JOHANNESBURG – If Bafana Bafana didn’t have a penchant to self-implode, they would have swaggered into Cairo yesterday with their chests out and staring in the face anyone who is considered a favourite in the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
Bafana had a storming start to their Afcon qualifying campaign, stunning Nigeria in Stuart Baxter’s first match. But that steam died down thanks to a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign that followed and then making a meal of an easy Afcon qualifying group which also featured Seychelles and Libya. They conspired to stutter and got the last ticket to Egypt.
So instead of swaggering into Cairo, Bafana made a low-key entrance in a tournament where their coach refuses to accept the tag of favourites. While Bafana might not be genuine favourites, they are one of the teams that could be a surprise package thanks to their solid defence.
Bafana’s defence carried them to Egypt with their strikers struggling to be consistently prolific. The familiarity at the back, thanks to the high number of Bidvest Wits players, including goalkeeper Darren Keet and captain Thulani Hlatshwayo, means communication lines are clear.
“Sometimes when you call together an international squad, you struggle to make it a team,” Baxter said. “We’ve had no problem with these players, bringing them under the same flag. Sometimes they bring with them flags from all over the world and we struggle, even though they are South African, to get them to play together, respect each other and allow each other to grow.
“The strength of this squad is that when we play the other nations is that they will have that problem and we will not. That we can guarantee and that is the best guarantee that they can give any South African - that they will make sure that they will sell their souls dearly.
They will not sell their souls cheaply, and certainly will not let anyone lower our flag without a fight.”
Hlatshwayo, Keet, Buhle Mkhwanazi and Sifiso Hlanti are the backbone of Bafana’s defence with Thamsanqa Mkhize, Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Innocent Maela part of the full-backs Baxter can call upon.
Those full-backs can defend and attack which make them an arsenal at the back and when going forward. Hlatshwayo, Hlanti and Mkhwanazi’s aerial strength will come in handy for a coach who tirelessly works on punishing his opponents with his towering centre-backs in set-pieces.
Keet’s presence in goal will come in handy as the team is in desperate need of a consistent and confident No. 1 with regular first choice Itumeleng Khune injured. Bafana will play their last friendly against Angola today in Cairo before opening their campaign against Ivory Coast.
“Every player sitting next to me here will give everything because they respect both their country and this team.
This version of Bafana Bafana will do its best, and that guarantee should be good enough for every South African,” Baxter said.