JOHANNESBURG – With their pre-tournament competitive action curtailed, Bafana Bafana will have little choice but to hit the ground running at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Egypt in two weeks' time.
It's been nearly a month since the domestic leagues in South Africa and Europe ended, but by the time the South African squad jet off to Dubai on Tuesday morning (after they failed to leave on Monday night as scheduled due to the players being booked on different flights), they had spent just one week in camp in Johannesburg and are yet to play a competitive friendly game.
Prior to that, the last time the South African squad were together was on March 19, when they beat Libya 2-1 in their final Afcon qualifier to secure their berth in the finals.
The lack of a competitive match over the last week again brings up the question - as several former players and coaches have mentioned - as to whether the senior Bafana team should have played in the recent Cosafa tournament, rather than fielding what was effectively an Under-23 side.
There is at least a friendly match confirmed against Ghana on June 15 in Dubai, as well as a match against Angola, but that has been pencilled in just two days ahead of the tournament.
"Bafana Bafana will play Angola in a Training match on 19 June 2019 at a venue to be confirmed in Egypt," read an official tweet from the national team on Monday.
Coach Stuart Baxter admitted that the situation has not been great, and also felt a home friendly would have helped boost morale.
"It's too much last minute. It's too much being at the last minute trying to solve all the problems," he said. "I am disappointed. It would have been nice to have that interaction with the fans and to put ourselves on the line in a friendly so that we know what we are working on going forward," he added.
"But the world is not perfect, so I have to get on with it. We have done the best we can."
Bafana Bafana checking in before flying out to Dubai pic.twitter.com/oq7dqUjWb6— Bafana Bafana (@BafanaBafana) June 10, 2019
Friendly games have not been Baxter's only issue as four players were withdrawn from his initial 30-man interim squad: Keagan Dolly pulled out through injury, overseas-based defenders Nikola Tavares and Joel Untersee both failed to secure passports, while Rivaldo Coetzee went missing after being given leave to visit his sick mother.
In addition, Phakamani Mahlambi, who had the potential to force his way into the AFCON picture, was cut from the COSAFA squad for reported disciplinary reasons.
With three defenders forced to pull out, Baxter decided that when it came to naming the final 23-man squad, it was the attack-minded Kermit Erasmus and Fortune Makaringe, as well as central midfielder Ben Motshwari who should make way.
That leaves only three central defenders – captain Thulani Hlatshwayo, his Wits team-mate Buhle Mkhwanazi, and Kaizer Chiefs man Daniel Cardoso.
However, Ramahlwe Mphahlele, who has primarily been used as a right-back by Chiefs, did play as a centre-back earlier in his career and will provide additional cover in that position.
Despite the issues though, Bafana do still have on paper what looks a very decent squad, with plenty of options in attack and a number of players coming into the tournament having been in good goalscoring form over the past season.
They will still, however, remain underdogs in a tough Group D which also contains Ivory Coast, Morocco and Namibia.
Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter says he has been impressed by the boys professionalism in the past week they have been in camp preparing for the upcoming AFCON in Egypt. pic.twitter.com/bKvpM1tpCO— Bafana Bafana (@BafanaBafana) June 11, 2019
That will suit them just fine though, according to goalkeeper Darren Keet.
"I think we've got such a good squad at the moment, and we're so underrated – it's ridiculous," he was quoted saying by KickOff magazine. "But we're happy with that. We're happy to be underrated; we're happy that people doubt us because every game we go out and show ourselves and show what we're capable of."
Because of the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, Bafana can still potentially end third in their group and qualify for the knockout stages as one of the four best third-placed teams from the six groups.
South Africa begin their campaign against Ivory Coast on June 24, before taking on Morocco four days later and then facing Namibia in their final group match on July 1.
African News Agency (ANA)