PRAIA, Cape Verde – If ever there was a shambolic performance from a Bafana Bafana team, this, in a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier, was it.
What was expected was a confident and aggressive side still buzzing from the high of getting coach Stuart Baxter’s tenure off to a dream start in Uyo, Nigeria, two months ago.
But the outfit that turned out was timid, error-prone and nervy as host Cape Verde put South Africa’s qualification hopes in jeopardy with a shock 2-1 win on Friday night.
Any hopes of grabbing the much-needed three points went up in smoke when defender Mulomowandau Mathoho – the chief culprit in one of the worst displays for Bafana – got himself sent off in the 66th minute for hacking down an opponent when it was absolutely unnecessary, leaving his side to try and get back into the game a man short.
Tokelo Rantie had broken the deadlock and calmed the nerves to an extent with his goal in the 13th minute to give Bafana a lead which was far from deserved.
Cape Verde were surprisingly dominant and in complete control when left back Tebogo Langerman found space behind the defenders to let Rantie loose.
It was Turkish-based Rantie’s 12th goal in a Bafana shirt, proving why he is such an important player for the team.
But then it all went pear-shaped, and so did Baxter’s game plan.
In Nigeria, Bafana had been under pressure but able to absorb and punish their opponents when the opportunity presented itself.
Here, in perhaps the most crucial game not only for Baxter, but for the chance to go top of Group D of these African World Cup qualifiers, they were simply a shadow of their past selves.
When cool heads were needed, as is often the case in these types of fixtures, Mathoho lost his long before the red card, the midfield could not cope and the last line of defence – goalkeeper Ronwen Williams – was again in the firing line, his selection questioned for the umpteenth time.
Nuno Rocha had grabbed the equaliser for the ‘Blue Sharks’ shortly after the hour mark with a shot that deflected off Mathoho to beat Williams between the sticks.
And then minutes later, Dean Furman brought the goal scorer down in the box, Rocha got up and snuck it into the top corner.
Although Williams guessed the right way and got a touch, the shot was too powerful and Cape Verde were in the lead at halftime.
Baxter must have had some stern words, but there was very little improvement.
A side that had been labelled the whipping boys of the group – following back-to-back defeats away to Senegal and at home against Burkina Faso – had now caused a major upset and are still in with a chance to be heading to Russia next year.
The two sides meet again on Tuesday in Durban, and it’s imperative that Baxter rings the changes to restore confidence and belief in the side and the rest of the country.
Bafana had fought gallantly to gain a precious point in the opener of the World Cup qualifier away in Ouagadougou in October last year and then beating Senegal in Polokwane a month later under then-coach Shakes Mashaba, who was replaced by Baxter in May.
Given that this very same side that have shocked them here are heading to Durban next week, Burkina Faso still to come and Senegal the final group game, South Africa’s road to Russia is in jeopardy.