In 2013 during my rein as Bafana Bafana coach, I was privileged enough to face then World and European champions, Spain.
Three years after having lifted the FIFA World Cup on African soil, Spain who at the time, were still ranked number one in the world, would be returning to the FNB Stadium, to face a Bafana Bafana side ranked sixty places behind on the FIFA World rankings.
A few of you may know, but as part of the build up to any international game, discussions need to be held between the two federations, where the finer details of the said match are discussed and a contract signed.
One of the key discussion points, which SAFA CEO Dennis Mumble and Team Manager Barney Kujane had to undertake at the time, was the categorization of the match.
International matches even “friendlies” fall in a variety of categories. These categories range from training matches all the way up to Tier 1 International A matches, with each having different governing rules and implications.
Based on the category agreed, the appropriate governing rules would then be applied; this would amongst other things, dictate the amount of substitutes allowed during the game.
The category agreed would also have a bearing on whether or not the result would stand on the countries' “official record” and potentially effect their FIFA World rankings.
For this particular fixture, it was agreed that the game would be classified as a Category-A, FIFA match. It was also agreed that both teams would field their first-choice players for the game in order for it to be a real spectacle for the South African fans, and a chance to really challenge ourselves against the best.
Having had the opportunity to watch Vincente Del Bosque’s men in the 2010 World Cup and again in their matches leading up to our game, we were under no illusions of what we were in for. This was a team preparing to go defend their title in the upcoming 2014 World Cup. Having lost only one official match since that 2010 triumph, they were certainly not looking to lose any of that momentum against SA.
Spain brought all of their ‘big guns’ to town and announced a starting line-up that included seven players who had started in the World Cup final against Netherlands three years earlier. The line-up read like a fantasy league team with the likes of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Pedro, David Villa and Sergio Busquets to name a few.
We knew we were up for the challenge of a lifetime. And we were ready for it.
The Spaniards are well known for their possession-based ‘tiki-taka’ which they use to carve open opposition, so tactically I had to come up with a great plan nullify and counter their style of play. Knowing Spain would dominate possession; I decided that as a team, we would allow Spain to retain possession of the ball in areas that would cause us the least damage. Closing the spaces between the lines and making the field as compact as possible in the areas in which they thrive.
We therefore played a very narrow game, allowing them space out wide, knowing they would not cross the ball but rather recycle the ball and try again to penetrate down the middle. I had Bongani Khumalo and Thabo Nthethe as my central defenders playing very close together, while the late Anele Ngconca and Thabo Matlaba, my full-backs remained tucked in.
Itumeleng Khune was marshalling the backline from goal.
My midfielders Oupa Manyisa, Andile Jali and Dean Furman provided us with great cover in the middle of the park, screening our back four which made it incredibly difficult for Spain to penetrate our defence despite their pinpoint passing.
With this, we managed to frustrate Spain, something very few teams managed to do in over three years while ourselves looking dangerous on transition from defence into attack.
We hit the post through Oupa Manyisa and had gone close to scoring on two separate occasions.
At half-time I applauded the team for the way in which they were executing the game plan and reminded them, that we were still going to create our own chances the more desperate Spain became to try score.
It was no surprise that with the competitive nature of the game, Del Bosque rang the changes in the second half. Bringing on a host of attacking players with the intention of unlocking our resolute defence. And with this, opening the door for us to counter attack more effectively and exploit them defensively.
We continued to frustrate the Spanish and after some quick interplay substitute Kamohelo Mokotjo picked up possession and laid off a perfectly weighted one time pass for Bernard Parker to run onto.
I can remember that moment as if I was watching it on play back now in slow motion. The instant Kamohelo made the pass, I knew in my heart that this was going to be our moment.
Bernard exuded all his class when he chipped the ball over a sliding Victor Valdés giving us the lead. It was a goal that even Spain would have been proud of. A goal, which left the Spanish in disbelief as they now had to chase the game with time running out.
We were playing at home with the roar of the nation behind us, against all expectation we were leading the best team in the world, with all their superstars, there was no way I or the players were going to give in.
With 15 minutes to go, the drama started.
Their keeper, Valdez went down with what appeared to be a knee injury. Due to the nature of a Category-A match, FIFA rules explicitly state that a maximum of six replacements are allowed on matchday and Del Bosque had already maximized his allotted subs.
I myself had even held back on making a sixth sub to avoid being caught in a similar situation.
The Spanish were well aware of the rules, so much so that their captain Iker Casillas indicated from the bench that they had used up all their subs and would have to play out the remainder of the match with 10 men as per FIFA Laws, meaning that an in-field player would have to step in goal. Álvaro Arbeloa even put on the Valdez jersey to get the game underway.
However to my surprise, members of the Spanish national team, including players, walked over to my technical area to request that they be allowed to make a seventh substitute to bring on a goalkeeper.
Despite TV commentary on the day suggesting as an international friendly - we should allow it to be done in good faith and as gesture of sportsmanship.
I knew the ramifications of which were huge, as it would then degrade the categorization of the match – to a training match, which I outrightly refused!
I actually found it insulting that the Spanish would even suggest it.
Because of what I believed to be a lack of respect I wasn’t prepared to be bullied, more so not on our home soil, world champions or not. We had agreed the magnitude of the game beforehand and I wasn’t prepared to compromise. We had less than 15 minutes to play in what was going to be a historic day in SA football. I was determined to see it out under the rules in which it was sanctioned. Further to this, how could I allow such a decision to take place knowing it was full well in breach of what SAFA President Dr Danny Jordaan had negotiated and signed off on.
Despite being met with a number of insults from their players in Spanish, of which my assistant coach Alex Heredia was fluent in the language we argued our point and outright refused their request.
After much drama on the touchline, without the permission of the match commissioner, Spain broke the rules and still made their seventh substitution with Pepe Reina entering the fray to see out the last minutes of the match.
The lack of respect shown in that moment galvanized and rallied the team to dig even deeper. We matched them in every department and despite the Spanish superiority complex, our grit and determination humbled them, eventually leading to us walking away with the historic 1-0 win.
Still, to this day, one of the proudest moments of my career as a manager.
The following day, Dr Danny Jordaan wrote to FIFA to inform them that we were not impressed with the behaviour of the Spanish national team in favor of the seventh substitution, and with the aid of the match commissioner’s report which categorically stated that we did not agree to the infringement taking place - we submitted a request to have it remain a ‘Category-A’ match – to which FIFA duly obliged.
Despite their efforts to squirm away from defeat, the history books will always show that on 19 November 2013, Bafana Bafana stood up to, and beat world and European champions Spain 1-0 at the FNB Stadium.
Watch a few highlights from the match here:
A game I would love to see rebroadcast in full on local TV.
Before signing off this week please let me know if you’re enjoying the stories and if there any stories you would like to hear about. Also feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them in my next column. That’s it for this week. Make sure you head to www.soccer6.co.za to go play the TAB Soccer pools this week and keep the above story in mind.
Yours in football,
Coach Gordon Igesund