Johannesburg - At first, Gordon Igesund offered a stern “no comment”, but such was the terrible state of the Soccer City pitch during Bafana Bafana’s training on Tuesday that the coach ended up expressing his dissatisfaction anyway ahead of Wednesday night’s Nelson Mandela Challenge between South Africa and Zambia (8pm).
Ground staff could be seen trying to patch up holes covered in mud rather than grass during Tuesday’s session, which was Bafana’s only one ahead of this evening’s friendly and, even though authorities promised the pitch would be “playable”, it would perhaps require a miracle to get it to top-notch condition.
“I won’t comment on the state of the pitch. It would sound like I’m looking for an excuse because the pitch is the same for both sides,” Igesund stated initially, before adding a more honest line moments later.
“I’m surprised (at the state of the pitch). This is a great stadium. We are playing our last game here before the African Nations Cup begins (on January 19). We wanted to get the feel of this pitch, but look at it now. I am told there was some concert here over the weekend. Hopefully by the time the Nations Cup starts, the authorities will get it into a better condition.”
The state of the pitch aside, Bafana have a formidable challenge in the form of Zambia, with whom they have a long-standing rivalry dating back to readmission in the early ’90s.
Igesund had said on various occasions that he would prefer to play top African opposition, and they don’t come better than the reigning African champions, who clearly take Wednesday night’s clash so seriously that they have been camping here since Sunday.
While Herve Renard, the Chipolopolo coach, has kept the bulk of the squad who historically secured continental glory in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon early this year, Igesund conceded he was still undecided on his starting XI, and his session on Tuesday illustrated his uncertainty as he kept on altering his team.
He was toying with the idea of going with an all-out attack, at one stage Kermit Erasmus, Bernard Parker and Tokelo Rantie finding themselves in the starting team, but, as he confessed, a session lasting no more than two hours could never be adequate preparation for an international match.
“I have tried to squeeze in everything in this session. I’m talking about something that requires five, six sessions… so it’s very difficult,” the Bafana coach said.
“The players look jaded. Some of them are feeling the aches and pains of playing three games in a week before coming here, hence they didn’t complete the session. I told people like Rantie and Bongani (Khumalo) to go off and have a rest because I did not want to aggravate the minor injuries they might have.”
In defence, the absence of Siyabonga Sangweni means Igesund has to try a new combination and, by Tuesday’s morning session in searing Nasrec conditions, Thabo Nthethe will get the nod ahead of Bevan Fransman to partner captain Khumalo.
Nthethe had an impressive outing in the last encounter against Kenya last month at right back, but, with Anele Ngcongca returning, the Bloemfontein Celtic defender will be shifted to his natural position at the heart of the defence.
Igesund has long intimated that Kagisho Dikgacoi and Dean Furman are his preferred players for central midfield, but indications are that he could start with just one of them tomorrow to accommodate Reneilwe Letsholonyane, with Dikgacoi poised to start in a more forward role.
Sifiso Myeni and Siphiwe Tshabalala should start on the wings, although that could change if Igesund decides to go with a three-man attack, which would include Erasmus rather than just Parker and Rantie.
When they last played Zambia, in January 2009, Bafana emerged 1-0 victors. Seven of the players who played that night - Itumeleng Khune, Siboniso Gaxa, Khumalo, Dikgacoi, Teko Modise, Tshabalala and Katlego Mashego - are in the current squad, indicating some sort of continuity on SA’s part. But be warned: Zambia have undergone such a drastic change since those days that they are now feared continental champions.
Meanwhile, Sapa reports that Bafana skipper Khumalo says he is looking forward to a solid performance from his side on Wednesday. “Obviously tomorrow’s [Wednesday] game is a good challenge for us, playing the champions of Africa,” Khumalo said on Tuesday. “It’s always good to come up against good teams and teams that have achieved.”
Khumalo flew in from Greece on Tuesday morning after doing duty for Greek outfit PAOK at the weekend, but said he would be ready for the fixture. The former SuperSport United defender believed Zambia would be eager to prove themselves against their hosts, but added Bafana were ready for their southern African counterparts.
“They are the champions, no matter who they call up, and they want to do well,” Khumalo said. “They want to prove a point, so regardless of who they have, they will put up a fight.”
Likely Bafana XI: Khune; Ngcongca, Nthethe, Khumalo, Nunes; Myeni, Letsholonyane, Dikgacoi, Tshabalala; Rantie, Parker.