Johannesburg – On paper, Bafana Bafana should be the strongest side at next year’s African Nations Championship (CHAN), but in reality South Africa are likely to be one of the weakest at the tournament – unless something drastic is done.
It’s a little over 120 days to go before the competition – meant exclusively for players plying their trade in domestic leagues throughout the continent – kicks off in Cape Town on January 11.
But such has been the absence of any activity around this tournament that were it not for this week’s draw, which took place in Cairo, some would have completely forgotten about it.
Unlike this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, which also took place here in January, it is not the advertising boards and a marketing strategy that we should be concerned about.
Rather, we should wonder whether Bafana would be able to put a team together.
Considering that Gordon Igesund’s Nations Cup squad this year contained 15 domestic players, it should logically not be a problem to send in a competitive squad not only to take on Nigeria, Mali and Mozambique, against whom Bafana were drawn in Group A – but also conquer the continent.
Men such as Itumeleng Khune, Bernard Parker and Siphiwe Tshabalala have tons of tournament experience and with other teams restricted from calling on their best in European leagues, Bafana would, indeed, stand a great chance.
But a major problem is looming: Will Premier Soccer League teams agree to release their players? Highly unlikely – reason being that the PSL have scheduled fixtures in the middle of the CHAN.
A few weeks ago I highlighted this informally to Bafana coach Igesund and, looking surprised, he confessed his impression was that the domestic league would be halted for the entirety of the tournament, like it happened for Nations Cup.
But there’s a distinction here: unlike the Nations Cup, the CHAN is not Fifa-sanctioned, and clubs that release players do so voluntarily. Think of the Cosafa Cup, which took place in Zambia in July, when Igesund had to phone around looking for players after several teams barred their players from teaming up with Bafana.
In spite of it all, Bafana still managed to send a competitive team that lost only on penalties to eventual champions Zambia, and were able to clinch a commendable bronze.
The CHAN will be an entirely different story, however. When they drew up the fixtures in June, the PSL did factor it in, ensuring the start of the second round does not commence until January 23, a day after the CHAN’s group phase ends.
Major problems are in the knockout stages, where the PSL have several high-profile games – for instance Orlando Pirates v Ajax Cape Town and Platinum Stars v Mamelodi Sundowns on Monday, January 27, two days after the first two quarter-finals, one of which will likely feature Bafana. The semi-finals are scheduled for January 29, but a day earlier, the PSL have no fewer than six fixtures, including Moroka Swallows v Kaizer Chiefs.
From what I have gathered, many coaches will refuse to release their players to the national side if these fixtures cannot be postponed, which makes sense given the high stakes in the second round, where one match could mean the championship is lost or won.
But why didn’t the SA Football Association and the league not come out with a better plan to accommodate this CHAN? The answer could lie in the frosty relations the two organisations have had for the past four years.
Safa and the PSL have claimed several times that their “joint liaison committee” handle such matters, but, three months to the CHAN, there seems to be no clarity as to whether the teams would release players.
After Bafana’s elimination from the World Cup play-offs, logic dictates that as of now, they should be focusing all their attention on that tournament, starting with the remaining Fifa dates next month and in November.
But with Safa seemingly not having the slightest clue who Bafana are going to face in those Fifa dates, how do we expect them to be proactive and engage the PSL and the clubs about which players to release for the CHAN?
*Follow Matshe on Twitter @Nkareng