Durban - Gordon Igesund has rejected as “mind games” Mali coach Patrice Charteron’s assertion that the pressure is all on Bafana Bafana heading into Saturday’s Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final.
The Eagles have battled their way into the last eight, spurred on by the thought giving joy to their people back home, embroiled in civil war. And Charteron suggested after their 1-1 draw with Congo that the expectation was now on Bafana’s shoulders.
“We really wanted to give pleasure to our country,” said the Mali coach. “We now play away in the quarter-finals and it is difficult in this competition to get out of the group … the only thing I think is Bafana must win the tournament, and the pressure will be on them.”
However, the Bafana coach was having none of it. “I heard his comments and he is doing what most people do – taking pressure off his own team. Believe me there is pressure on every team at this tournament, all the players are nervous. There is as much pressure on him as there is on me,” said Igesund. “We all want to do well and advance to the semi-finals. He is playing mind games, classing himself as the underdog.
“Mali are ranked third in Africa and we are ranked 22nd, you figure it out,” he added later.
The Bafana coach certainly has a point. Mali are one of the powerhouse sides of the continental game, and finished third at last year’s Afcon.
South Africa were not even at that tournament, or the one preceding it. In fact, they are in their first Nations Cup quarter-final since, ironically, they lost 2-0 to host nation Mali in 2002.
South African football has been on a slippery slope ever since, and they were not favoured to escape from their group when this tournament began. Now that they have, in fact, perhaps some of the pressure has even been lifted off the side.
“Exactly, it is a reverse situation,” said Igesund. “We were under huge pressure, we hadn’t performed in the friendlies before hand, although they prepared us very well. We are pleased and proud to have made the nation and ourselves happy to get to the quarter-finals. Now we can look at the bigger picture and go on. It would have been a tragedy if we hadn’t qualified.
“There is a lot of pressure on Mali. I am not saying it is not on us, but it is different. We want to win, we do not have to win.”
Mali are going to be a tough opponent for Bafana to take down, with plenty of experience – former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita is one of three Mali players who were in the squad back in 2002 – plenty of skill, and a huge physical advantage over Bafana.
“When you get to this stage of the competition you know it is tough,” added Igesund.
“Mali are very talented, they play a bit differently form other teams, they slow things down, and are comfortable on the ball.
“I don’t think there is a small player, all eleven are tall, and when we have the ball we will have to make them work hard.
“We must keep possession and get behind them and put them under pressure. I didn’t think the DRC did that. Let’s see how they deal with that. We will have to deal with their strengths and I am sure they are planning to deal with ours.”
And then, of course, there is homeground advantage. Just as in Kayes in 2002 Mali had their people behind them, Bafana will have almost 60000 in the Moses Mabhida Stadium screaming them on.
“Everyone can see for themselves that the support here in Durban is really fantastic,” said Igesund. “It plays a huge part all over the world, the host nation has a bit of an advantage.”
Bafana will be without the suspended Anele Ngcongca on Saturday night and Igesund confirmed that Siboniso Gaxa would replace him.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” added Igesund.
“Gaxa has been outstanding at training and he could be the right player for this game, because of his ability to attack.”
Kagiso Dikgacoi could also make a return to the Bafana starting line-up on Saturday, with Igesund perhaps looking to add a physical presence.