You can practise penalties, you can’t practise pressure. That we scored just one penalty out of the four we took has nothing to do with being underprepared for the penalty shootout. It has nothing to do with the quality of our players. Some of the biggest names in world football have missed important penalties on the world stage, names from the past like Italy’s Roberto Baggio or more recently Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan, players who have all the technical ability in the world, but who were hamstrung by the weight of expectation. Disappointed as I am that we are out of the Afcon, I can honestly say our lads can be proud of the way they carried themselves in this tournament.
The unfortunate part of being knocked out of the tournament is that it happened at a time when a large section of South African sports lovers who had given up on Bafana were being wooed back and were starting to rekindle their love for our national soccer team. For some of us, and I would hasten to say every Soccer-Laduma reader, we will always be in love with Bafana Bafana no matter the state of the national team. For others though, winning is important and while advancing out of your group to the knockout rounds is far from the final, it does signify that some winning has been done. You could palpably feel the whole of South Africa engaging with Bafana Bafana once again as we walked out against Mali. Even if people were not tuned in and watching it, they were certainly talking about it, Bafana were back on the national radar.
Alas, a loss, and once again for the fair weather supporters, Bafana becomes the butt of jokes around the country. Weighed and measured, unfairly so in my opinion, against the achievements and continued successes of our national rugby and cricket teams. Yes, we are still underachieving as a footballing nation. Yes, we are way off the mark in so many areas as a footballing nation. But, despite all this, despite our exit from the tournament, I truly believe we have finally started moving in the right direction.
For a national team that for the last couple of years has been useless, even futile against African opposition, failing to even qualify for the last Afcon, we held our own against four strong, determined African nations packed with star quality. Cape Verde, Angola, Morocco and Mali are all very decent footballing teams and we went toe-to-toe and held our own in competition football.
Even in defeat, there have been so many positives. New faces have emerged because a coach has been willing to look outside the box, has been willing to cast his net far and wide and to a large extent made every soccer player with a South African passport understand that if he is good enough, he stands a chance of being called up. What’s more, for our very best players who had maybe been in a comfort zone, he has shocked them into the realisation that neither your club emblem, nor your previous exploits will get you a national team jersey. Your current form is all that matters. For the first time in a long time, our best players are starting to work on their game to take it to another level once again. Far too many get to one of the big three and then stop putting in the extra work that got them to the top of the South African pile in the first place.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that our own unique style of playing, our own strengths are once again on show, and they resonate with us, the fans. When Bafana look in the mirror, it is not a poor version of Brazil, a B-grade England, a somewhat French or German team that stares back. It’s South African football that is reflected and it’s because of that, that we will begin our climb up the Fifa rankings and back into the hearts of every South African in this country.
So yes, we should all understandably be devastated at Bafana’s exit, but maybe more significantly we should be excited about the return of South African soccer.
To all the countries that took part in the Afcon, thank you for your contribution in making this a showpiece event on the African football calendar. To Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana, we wish you all the best for the semifinals. May the best team win!