A new hope or a false dawn for Mashaba's South Africa?
The ousting of the previous champion is always a good feeling in football
Removing the possibility of consecutive victories and a long-term dominance, Nigeria's failure to make it to Equatorial Guinea for the Africa Cup of Nations 2015 drew gasps of surprise from all over, as the continental champions failed to navigate their way through their qualifying group. Whilst all of their three opponents played a part in the plot of the Super Eagles demise, it was South Africa who dealt the final blow, putting in a professional performance when qualification was already essentially secured to draw 2-2.
Whilst hosting of the 2010 World Cup and then the 2013 edition of AFCON made the world very aware of the South African team and what they had to offer, the 2015 tournament in Equatorial Guinea is the first competition they've qualified for not via the right as host since AFCON 2008. Possessing the infrastructure to host a tournament, their recent flurry of hosting seems to have deflected from the problems they've experienced, with this most recent success sparking beliefs that this team can go all the way.
Shakes Mashaba's appointment in July 2014 has thus proven to be one of the most successful since the last time Bafana Bafana qualified for a Africa Cup of Nations off their own back. The South African FA since 2008 have bucked the traditional African trend of flitting between foreign and national managers, instead employing successive managers of a certain nationality. Carlos Alberto Parreira, Joel Santana and then the return of Parreira saw the Brazilian phase, before engaging in a strictly South African hiring policy since they hosted the World Cup, with Pitso Mosimane – famous for failing to qualify for AFCON 2012, after a misunderstanding of the rules meant he played for draw when a win was required – caretaker manager Steve Komphela and Gordon Igesund preceding the incumbent Mashaba.
Remaining unbeaten throughout the qualifiers, the man who was deemed the “cheap” option by his critics seems to have proved that you don't have to pay big bucks to get quality, in what is his second reign as national team manager.
A stark contrast to the dour football promoted by Gordon Igesund, Mashaba has committed to playing an attractive brand of football that doesn't make you want to scratch your eyes out, normally sticking to a standard 4-4-2 for the majority of matches. With a number of big names no longer in the picture, the likes of Steven Pienaar, Siphiwe Tshabalala, Kagisho Dikagcoi and Bongani Khumalo have been culled from the South Africa setup, with his apparent preference for domestically-based players allowing local talents such as Rivaldo Coetzee and Sibusiso Vilakazi to flourish in the Bafana colours. This policy has not been without controversy, however.
Announcing a slightly excessive 34-man preliminary squad, the resulting trim to 23 yielded some surprising results, as Thulani Serero missed the final cut. The omission of the Ajax playmaker, who had been in superb form for the Dutch club thus far this season and was frequently used during qualifying, created surprise from many quarters – as one of the country's most creative and useful assets. Whether they come to regret this decision remains to be seen.
Despite the positive brand of football they purvey, the defence has perhaps been the most encouraging part of Mashaba's reign, despite the lack of consistency in personnel. Using a different defensive line-up for five of the six games, using an array of names, only three goals were conceded in the six qualifying games – with two of those coming in the 2-2 draw against Nigeria in the final game. Plus, after the tragic loss of goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa – shot back in October in an event that rocked South African football to its core – the miraculous four clean sheets they kept under the circumstances no doubt would have made the deceased goalkeeper happy. You can be assured that Bafana Bafana will be playing for Meyiwa in Equatorial Guinea.
Another member of the terrifically difficult Group C, they face Algeria in the first game in Mongomo followed by Senegal and Ghana, so quite how far South Africa can realistically expect to go is unclear. Whilst a group stage exit in the context of things would certainly not disastrous, the sense of optimism emanating from South Africa means it is definite that fans are unlikely to be satisfied with falling at the first hurdle, hoping to use their much-improved qualification campaign as a spring board to silverware-shaped things.