ALMOST a year ago, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula labelled Bafana Bafana a bunch of losers, but this week the political firebrand handed national team coach Shakes Mashaba a South African flag and asked him to bring the Africa Cup of Nations title home.
This is the tale of Bafana’s changing fortunes nearly 12 months after they were embarrassed in Cape Town and knocked out of the African Nations Championships, the less fancied tournament that follows the Afcon and involves only locally based players.
Then, Gordon Igesund, the man in charge of Bafana, picked a strong 23-man squad that included members of Bafana’s World Cup squad three years earlier but failed to outdo Mali and Nigeria in their group.
Mashaba has also picked a team mostly made up of South Africa’s Premier League players, with a mix of the overseas contingent, and expects them to not just make up the numbers in Equatorial Guinea.
The tournament kicks off on January 17, but Bafana’s opener against Algeria in Group C is scheduled two days later in Mongomo, on the outskirts of the capital. Senegal and Ghana complete the group.
Clad in their new Nike attire yesterday, the final 23-man squad posed for pictures with Mbalula before boarding a flight to Libreville, Gabon, where they will first test themselves against one of the favourites, Cameroon.
And Mashaba is still hoping to secure one last friendly match against Gabon, who will also be participating in the Afcon. “We need to keep this flag flying high and not at half-mast because we are not just going there to add the numbers,” the coach said when he accepted the minister’s send-off gift and plea.
“These boys must know what it means to don this yellow jersey. I have packed my bags for six weeks because I expect to only return at the end of the tournament.”
Mashaba, who boasts an unbeaten record since taking over as national team coach in July, had some concerns about his team following a drab 1-0 victory against Zambia at Orlando Stadium on Sunday.
However, having had a number of rigorous training sessions in an attempt to be at ease with his selection, he is now confident he has picked the right men for the job. “We would have loved to be together for a year,” he said jokingly. “But the truth is there can never be enough time to prepare.
“Our sessions were determined by our previous game and we tried to push them even in the heat.
“I think we have addressed some of those issues and we know the players were only lacking in fitness. There’s no way I could have picked a team I do not believe in. They don’t look scared. I just see hunger in their eyes.”
The coach gave his players one more push before they left.
“I think the pressure is what will make us compete. Everyone is guessing and not knowing what to expect from our group, which has top nations. I believe they are also having press conferences similar to this one and they are being asked if they are scared to face South Africa.”
– Mazola Molefe