With their schedule slightly affected by air traffic, Bafana Bafana will find that they have a major problem this evening as the Gabon team who they thought they would face are vastly different from those who arrived here on Wednesday.
The South African national squad flew out of OR Tambo International yesterday morning with the intention of landing here just before noon, but authorities requested that the flight hold off for some time due to the volume of air traffic, meaning Bafana touched down only half-an-hour later after circling the Mpumalanga capital city.
Upon landing, they learnt that Gabon changed almost the entire squad list they had sent through at the beginning of the week and, instead, Bafana will face mainly the west African nation’s Under-23s, who are tuning up for the London Olympic Games.
Only four senior squad members have made this trip, including captain Didier Ovono, but the rest of Gabon’s squad are those who drew 1-1 with Shakes Mashaba’s men at the Olympic mini-tournament held in Morocco late last year, qualifying for London ahead of SA.
The Panthers have also brought along their junior coaches, although senior coach Paulo Duarte is on board to take over the side in tonight’s friendly (Mbombela Stadium, 8.30pm).
Bafana coach Steve Komphela looked puzzled upon being made aware of the latest developments, but then played down the fact that Bafana would be facing an under-strength side.
“I think we need to concentrate on ourselves,” Komphela said. “Gabon are a team who’ve been doing well … they’ve got the momentum from the Africa Cup of Nations and I’m sure they’ve come here with a lot of seriousness. They want to test their strength and depth. It should be an entertaining match.”
It is not as though Bafana are at full strength either. Komphela this week sent home five players, including captain Steven Pienaar, in order to “try out new combinations”, meaning there will be five fresh faces from the World Cup qualifiers against Ethiopia and Botswana.
Those fresh faces should include Mulomuwandau Mathoho in defence and Tokelo Rantie starting up front.
Komphela, however, gave little away as to the rest of his line-up, and it was unclear whether Darren Keet or Wayne Sandilands would start in goal ahead of Itumeleng Khune. “Whoever will start (tonight) has been told and is ready. I’ve told the players that their first match is always the easiest. If it doesn’t go well, it’s the coach’s fault; if the player does well, he’s an instant hero.”
With victory paramount, it won’t surprise if the interim Bafana coach doesn’t take too many chances in this friendly, with knowledge that defeat to a weakened Gabon would bring further ridicule to his charges, who already had a harrowing experience of false celebrations here.
“We need inspiration. We are looking at this match as a way to bring back the confidence of the country in this team. When you meet people in the street they say ‘we hope you win’. We want to change that situation to the people knowing victory is a certainty. It is bad when people have to hope, instead of victory being guaranteed,” Komphela said.
Bafana are winless in eight matches and, should they fail this evening, they would equal the record for the longest run without victory, which led to Clive Barker’s sacking as national coach in late 1997.
Pitso Mosimane has already paid the price for this barren run, but for Komphela, a result here could have an impact on his desire to occupy the hot seat on a permanent basis. He’s scheduled for a formal interview at Safa House early next week.
l Eleazor Rogers has been withdrawn from tonight's game at the insistence of his club Santos, who indicated they feared the striker would get injured before their relegation-promotion play-off match next week.
Full report in later editions.