Six years ago, I travelled to Kimberley to watch the Under-20 team in the Cosafa Cup and fell in love with Serame Letsoaka’s team that went on to represent the country at the African Youth Championships in Rwanda and the World Cup in Egypt in 2009.
It was a fantastic team, one of the best South African national teams I have seen. They won the Cosafa Cup, finished fourth at the Youth Championships and went beyond the group stages of the World Cup in north Africa only to be knocked out in the last 16 by eventual champions Ghana, who came from behind to secure a 2-1 victory over the promising South African boys.
In defence, Letsoaka had Thulani Hlatshwayo and Ramahlwe Mphalele, two of the most promising central defenders at the time. Speedy left-back Sibusiso Khumalo, a Moroka Swallows player at the time, was also part of the team, but only really started playing at the World Cup, showing great promise.
And in midfield, Letsoaka had a player who I still regard as the best midfielder South Africa has produced in recent years – Kamohelo Mokotjo, who is now a big name in the Dutch Eredivisie with FC Twente. A great passer of the ball, Mokotjo made football look like a walk in the park, controlling many of the games the Under-20s played that year, while the likes of Sameehg Doutie, Daylon Claasen, Philani Khwela, Masibusane Zongo and Mandla Masango drove the team forward with their menacing runs.
That team, for me, were supposed to have represented South Africa at the World Cup in Brazil earlier this year. Most of the players were, and still are, good enough to play at the highest level and the experience they gained in Egypt was invaluable. They certainly would not have been fazed by playing against some of the best players in the world had South Africa qualified for the showpiece in Brazil earlier this year.
But the previous Bafana Bafana coach, Gordon Igesund, who was supposed to help the team qualify for the Brazil World Cup, played with more or less the same group of players who have failed on numerous occasions and to no surprise, we got the same result – we failed to qualify for the World Cup. It was one of his big mistakes, going with the tried and tested players who had nothing to show for the many caps they kept getting.
Shakes Mashaba, however, has been roped in as coach and there’s renewed hope.
Mashaba yesterday started a new era for the national team when he announced a squad filled with promise.
Mphahlele, Hlatshwayo, Khumalo, the in-form Masango and Mokotjo were included in Mashaba’s squad that will play Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Sudan and Nigeria early next month and I was most pleased.
This is more like it.
And the fact that Mashaba has thrown in some of the Under-20 players he was worked with recently makes things exciting. We’ve got good reason to look forward to the future if these youngsters – Dumisani Mbisi, Rivaldo Coetzee and Ayabulela Magqwaka – are getting call-ups to the senior national team at this stage in their career.
Even if they are only there for the ride, to train in an environment with some of the established internationals, these outstanding young players need to get a feel of what is to come.
For years Bafana’s midfield has been the same, with players like Siphiwe Tshabalala, Kagisho Dikgacoi and Reneilwe Letsholoyane hogging the limelight. There has been a need for change and Mashaba has brought in some exciting players in Keagan Dolly, Sibusiso Vilakazi and Themba Zwane, who was one of Mashaba’s favourites at Under-23 level during the Olympic qualifiers three years ago. These players will provide the attacking flair missing in the Bafana team.
Upfront, many would be surprised by the inclusion of Bongani Ndulula, but I am not. This player was Mashaba’s first-choice striker at Under-23 level three years ago and he banged in goals for fun. He may not be scoring regularly in the local league, but with Mashaba guiding him, Ndulula can only get better. And he is not new to international football. This is how things should be.
Follow Tshepang on Twitter @T_Mailwane - Saturday Star