Cape Town – The African Nations Championship (Chan) is being viewed as a development tournament in some football circles in South Africa. And this led to coach Gordon Igesund and even the Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula warning the 23-man Bafana Bafana squad not to be complacent hosts over the next three weeks.
More than a handful of players in the current Bafana set-up have played at three of the biggest tournaments in the football calendar on home soil over the last four-and-a-half years. A player like midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala played in the 2009 Confederations Cup, the 2010 World Cup and last year’s African Cup of Nations finals. He was also part of the Bafana team that beat world champions Spain towards the end of last year.
So, one would imagine that Chan – a tournament for players who ply their trade in the country of their birth – wouldn’t be as appealing to some of South Africa’s football stars.
However, Tshabalala, the most experienced player in the Bafana squad with 81 caps, is adamant that the players are taking Chan seriously, and that they will be trying to lift the trophy when the dust settles on February 1.
“For me it’s always an honour to wear the national team jersey. I’m always grateful that I’ve been given the chance to represent my country. And I will always do my best when selected to play,” said Tshabalala, whose left foot set the tone for a successful World Cup on home soil.
“We are taking this tournament seriously. It’s a big tournament for us, and we need to win it. Our focus is on Chan. We did well in our last game, beating Spain and making history. But now we have to focus on this tournament.”
“One game at a time” is probably the most over-used cliché in sport, but in tournament football following this philosophy makes a lot of sense.
Especially because Bafana’s full squad would only have been together for six days when they face Mozambique in the tournament opener on Saturday afternoon.
And it seems that Igesund and his charges are targeting the opening match to lay down a marker for the tournament, before trying to improve on that performance in their next two group games against Mali and tournament favourites Nigeria next week.
“The most important game for us is going to be the opening game against Mozambique. We know what is expected from us as a team, and each individual knows the importance of the tournament. We will do our best to make sure we win it,” the Kaizer Chiefs winger said.
“The first game is always going to be crucial and important. We have huge motivation, and it’s always good to start the tournament off on a high. But winning the first game doesn’t mean you are going to win the tournament. Each and every game is important.
“Coming into the tournament, we know that the expectations are high for us to do well. I think we are ready, because we have had three good days of training. Everybody is pushing themselves, and I strongly believe that the eleven players who take the field on Saturday will make the country proud.”
Jabulani Shongwe on Wednesday became the third player to be withdrawn from the squad because of injury.
The Mamelodi Sundowns midfielder, who suffered a groin injury in the warm-up match against National First Division outfit Milano United on Tuesday, will be replaced in the Bafana squad by Wits’ Matthew Pattison.
It seems Igesund is going to play two strikers in the opening match against the Mambas, with Katlego Mashego and Bernard Parker running together at practice yesterday.
The midfield is also set to have lots of creative and attacking options, with Tshabalala, Lerato Chabangu and Wits youngster Sibusiso Vilakazi all operating in the probable line-up during a training session at the windy Clyde Pinelands Football Club.
The biggest surprise, though, could be the inclusion of Buhle Mkhwanazi and rookie Thato Mokeke in the last line of defence for Saturday’s clash, although Tebogo Langerman should probably slot into the left back position for the latter because of his experience.
Possible Bafana line-up:
Khune, Mere, Ntete, Mkhwanazi, Langerman; Kekana, Tshabalala, Chabangu, Vilakazi, Parker, Mashego.
Saturday, January 11: Bafana Bafana v Mozambique (6pm)
Wednesday, January 15: Bafana Bafana v Mali (5pm)
Sunday, January 19: Bafana Bafana v Nigeria (7pm)
* All games to be played at the Cape Town Stadium