U23 players determined to make it to Rio
COACH Owen da Gama remains confident his South African side can progress to the knockout stages of the Africa Under-23 Cup of Nations and keep their Olympic dreams alive despite a deflating 3-1 loss to hosts Senegal in their Group A opener on Saturday.
Defensive naivety cost South Africa the points and they now likely face a scenario where they will have to win both their remaining pool matches against Zambia tomorrow and impressive north Africans Tunisia on Friday.
There was some edge to the South African attack, particularly by the highly impressive teenager Phakamani Mahlambi, but defensively they looked frail.
“I don’t want to make excuses but we didn’t play to our best at all,” Da Gama said. “We will keep on working to leave our mark here.
“We created the first chances of this match but we couldn’t convert them.”
Da Gama said the defeat served as a learning curve for his side ahead of the games to come.
“I’m really proud of our performance despite the defeat because most our players are young.
“Our main striker [Mahlambi] was playing very deep but he’s only 18 years old and he’s a new sensation in South Africa.
“We can still qualify from the group.”
Senegal coach Serigne Saliou Dia praised South Africa for taking the game to his side and was relieved at the positive start to a campaign the All-Africa Games champions are expected to excel in.
“It was not easy for us because South Africa played well and they created good chances, but we managed to defend well,” Dia said.
“It was important that we started with a win as host.”
He suggested that Da Gama’s side were a little one-dimensional, without the ability to change things up in the second period.
“Coming into the game, we knew little about the South Africa team but as the match went on, we knew how to play them,” he revealed.
South Africa’s next opponents, Zambia, lost 2-1 to Tunisia in a hard-fought game that showed there will be no letup in the quality of the opposition for Da Gama.
Zambia coach Fighton Simukonda believes his side deserved more and says they are determined to take that frustration out on SA.
“The game was 50-50 but Tunisia used their last chance and they scored,” he said.
“Otherwise, we could’ve also carried the day. We had about two or three chances which we missed.
“We had chances to score, but at the end of the day Tunisia were lucky and they scored.
“After losing, we’ve to go back to the drawing board and make sure that we win the two remaining games to be in contention.”
South Africa need to finish in the top three in the under-23 finals to reach the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next August.