For Bafana Bafana, the equation is simple, but the task not so.
With two crunch 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Senegal looming, the calculation couldn’t be easier: Win both games, pick up six points and book a place on the plane for football’s global showpiece event in Russia.
The job at hand, however, doesn’t reflect the straight-forward equation. It is a real daunting challenge, indeed: Senegal are one of the best football nations on the continent - and beating them twice, home and away, is no mean feat. The South African national football team will have to be at its very best.
The formidable challenge kicks off on Friday when Bafana take on the Lions of Teranga at the Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane (7pm kickoff). The return match is scheduled for November 14 in Dakar. As Group D stands, Senegal have eight points, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde six, and South Africa four.
Bafana, at least, have their destiny in their own hands. Whatever went before doesn’t matter, it all comes down to these two games against Senegal. They always say you cannot sit back and expect fortune or success to come to you, you have to go out and grab it. Here are a few points for Bafana to ponder as they prepare for Senegal:
Stay in the moment
Banish next year’s World Cup in Russia from the mind, the key is to focus on the present and stay in the moment. For Bafana, thinking too far ahead is tantamount to tragedy. The difficult task they have - to defeat Senegal twice - has to be tackled one minute at a time, one game situation at a time, one challenge at a time. Things that are far in the future have no bearing on the here and now, just stay in the moment. So, too, what happened in the past doesn’t count. Bafana may have beaten Senegal in the previous qualifier, which was tainted by match-fixing, but it’s critical they don’t get sucked into complacency because of that victory. Again, focus on the present, stay in the moment. Play what’s in front of you, not the possibility of what's ahead.
Tenacity and commitment
Too often, based on many examples from such big occasions in Bafana’s past, they have failed to step up. They’ve basked in the glow of the hype, players have fallen prey to the trappings of the celebrity their Bafana status accords them, and they’ve then subsequently fallen palpably short of the performances required for success. So for this mountainous Senegal assignment, it should be back to basics - the team needs to remember the old-fashioned traits found at the root of all successful sides: courage, commitment, tenacity and determination. Anything less, and Russia will be just a distant dream.
The team is greater than the Individual
With Stuart Baxter in charge of Bafana, there is no doubt that team work will be emphasised. It forms the basis of the coach’s philosophy. But, as was seen in the two recent defeats to Cape Verde, sometimes the message doesn’t really sink in; it is sacrificed on the altar of ego and complacency. When, as Baxter termed it, “the knife was at the throat” in the qualifier against Burkina Faso last month, the team ethic once again shone through and Bafana emerged with a smart victory. Rampant individualism, this gratuitous, narcissistic nature so endemic to SA football, won’t get Bafana past Senegal: a team performance can.
Win the middle
With regards to the game plan it’s crucial that Bafana grab hold of the central midfield area. With the Lions of Teranga so strong in this area, boasting the presence Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate, Baxter has a selection nightmare to solve. Who does he opt for? With Bongani Zungu and Andile Jali suspended for Friday’s game, it’s a toss-up among Hlompho Kekana, Dean Furman and Kamohelo Mokotjo for this match-defining midfield zone. Whoever gets the nod has an important role to play in ensuring that they keep things tight and compact, in order to allow the creative sparks around them to blossom.
Neutralise Sadio Mane
Needless to say, the presence of talismanic winger Sadio Mane is something Bafana perhaps never catered for a few weeks ago. Injured, Mane was only expected back much later this month. But he has made a rapid recovery. He is Senegal’s go-to man and the player that makes them tick in attack. The tactics should, however, not so much focus on stopping Mane from playing, but rather to cut off the supply to the flying forward.