JOHANNESBURG – After being pitted against Morocco, Ivory Coast and Namibia in Group D at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Bafana Bafana defender Innocent Maela is adamant they can reach the knockout stages considering they are in a “good space” as a team.
The South Africans head to this tournament following a nail-biting qualifying campaign. They prevailed in style as they clinched the group’s runners-up spot without a loss, defeating Libya by 2-1 in Sfax, Tunisia, in the last round of matches.
At the inaugural 24-team continental soccer showpiece, South Africa and Namibia will be wearing the underdogs tag but Maela believes that through thick and thin they’ll progress to the round of 16.
“The team is in a very good space - the spirit very high. I am confident that the team will go there and do well,” he said. “We are definitely not scared of anyone and we also understand the importance of preparation.”
Qualification for this major tournament also bought time for beleaguered coach Stuart Baxter. The English tactician’s reign has been pampered by controversy, especially after failing to qualify for 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Baxter’s team has always endured a frailty of having to dig deep especially against lowly ranked nations such as the Seychelles in the Afcon qualifiers, while Cape Verde Islands astonishingly handed them back-to-back defeats in the global showpiece qualifiers.
Maela, who’s building a name for himself in the national team colours, is thinking otherwise though - convinced that the team is in safe hands under Baxter and his crew.
“I would like to say that we have a good technical team. They always prepare the team very well. And that gives you confidence and courage to go to the field of play with a world of belief,” Maela said.
With merely three matches before Orlando Pirates’ campaign comes to an end, Maela is aware that he’s in a race against time to be in Baxter’s final squad for Bafana’s Afcon tournament. However, the left wingback has got an aided advantage in impressing the Englishman - the possibility of assembling for national duty with a PSL winner’s medal.
Your complete Calendar for the upcoming AFCON tournament pic.twitter.com/kR9NZIfv9J— Bafana Bafana (@BafanaBafana) April 13, 2019
The 26-year-old footballer has enjoyed a memorable campaign so far, as he’s played 24 of his team’s 27-match run in the league season. However, he’s banking on inspiring his team to a triumph in the league as that will be a huge morale booster.
“It’s always special to play for the national team,” Maela said. “Taking into considering that I started at the academy here, winning with the club would out of this world.”@Mihlalibaleka