Morocco – On the outskirts of a cloudy, dusty Agadir, the exterior of Agadir New Stadium represents a bit of a construction site, a forklift truck trundling along amid a pile of rubble.
The training pitch next to the main stadium where Bafana Bafana went through their paces on Thursday was also surrounded by dirt and gravel, with not a fixed seat in sight. And yet, any notion that Morocco will not be ready for the Fifa World Club Cup in December or the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations beyond that, disappears when one walks inside the main stadium, a glorious 40 000-seater looking pristine and raring to go.
The first test of whether Bafana will be raring to go come the 2015 Nations Cup takes place this evening, in front of an expected sell-out crowd, in a friendly between the Atlas Lions and South Africa to open this new venue.
The game holds a special significance for Bafana Bafana left-back Tsepo Masilela, who will be earning his 50th cap for his country. Masilela made his debut in Bafana’s inauspicious 2006 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Egypt, but has grown into the country’s best left-back.
“I feel good, not many players get a chance to represent their country that many times, so it is a good feeling, an honour,” said Masilela.
The Kaizer Chiefs full-back has had his problems with injury, with a promising career in Spain with Getafe cut short by problems with his knee. But Masilela was in excellent form for Chiefs last season, helping them to a league and cup double, and could be a first name on the teamsheet for Gordon Igesund for some time to come.
“I am 28 and age is still on my side,” said Masilela.
“In the past I have struggled with injuries, but I am feeling good this season. In training I haven’t skipped a session, and hopefully if I stay injury-free I can get more caps.”
As for Masilela’s most memorable match so far in a Bafana shirt, he can look no further than the country’s opening game at Soccer City in the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
“I came on in the second half against Mexico; that feeling has to be the highlight of my career,” he said.
“It was 1-1 in the first game of the World Cup, in front of our people, our friends and our families. It was something amazing.”
Masilela is likely to be one of the more experienced heads taking the field against Morocco today, as Igesund looks to field some younger faces with a nod towards the future – qualification for the 2015 Nations Cup and beyond.
Igesund is set to hand Daylon Claasen a start on the right side of midfield, while Siyanda Xulu could get a chance to partner Bongani Khumalo or Thabo Nthethe in the heart of the Bafana defence.
Tokelo Rantie will probably partner Bernard Parker in attack, while the likes of Kgosi Ntlhe and Ayanda Patosi will hope to get some game-time from the bench.
Bafana will do well to get a result against a tough-looking Morocco side, with Fulham’s Adel Taarabt returning from international exile, and stars like Dynamo Kiev’s Younes Belhanda and Granada striker Youssef El Arabi also in their ranks.
The Moroccans however, have also been hit by withdrawals, with Montpellier defender Abdelhamid El Kaoutari and Malaga striker Mounir El Hamdaoui both out of Rachid Taoussi’s squad. Kick-off is 9pm SA time.
Bafana’s training match on Monday, meanwhile, is almost certain to be called off, with the South African side unable to organise a club side of enough quality to face in Agadir.
South Africa (possible): Khune; Ngcongca, Khumalo, Xulu, Masilela; Claasen, Furman, Letsholonyane, Chabangu; Parker, Rantie.