‘Defensive play got SA into last 16’
Sifiso Hlanti defends Bafana Bafana as mighty Egypt lie in wait
Bafana Bafana left-back Sifiso Hlanti has done his best to explain the team’s unpopular defensive strategy at the Africa Cup of Nations — one that has now got the team, by the narrowest of margins, into the last-16 to face Egypt.
SA ended as the fourth-best third-placed finisher as results in the final two groups went their way on Tuesday, the day after Bafana suffered a last-gasp 1-0 defeat against Morocco.
But we’re going up against the best. Players from big clubs in Europe.
Now, having had one foot on the plane home, SA meet Egypt at the Cairo International Stadium on Saturday (kickoff 9pm).
The atmosphere will be electric and Bafana, whose games have been played in half-empty stadiums, are likely to be intimidated by a full house of passionate Egypt fans. Coach Stuart Baxter has come in for a lot of flak from fans at home for the team’s tactics in their three group matches.
SA were timid in defeat to Ivory Coast, lumbering in a 1-0 win over minnows Namibia and naive when losing to a last-minute goal by Morocco in a game they should have drawn.
Hlanti said Bafana want to play the kind of football that can get the side as far as possible in the tournament.
“I think that in this kind of tournament it’s not about playing pretty football,” the Bidvest Wits left-back said at Bafana’s team hotel next to Cairo International Airport on Wednesday.
“I’ll be honest — the reason I’m saying that is because this is not a thing where you’re playing for a league. It’s a once-off thing.
“So you have to throw everything you have, where at the end of it you’ll end up getting points and move to the next stage of the competition.”
But in the games against Ivory Coast and Morocco, Bafana failed to get one shot on target. Surely that is not “throwing everything you have”?
“Not as such,” Hlanti said. “But what I’m trying to clarify is that at some stage you need to show up. I’m not saying that we are not good enough as a team. But we’re going up against the best. Players from big clubs in Europe.
“We have to give them respect. At the same time, we need to grind everything that we can to do better on the field. It’s all about hard work. We need the result. It doesn’t matter how we play.”
And the reaction in SA?
“It’s a difficult one to answer, but I will try to manipulate things,” Hlanti said with a grin.
“Because I take myself as an ordinary person. I respect people so much. So they might be not be feeling well at the way we play. But truly speaking, whatever we do here, we are not doing for anyone else.
“We are doing it for ourselves, because we work for our families,” he said.
“We respect the support from the country. We have no doubt about that. But all in all, it’s about us. Because we are here for one ambition. The mission we have is to go further in this tournament,” said Hlanti.
At some level, he seemed to be explaining the thinking of his coach more than the players, perhaps. A valiant effort and honest answers, nonetheless.
The left-back might face his toughest challenge on Saturday, trying to contain Egypt’s Liverpool hitman Mohamed Salah.