Wide-eyed and filled with defiance in the blaring Freetown furnace, the crowds yelled their frustrations as the Bafana Bafana team bus pulled out of the national stadium.
“You were lucky,” was the most common catchphrase, as people poured into the streets, the frustration of a home draw emphasising the pre-match levels of expectation.
Sierra Leone were expected to give Bafana a battering in these parts, partly on the back of Bafana’s defeat here in 2008, and also on the strength of the Leone Stars’ 1-1 draw with Egypt in their opening 2012 Nations Cup qualifier.
Bafana’s own expectations were also high, but they emerged the happier team, with a point that has to be considered a decent effort on a dreadful pitch, in an atmosphere bursting with intimidation.
Itumeleng Khune was Bafana’s man of the match with an astonishing display of shot-stopping, three brilliant saves denying, in order, Mustapha, Mohamed and finally substitute Ibrahim Bangura.
Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane afterwards described himself as content with the draw, that after Niger’s surprise victory over Egypt, sees Bafana a point clear on top of Group G on the road to Equatorial Guniea/Gabon.
“Considering the conditions and the Egypt result, it was a good point,” said Mosimane.
“I said before I would like to leave here top of the group, and I have achieved that ambition. The team played well.”
Mosimane was contrite about the state of the pitch, which was a bobble-covered mess. “If the pitch is good, we can see good football. We could have done better, but you can’t play. Their strikers, five (Mohamed Bangura) and ten (Mustapha Bangura) are good technical players. If the pitch helped them, they could destroy teams.
“The pitch didn’t help both teams. It was a long ball game, but what are you going to do.”
The Leone Stars coped slightly better with the conditions, with Mohamed and Mustapha Bangura always a threat going forward.
Fortunately for Bafana, they found Khune in inspirational form.
First, he came off his line to block Mustapha’s first-half effort. Then in the second half he pulled off a brilliant one-handed reaction save to deny Mohamed. And he saved his best until last, hurling through the air to tip over Ibrahim’s long-range drive.
“He (Khune) was unbelievable, I think he was the man of the match,” said Mosimane. “You need your top players when they come here.”
The Bafana coach also had words of praise for Teko Modise, who certainly worked hard, though he lacked the attacking penetration that Steven Pienaar has provided of late. “I was happy that Teko could play with strength and could play without the ball and defend,” said Mosimane. “He gave Anele (Ngcongca) peace of mind at right back. It’s only mental with Teko.”
Bafana’s best chance came early in the piece, Sierra Leone’s own ‘keeper, Christian Caulker, showing his class with a fine low save from Bernard Parker’s header. Tshepo Masilela provided the cross for Parker, the left back giving a superb display in both defence and attack.
Mostly, it must be said, it was in defence, as Bafana had to launch a fierce rearguard action as the Leone Stars at times dominated possession. MacBeth Sibaya and Thanduyise Khuboni were given a lesson in the art of the holding role by young AC Milan midfielder Rodney Strasser.
But Bafana hung on, with a battling away day display. “We fought well. The boys were soldiers,” said Mosimane, who lost Siphiwe Tshabalala with a hip injury in the second half. “They showed they have the quality to play in Africa. This is what you get, it’s not pretty football.”
Captain Aaron Mokoena also praised his side. “We spoke about it being a mental game, we had to fight as long as possible,” he said. “We were coaching each other, it was something that we needed to do ... it kept us going out there,” he added.