It's Not A Knockout Punch, But Best We Learn From It!
In the aftermath of a loss, a nation of coaches usually emerge pretty quickly – fifty million of us with reasons as to why our beloved Bafana failed. It’s a guttural reaction that plays itself out the world over where soccer is woven into the fabric of a country’s culture; an emotional outpouring of disappointment, frustration, anger, rage and love.
It wouldn’t happen if we didn’t care. The fact is that South African football matters to us, and if it didn’t hurt, if we didn’t feel like we could compete and just accepted defeat, that would be a bigger problem. So expect the Khune issue to surface. Expect to hear, “What if Serero were there taking that penalty?” Expect to have a million different ways to take a penalty kick explained and tweeted to Tokelo Rantie. That is just the way this story will always play out.
However, out of defeat come the best lessons. Out of defeat comes reflection on what it will take to become better – to make sure that the image starring back at you after a next battle makes you feel a little better about yourself. It’s an image you don’t mind the rest of your country seeing. The loss to Algeria was not the knockout punch, but it was a punch that knocked us down. It showed us our weaknesses and, as we get back up and regroup, will go a long way in guiding our preparation, not just for the next two group games, but for bigger games and bigger tournaments in future.
They say that history repeats itself, but who would have thought it would happen so quickly. In 2013 it was the inability to convert penalties that cost us a spot in the semi-finals of the AFCON. In the very first game of this AFCON, it was our inability to convert a penalty that cost us the win and possibly qualification to the next stage of the tournament. Now I’m not jumping on the ‘Blame Tokelo Rantie’ bandwagon. At this stage it is still unclear whether, before going into this game, Shakes had selected the team’s penalty taker and Tokelo ignored the instruction seeing an opportunity to write his name in lights, or if, like some coaches, Shakes simply identified three or four potential penalty takers and said that whoever felt confident should take the ball and step up. People may say that if there was indeed a ‘set’ penalty taker, why did Shakes not intervene to ensure the right man stepped up.
Questions may be asked of the on-field leadership. For those who have played the game, there is an unwritten law that if somebody confidently picks the ball up and puts it on the spot, even if they are not the elected penalty taker, you don’t make an issue of it. You don’t go whisper in their ear – that just adds more pressure to an already tense moment in the game. What is certain is that great players have missed important penalty kicks in the past, and great players will miss penalty kicks in the future. By no means does a missed spot-kick make Tokelo a bad player overnight. I remain a Tokelo fan.
But enough said about the disappointment of the result. What is something positive that the game taught us about ourselves? Well, with most of the top club sides in the world, and even national sides, now playing a more possession based game that usually ends in intricate short passing to unlock defences or individual brilliance to carve out scoring chances, as opposed to getting it wide and lobbing it in the middle, South African players have a natural tendency towards this approach.
In fact, when it comes to short passing, disguising your intentions and quick feet, we are right up there with some of the best in the world in that particular facet of the game. Nobody can disagree that Bafana tore the best team in Africa apart at times on Monday night with back heels, shibobos and tsamayas – a team that current World Cup holders, Germany, needed extra-time to get past in the last World Cup. The football gods are smiling on us, showing us that our natural identity has its place in world football. We should embrace that message and build on it. Brahimi might be considered one of Africa’s top playmakers, but our own Sibusiso Vilakazi made him look average at the craft in comparison.
There can be no clearer sign that this is the way to go. If we can now just add some more steel to our game, some more tactical awareness defensively, and develop a killer instinct to finish off the chances we create, then we can start making progress as a footballing nation. If that happens, this eternal hope we have every time our team walks onto the field will eventually yield joy, and not the constant disappointment that comes with being a South African football fan.