CAPE TOWN - The vicissitudes of top-level sport can play havoc with the psyche and relentlessly batter the mind into submission. But it is also during trying times like these, in the words of Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter, when “the knife’s at the throat”, that courage and character are revealed.
Surrounded by adversity and under siege after disappointing recent results, the country’s football and rugby teams responded in gutsy, ballsy fashion.
After an ignominious 57-0 drubbing by New Zealand, the Springboks bounced back with a valiant, fearless performance in a 25-24 defeat to the much-vaunted Kiwis at Newlands on Saturday.
After embarrassing back-to-back, home-and-away defeats to Cape Verde in 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Bafana rattled back in dashing style with an heroic, invigorating 3-1 victory over Burkina Faso at the FNB Stadium.
It was an afternoon all about regaining pride. There’s an apt line from a little-known Shakespeare play called Cymbeline that reads: “Boldness be my friend, Arm me, audacity, from head to foot!” And, for both the Springboks and Bafana, this was ultimately the dictum with which they tackled difficult, demanding games under the frenzied glare of a critical public poised to gleefully pounce on failure.
The Springboks were bold to the very last. My beloved, champion All Blacks were under the cosh for most of a bruising, brutal encounter, and only got over the line because they had individual match-winners capable of turning nothing into points.
In contrast, the major drawback for the Boks was that, despite a monumental, awe-inspiring effort from the forwards, they simply didn’t have the backs with the same potency to take advantage of their dominance up front. Overall, though, for courage, for character, for boldness, for sheer bloody-mindedness when written off by most, the riposte was magnificent, and majestic in its execution.
As for Bafana, they were certainly armed with audacity. From the very first minute when the irrepressible Percy Tau scored, there was never going to be any other result. The question, of course, is: Where was this vibrancy and confidence in the defeats to Cape Verde? But, then again, that is the enigma that is Bafana.
In South African football it’s not talent and ability that are lacking, it’s in harnessing and channelling it properly. All too often it comes down to complacency. Before Cape Verde, Bafana had achieved a fantastic win over arch-rivals Nigeria, in Nigeria, and they were floating on cloud nine. So, next time out, it was the mental state of “we just have to show up and beat Cape Verde” that proved to be Bafana’s undoing. On Saturday, backs to the wall, it needed a Bafana retort. And, boy, did we get one! The passion in performance was back; there was discipline and organisation; the finishing was clinical and composed; and they’d brought along a friend called “boldness”, who ultimately proved to be the real match-winner.
Every Bafana player made a solid contribution, but goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune again proved why he is, without any shadow of a doubt, the best number one in the country. His charismatic presence infuses the squad with confidence and his speedy, intelligent distribution is even more crucial. The persistent hustle of striker Percy Tau makes him an absolute menace for opposing defenders, while his intuitive link-play and eye for an opportunity were just as impressive against the Burkinabe. The central midfield axis of Andile Jali, Bongani Zungu and Kamohelo Mokotjo provided a consummate platform capable of rapidly alternating between defence and attack, while the maturing Themba Zwane continues to grow with every game.
In September last year, Cape Town City signed defender Thamsanqa Mkhize on a free transfer. He wasn’t all that well-known. He had done well at Maritzburg United, but was then rejected by Orlando Pirates. A month later, Mkhize was given his City debut by then-coach Eric Tinkler - and he’s had a fairytale run ever since. He had initially arrived at City as a defender who could act as cover should there be injury or suspension.
But after being handed the right-back slot, he never looked back. On Saturday, the 29-year-old from Cato Ridge in KwaZulu-Natal made his Bafana debut, and he hardly put a foot wrong. I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Mkhize supporters’ club from the very first time he finished 90 minutes in a City jersey - and I couldn’t be happier for this humble, totally dedicated and truly committed team man.