Ok, the international break has come and gone, meaning we can now review Shakes Mashaba’s first assignment as the Bafana Bafana coach. A lot of detractors lamented the fact that the squad chosen for the two opening two AFCON qualifiers against Sudan and Nigeria was too inexperienced, and reckoned coach Mashaba should have done things a tad slower than he did. The team flew to Sudan and did so without regular skipper Itumeleng Khune, who suffered an ankle injury in camp and had to be replaced. Now that meant the level of experience in the team deteriorated even further, and the hope was that just a draw will do away from home.
In an unusual manner in football, the starting line up for the Sudan game was made public a day before the match day, and the coach also announced that Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa will captain the team. Although many felt that Anele Ngcongca, with more than 40 caps for the national team was the senior citizen and should be given the armband, I get why Shakes went with Meyiwa instead. The 26-year old played a lot of continental football last season with Pirates and was probably the best person to lead the team in the not so kind conditions of other African countries.
He knows exactly what to expect, how to play, and saved a few penalties on the road to the Champions League final. This decision proved to be a stroke of genius by the coach, as Meyiwa made a couple of telling saves and should be credited with keeping a clean sheet and in the first half. At that point it seemed like the instruction from the coach was to just weather the storm for the first 45, then go at them hard in the second. The game plan worked to perfection when Bafana came out guns blazing and imposed their game on the hosts.
Guys like Dean Furman and Andile Jali were just a class above, winning every second ball in that midfield. When Sibusiso Vilakazi was introduced, he went straight to doing the job, scoring with his first touch. After he added his second not too long after, it was obvious that the three points were guaranteed. Sudan was nowhere to be seen. Another player who was a surprise inclusion in the squad, Bongani Ndulula, then completed the rout when he scored on debut, repaying the coach’s faith in him. All of a sudden, the hashtag “In Shakes We Trust” was trending in South Africa. But I trust that he’s experienced enough to know not to trust football fans.
So with that win the team was pumped up, and rightfully so. We were leading the group, something that doesn’t happen too often. And there was this sense of hope in the country that we’ll finally beat Nigeria in a competitive game, which was our next fixture. Another thing that gave Bafana and the rest of us that optimism was that the Super Eagles were having boardroom issues, and everyone was not even certain that the game will happen. I must admit that it would have been a shame for them to be unable to defend their crown, but deep inside me I was hoping they forfeit.
Anyway Bra Shakes made only two changes to the starting lineup against Nigeria. Vilakazi started ahead of Tokelo Rantie, and Oupa Manyisa replaced Keegan Dolly. I felt that this was probably the only time we’re going to find them so vulnerable, and we should go for the kill, kick them while they’re down. The stadium was nice and full, and the pitch was perfect so Bafana had everything they needed in Cape Town. We played well and showed no respect for the reigning champions, a plus you get when playing with young players. They are no respecter of persons and just want to make a name for themselves.
It was again Furman, Jali, and Mandla Masango who made things happen in the middle of the park, and the class of Oupa Manyisa was highlighted. He was just cool and collected, really showing why the Pirates fans call him an ace. But the one unsung hero on the day was Mulomowandau Mathoho at the back. The man put in quite a shift and played his best game in national colours in my opinion. He even denied Nigeria a certain goal at the death, with Meyiwa beaten for once.
Even though the scoreline on the day was 0-0, Bafana played with heart and I’m convinced that if it wasn’t for some frustrating moments by Rantie at times, we would have easily won the game. We are now sitting on four points and second place in the group standings ahead of trips to Congo and Nigeria, meaning we still stand a very good chance of going to Morocco in January. What we saw in these two games was enough to tell us that we have a team and the future looks bright.