Johannesburg – It felt great to be a Bafana Bafana fan this week and, on Sunday night, it could be even better.
Having started the Africa Cup of Nations in the most unconvincing manner last weekend, the South African national team are now on the brink of qualifying for the knockout phase for the first time in 13 years, any result other than defeat in Sunday’s final pool fixture against Morocco certain to send the hosts through.
While the SA Football Association stated last year that a path to the semi-final would be the minimum expected of Gordon Igesund’s charges, reaching the last eight would be a momentous achievement for a country who’ve known nothing but hurt from the national side in the last decade.
Igesund, the Bafana coach, deserves praise for making bold decisions in Wednesday’s second game against Angola. It was encouraging to see Bafana, for once, going into the game without two holding midfielders – in fact, this was historic as Igesund had never done that since taking over the coaching reins last July.
The man he tasked with the anchoring role, Dean Furman, produced a Man of the Match performance that had even his doubters nodding in approval.
It was great to watch Furman winning the ball with assurance, without ever putting himself at the risk of a booking.
Impressively, Igesund also got all his substitutions spot on in the 2-0 win over Angola. We may have found it perplexing for him to remove May Mahlangu at half-time, but Reneilwe Letsholonyane provided more steel in central midfield, and also that magnificent long pass from which Lehlohonolo Majoro scored the second goal.
Wednesday’s performance should rank as one of Bafana’s highlights over the past decade, but what is important now is to maintain that high level for the rest of this tournament.
Although Bafana have done more than enough to merit a place in the second round, a possibility still exists that should their performance sink to last week’s deplorable levels against Cape Verde, and if they fail against Morocco, the north Africans would go into the knockout stages.
With no need to take risks, it is almost certain that Igesund will not field a daring line-up, as a draw will suffice for Bafana, but he also has to keep in mind the importance of where you finish in the group.
Bafana’s quarter-final opponents will come from Group B, likely to be Mali or DR Congo if we win Group A, but the great thing about the knockout phase is that it shouldn’t matter as to who you face.
Some would argue that Mali, expected to finish second to Ghana in Group B, should be avoided at all costs, but perhaps it would be best to play them, seeing that they were the last country to knock Bafana out in the quarters when they hosted the continental finals in 2002.
That 2-0 defeat Mali inflicted on Bafana was the start of our national team’s decline, and it would be good to exact some sort of revenge and begin a new path towards redemption.
However much we might be excited about this week’s result – and I can see celebrations getting even bigger on Sunday evening after the match against Morocco – we should not hide the fact that our national team is still littered with flaws.
But in spite of their decline, they have been able to produce results such as Wednesday’s, albeit infrequently. We did reach the semi-final of the Fifa Confederations Cup in 2009, on the back of a single win.
In the World Cup, we beat France, and in 2011, we scored a heroic win over Egypt which, incidentally, had been until Wednesday, Bafana’s last official win.
Igesund took a gamble this week, and it worked for Bafana.
What is now required is consistency from the very side that took the field against Angola. Perhaps, somehow, they could be the Bafana we can be proud of.
* Follow Matshe on Twitter @Nkareng