Report: Africa Cup of Nations 2015

South Africa’s panache and pace not enough to stay in CAN 2015

South Africa play Zambia in a CAN 2015 preparatory match
South Africa play Zambia in a CAN 2015 preparatory match AFP

It is a truth universally acknowledged that football is unfair. Indecorous, perhaps, to plunder the lambent literary style of Jane Austen, in order to illuminate the ebbs and flows of the sport. The latter day philosophy of Gary Lineker might be more appropriate.


During his pomp as a fox in the box, the then-England international wagged: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans win.”

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South Africa are Galacticos away from being the chess-set complex that is die Mannschaft. But mesmeric Teutonic efficiency should be their aspiration.

Bafana Bafana have been the team of the 30th CAN with their dazzling darts forward. Panache and pace defined their thrusts towards the opposition penalty area. But, once they were near the goal, poise was a very absent friend.

A penalty early in the second half of the match against Algeria on 19 January would ultimately come to define their tournament. Tokelo Rantie missed the opportunity to give Shakes Mashaba’s men a 2-0 lead against the much heralded north Africans.

That score line would have sent electroshocks throughout the tournament. Africa’s highest ranked team in the process of being deconstructed by the coming men from the other end of the continent.

Reprieved, Christian Gourcuff’s side made the South Africans pay for their wastefulness going on to win 3-1. No one argued when Mashaba concluded the Algerians had been lucky.

The South Africans took the lead against Senegal in their second match only to squander their advantage. In the final Group C match, needing to triumph by at least two goals to give themselves a chance of moving into the last eight, South Africa created the picture perfect opening - 1-0 up within 16 minutes but, instead of pressing for the next goal, they became tentative, allowing Ghana to reconfigure the structure of the match.

Once Ghana levelled through John Boye in the 70th minute, the denouement was inevitable. The only doubt hovering was which Ghana player would score the winner. André Ayew solved the conundrum seven minutes from time.

Ghana boasted afterwards that, though the squad contains many young players, they do not betray their callowness. On the eve of the game against South Africa, Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan said mental toughness would be a factor. So said, so done. Experience appears to be harboured within their collective.

Minds were cast back to the penalty kick against Algeria. “Experience is the name we give to our mistakes of yesterday,” philosophised Mashaba. “When we lose everyone talks: ‘We never had experience.’ But if you don’t give the junior boys a chance to play when are they going to get experience? Yes, of course experience does give you a plus in certain situations in terms of building up your BMT – big match temperament.”

BMT might be a smart chummy buzz phrase from one of the myriad modern coaching manuals. Its scarcity among the South Africans was ruthlessly exposed by an unspectacular Ghana side. It brought no end of PMT – post-match trauma - for Mashaba.

Why allow players to sit back when glory was there to be seized? The South African players to a man realised their insufficiencies when speaking to reporters after the Ghana match. Which prompts the question: why let it happen?

Sports psychologists often speak about conquering the fear of victory and success. Workaday talents become accustomed to life in a zone of moderate returns. The prospects of what may come can paralyse the actions of the present. Thus a penalty kick or a break point in a tennis match take on immense proportions. The perennial stars play the moment not the future because they are well acquainted with the higher hemispheres.

Twenty-four-year-old Tokelo Rantie had a chance to make a name for himself as well as the players who had got him to that position. His failure will make it a long contemplative voyage home.

“Tokelo picked up the ball. He’s our striker. He was confident,” said skipper Dean Fuman.. “We had 100 per cent confidence in him. He went for the top corner. Sadly, it hit the top of the bar and went away.”

Furman, who plies his weekly trade at Doncaster Rovers in England’s third tier, took over as captain following the murder of goalkeeper and skipper Senzo Meyiwa last October.

Honourably, the South Africans never mentioned that they would try and win their second CAN for their lost talisman. Would Meyiwa have made the errors that let the Algerians back in? Perhaps not. Maybe he would have made others.

What is clear though is that the South Africans will be a stronger force when they next head into a tournament.

“We’ll take a lot of heart from our first two performances and we’ll take a lot of heart from knowing that we scored in all three games against some of Africa’s best teams,” Furman reflected. “We’ve got a young team and we’ve gained a lot of experience from our time here.”

The South Africans have made friends but, as they board the planes to return them to their day jobs, players from eight other nations will be vying for history.

“We took the lead against three top teams and surrendered that lead,” said Furman.

“The 26-year-old midfielder added: “It’s something that we need to look at as a team. We need to develop a way of playing that allows us to keep our good expansive football but also remain tight at the back. That’s what has been highlighted at this tournament for us.”

The age of enlightenment may just have arrived in South African football.

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