JOHANNESBURG – Bafana Bafana captain, Thulani 'Tyson' Hlatshwayo, has to do more than just borrow a nickname from the once “baddest man on the planet” if he is to lead the senior men’s national team to Egypt.
'Tyson' and his charges have to take a huge bite out of Libya’s confidence and knock out any negative thoughts that might creep in ahead of their crucial clash with the Mediterranean Knights in Tunisia on Sunday in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
Bafana need a point from this match while Libya have to win if they’re to qualify for the continental showpiece that will be staged in Egypt.
Hlatshwayo carries a heavy load of expectations on his shoulders since he couldn’t captain Bafana to book a ticket to Russia for the World Cup. His captaincy has been a mixed bag - he is the first man to lead Bafana to a win over Nigeria in a competitive match but things went south after that with back-to-back losses to minnows Cape Verde which ended their World Cup ambitions.
“The pressure will always be there, not only at Bafana but also in your personal life and at your team,” Hlatshwayo said. “There will be pressure on us because this is a crucial game, even though we know that we need either a draw or a win.
I remember reading in the papers that they took a long time to tell us the venue for this match, it was probably mind games. It’s something that we have to consider as players, and not let it affect us as players because we have a lot of experienced players around the team who have played in tough environments in Africa so we should deal with this.”
Hlatshwayo continued, “It’s a do or die game. So we expect Libya to come at us. We are not going to sit back because we know how important this game is for us.”
Despite their failure to qualify for the World Cup, Hlatshwayo is optimistic about this current generation’s future.
“As a team we are growing in mental strength,” Hlatshwayo said. “I feel like this is one of the strongest Bafanas so far. I can see it even when we defend, we defend as a unit. We work together, even the goal we conceded was an own goal. That’s what we want to build on. The main goal is to keep a clean sheet.”
The biggest challenge Bafana will face will not be from Libya but from themselves. The side can be their worst enemy, especially when they play against less fancied opponents. In this match the challenge will not be Libya’s rank, but rather the weight this match carries. A loss would mean that they have failed to qualify for two successive tournaments under coach Stuart Baxter.
“We cannot be affected by the expectations,” Baxter said. “That’s the truth. We can’t listen to the expectations because we know already that we want to win. We know what the implications are of a victory or a defeat. We know all of that. To be reminded of what others expect throws you out of your zone. Our job, especially the players, is to keep ourselves in that bubble."
“We’ve had massive problems trying to do that. We’ve been affected by everything. You go in front and you’re elated but then they score and your head goes down because of a mental deficiency.
The important part for us is to know, if they go a goal up in the first minute - what will we do? Or will it take us 30 minutes to recover?
If we go a goal up in the first minute, what will we do? We’ll be okay if we can control that.”