Mashego (22) also bring in invaluable experience.
Even those making a return to the side after a long absence, such as Vuyo Mere (10), Moeneeb Josephs (23) and Bryce Moon (18), can’t be described as rookies on the international stage.
Igesund also has in camp some players he’s been blooding for the past year – Tshepo Gumede (5), Hlompho Kekana (6) and Buhle Mkhwanazi (5) – who should know a thing or two at this level.
Compare this to, for example, Nigeria. Stephen Keshi has in his side just four players – Agbim Chigozie, Egwuekwe Azubuike, Christantus Ejike and Gabriel Ikechukwu – who were part of the team that won the Africa Cup of Nations here last year. These four, and Benjamin Francis, are the only Nigerians in the current squad with any real international experience.
More can be expected from the likes of DR Congo, the inaugural winners in 2009 who have in their squad six players from TP Mazembe. Morocco should also be a threat in spite of the uncertainty that preceded their trip to South Africa.
But none of these teams have Bafana’s tournament experience, which dates back to the Fifa Confederations Cup in 2009, the 2010 World Cup and last year’s Nations Cup and Cosafa Cup.
Pointedly, this is a team that Igesund desired, and it would be inexcusable should Bafana fail again, not least when the country’s unknown representatives of 2011 reached the quarter-finals in challenging conditions in Sudan.
This time, Bafana are at home and it would not be unreasonable to demand that they at least reach the final. Anything less would mean heads must roll.