Johannesburg – Around 15 years in the waiting, a self-titled “moment of truth” arrives for Bafana Bafana coach Gordon Igesund when he leads his side into their 2013 Africa Cup of Nations opener against Cape Verde on Saturday evening at the National Stadium.
As an up-and-coming coach at Manning Rangers, who he had led to the league title in 1997, Igesund was first offered the Bafana job after the side’s rather dismal performance at the 1998 World Cup. Yet as soon as it was there, the job was taken away, Trott Moloto appointed in a bizarre turnaround by the South African Football Association.
Since then, the Durbanite, who played as a striker for Austrian side Admira Wacker in the early 1980s, has proved himself without doubt the most successful club coach in the domestic game. Three more league titles with three different clubs have followed, and after a brief period where the magic seemed to disappear a little, Igesund was back working miracles at Moroka Swallows.
A second-place finish with the Birds last season was essentially enough to persuade Safa that he was finally the man to lead the side into Afcon 2013, once Pitso Mosimane was given the boot in June.
If Igesund has enhanced his domestic reputation, Bafana’s has hit rock bottom. The side go into this tournament with little hope that they can repeat the heroics of 1996, when Bafana captured their only continental crown under Clive Barker. South Africa have not qualified for the past two African Nations Cup finals, have not won a game at an African Nations Cup finals since 2004, and are the lowest ranked side in a Group A containing Cape Verde, Angola and Morocco.
Igesund has achieved mixed results in his few friendlies in charge – just as an example, Bafana were impressive in a narrow away defeat to Brazil in September, but were awful in a goalless draw with Algeria on Saturday night.
Those games contain a similarity in that Bafana did not score a goal, an inability to create or take their chances widely regarded as a root cause of the team’s decline in the last decade.
Igesund, however, is not buying into the negativity, remaining optimistic in the face of the barrage of criticism his side has received, particularly in the last couple of weeks.
It would have taken an optimist, indeed, to accept the mandate set by Safa, that he must reach at least the semifinals of this tournament.
“I keep saying I am not concerned,” said Igesund after the Algeria game, on his side’s goalscoring malaise.
“You can’t score in every game you play. The team is improving and I am happy with what is going on. I know exactly what the team is capable of and when the tournament starts, let’s see if we are capable of scoring goals.”
Igesund, indeed, has every belief that his side can emulate the class of ’96 and go all the way in front of a home crowd.
”From the players’ point of view and my point of view the ’96 group were outstanding and did a wonderful job,” he said.
“I have spoken to the players and told them that it is a good motivation, but it is also time to step up and say it is our time now, in 2013, our time to make history.”
Igesund has a point, in that these warm-up games will be rendered irrelevant if Bafana can go far at the Nations Cup. There will be little point remembering or caring about a defeat to Norway, or a draw with Algeria.
On the flipside, his unflappable optimism, and “judge me on the Afcon” mantra, could find itself sent into a downward spiral in the face of media criticism and public opinion should Bafana lose their opening match to Cape Verde.
Igesund has occasionally snapped at the negativity around his team, rounding on journalists after the defeat to Algeria and then giving an unusually curt set of answers on Tuesday, following understandable criticism of his side’s performance.
The Bafana coach has, over the years, displayed an ability to bounce back, however, and was back in top form just the following day.
“I think it is South Africa’s day,” he said, when asked about the personal feeling of leading the team out as national coach.
“I have said this from the beginning, that people who don’t know me see me from a distance and judge me. It’s like me and (Jacob) Zuma (Igesund and the team met the president of the country on Tuesday). I had my opinion and when I met him I thought ‘what a nice guy’.
“I am very proud to be coaching this team, we want to do well for our country. I feel humbled and privileged to go out there. If I have to have a heart attack, I am prepared to have a heart attack (for this team). Obviously I hope I don’t die, but I am making an example!
“I want the players to go out and fight for every ball and represent the country with pride and passion. If we do that I hope the results will come our way.”
Igesund has given so many interviews this week, he admitted he was tired of it.
“If I couldn’t I’d prefer not to, but I have a duty to 45 million people,” he said.
This 56-year-old has, however, always talked a good game. At club level he has proved he can play one too. Now is the chance to see if he also is the man to drag Bafana out of the international mire. It is tempting to dismiss Igesund’s optimism – not that it is his fault, but this Bafana side simply doesn’t look good enough, and it hasn’t for years.
But you can bet Igesund won’t stop raging against the dying of the light. It’s been 15 years in the waiting and this is his chance to prove his international mettle. Can he work a minor miracle?
“I believe this team is capable (of winning the Afcon). Did you think it was possible for Swallows to finish second in the league after the previous season when they had two points from 15 games? It can happen and I believe it can happen,” says the man himself.
“At the end of the day I can only do my best. If it is not good enough, it is not good enough, but I can look in the mirror and say, ‘I know I could not have done more’. Only time will tell… the moment of truth is here.” – The Star