There is a big difference between 11 talented men walking onto a football field in the same national team jersey and 11 men walking onto the field as one, as a team. You see, 11 talented individuals may have enough in them playing as individuals to get a result or two, but they are never going win a tournament that way.
There was a moment in the game against Morocco where for the first time in this tournament, I saw the birth of a team. Perhaps it went largely unnoticed by many others watching, but I saw it as a massive turning point for South African football. Before I get to that magic moment, I want to state that I don't believe we have had a 'Bafana team' in place for years now. Even at the 2010 World Cup, I don't believe a team played in that tournament, or even graduated from that tournament. Not one of us supporters could confidently name the starting eleven for the first games that Bafana played after the 2010 World Cup. And not one of us truly believed that the eleven men walking onto the field in our precious green and gold would pull together to beat any other team. The missing factor on the field? Caring for each other. There was a lot of berating each other. There were a lot of hands on hips and staring each other down when a pass was misplaced. There was finger-pointing. There was always a lot of individual brilliance on display at times, in isolation. But nothing suggested we were a team.
And so to the moment it all changed. Towards the end of the first half, a Moroccan player slid in with two feet up on our playmaker May Mahlangu in the centre of the park. The ref missed it. It was about to go unpunished when in a flash, Anele Ngcongca, a lad from Gugulethu who has never played in the PSL with any of our players and whose only contact with South African players is in the national team, reacted by flying in studs up to hurt a Moroccan player. When the ball spurted away and was picked up by another Moroccan, Dean Furman, a lad with an English accent, the lad that can't yet sing the team songs on the bus and who more than likely struggles with the rhythmic warm-up sessions, the only Mlungu on the pitch and a player who has more reason than most to feel a bit like a spare wheel in this Bafana team, came flying into a tackle with a lot more aggression than was needed to deliver a crunching tackle on the said Moroccan. The message could not have been any clearer to this Moroccan side. "Don't mess with us and don't mess with our teammates." As the ensuing yellow card was dished out to Ngcongca, the rest of the Bafana team came running in to remonstrate about the treatment dished out to Mahlangu and while the ref was having none of it, the Moroccans were very aware that they had just been in a 'street fight' and lost.
You see, only teams can come back twice from being a goal down. Only teams come together as one at the end of a game and lock arms and pray together. Only teams ever win anything on the international stage. Yes, one could argue there have been some great individuals who have won World Cups, but even Pele, Maradona and Zidane had great teams that allowed their brilliance to shine. Greece winning the Euro in 2004, Zambia winning the previous Afcon is proof that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Both these teams had squads that didn't have the individual talent of their competitors, but had more cohesion, were better teams than their competitors, and it played out.
Win or lose against Mali (but I know we will win), Gordon has done something no Bafana coach in recent history, not even the great million-rand-a-month man Carlos Alberto Parreira was able to do. He has given us a national team. He has knitted together a cohesive squad of players that this country recognises and believes in. Given time, I truly believe that not only will we be able to go toe-to-toe with the best in Africa, we'll be able to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.