Teji Savanier (11) of France reacts after scoring the winner in the final minutes of their Tokyo Olympics men's football Group A match against South Africa on Sunday. Photo: Kyodo Pictures/Reuters
Teji Savanier (11) of France reacts after scoring the winner in the final minutes of their Tokyo Olympics men's football Group A match against South Africa on Sunday. Photo: Kyodo Pictures/Reuters

OPINION: SA football needs to stop celebrating hollow 'victories'

By Matshelane Mamabolo Time of article published Jul 26, 2021

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Another major football tournament, another first round exit for South Africa! What’s new as our national teams continue to make a mockery of our assertion we are a footballing nation?

Nothing new really, for even the reaction is what one has come to expect. Praise for failures. And then we wonder why we just don’t achieve much on the big stage.

The general feeling among most soccer followers after our 4-3 defeat by France at the Tokyo Olympic Games was that ‘the boys tried’ and many called for the team to be ‘kept together for the future’.

David Notoane’s boys were praised for their ‘great effort’ and some described them as being ‘unlucky’.

That the team thought by most to be ‘the best group of players we have assembled in a long time’ will be returning home after their match against Mexico seemed not to be of bother. After all we, South Africans, reward our stars for ‘trying’, don’t we?

We did it back in 2000 at our maiden Games when we lauded Shakes Mashaba’s Amaglug-glug even though they had been knocked out in the first round. Just because they’d beaten Brazil in their second match of the group stages, Matthew Booth and Co were made to feel like world beaters. So much so that to this day, that hollow victory is referred to with pride by many South Africans.

Two years later at the FIFA World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, Jomo Sono’s Bafana Bafana suffered a first round exit just as the team coached by Philippe Troussier had been four years earlier in our maiden appearance at the global showpiece in France.

If inexperience was an excuse for the failure at France 98, expectations were that we’d learnt enough to can at least get out of the group stages. Oh we got out alright, but the wrong way – Bafana finishing in third place just as they had done in France and not going into the knockout phase as had been the expectation.

But no, they returned home to a heroes’ welcome – Bafana even being given an audience with former president Nelson Mandela as the country celebrated, wait for it, their solitary victory, at the World Cup. Siyabonga Nomvethe’s fortuitous goal against Slovenia in the second group match made for a brilliant result just like that one over Brazil at Sydney 2000. But in the end it counted for nothing as Bafana failed to get a result against Spain in their final group match and thus had to come home after just three matches.

You’d think we would have learnt. But no, we were at it again during the 2010 World Cup which we hosted as we again celebrated a hollow victory over France in our final group match even though the result was not enough to get us to the knockout stages.

Excuse me then, for not sharing the enthusiasm of my countrymen following the defeat by France in Saitama.

The majority of this current lot, the soccer fans said on Sunday, should be promoted to Bafana Bafana and thus be tasked with leading us to qualification for next year’s World Cup.

But how, I ask? How will they qualify us for Qatar 2022 when they could not get out of the group stages of the Olympics?

Granted, the likes of Kobamelo Kodisang, Evidence Makgopa and Thabo Cele showed some glimpses of being top class players capable of mixing it up with the big boys. Sure, they are worthy of a move up to the Bafana set up.

Football though is a team sport, and having three or four brilliant individuals serves no purpose if that brilliance does not result in collective success. And this much was evident against a French team that was there for the taking on Sunday.

A number of factors that continue to beset our game contributed to that defeat.

First there was that good old South African football failing – lack of killer instinct. We should have killed the game off as a contest before halftime, but with Luther Singh missing his penalty and Kodisang and Makgopa failing to score, those of us experienced enough in the game knew we’d be made to pay dearly. And boy we did.

That we went into the lead on three occasions but could not protect any of those for more than five minutes spoke to yet another of our football failings as a nation – the inability to manage a game. Too often our coaches speak of critical phases of a match – the first and last five minutes of each half as well as the five minutes after the team had scored a goal – and how it is important for their teams to be alert during those.

Top international teams are those that are able to remain focused, keep their shape and not get carried away after having scored. All these were absent in Saitama on Sunday and coach Notoane also didn’t help matters with his substitutions during critical times.

International football is brutal, and the sooner we all learn to appreciate that as a nation, the better our chances of succeeding at that level.

Take the general reaction to Kaizer Chiefs’ defeat to Al Ahly in the CAF Champions League the other day for example. In another country, the Chiefs players would have been scared to return home, knowing they perhaps would have to run the gauntlet of angry fans ready to pelt them with rotten tomatoes if not worse. Here at home many were praising Amakhosi despite their having been hammered 3-0.

It is this acceptance of failure by not only the fans but the game’s officials as well that sees our players generally having no issue with being defeated and being content with having qualified for finals.

We are going to have to do away with this kind of defeatist mentality if we are to start seeing our football teams performing brilliantly at the highest level.

Aren’t you tired of seeing our national teams being knocked out in the first round of major international tournaments? I know I am.

@Tshiliboy

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