Image source: Pulse
With only one more sleep before the start of the latest edition of the African Cup of Nations, fans all over the continent are talking up their countries and the potential shot at glory. For South Africans, it’s become a case of how long the fairy tale under the Mashaba ‘Shake Up’ can last. But before we delve into that beautiful story, allow me to take you back a few years. It’s 2011, and we are deep into the qualifying rounds for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. South Africa are sitting second on the table going into the final game, in a group that includes Egypt, Niger and Sierra Leone. A win against Sierra Leone would ensure a safe passage through for Bafana, while a draw would also suffice, on condition the Egyptians beat Niger. As had been the case in most matches, the boys were finding it difficult to put the ball in the back of the net, but as news seeped through that Egypt were comfortably ahead against Niger, the Mbombela crowd were at ease, as a draw seemed more probable than a win seemed possible; and that’s how the game ended.
The fans, the coaching staff, the players, and possibly even the referee, came together in celebration, with a perfectly choreographed dance routine from the senior players being executed to the sound of singing and buzzing vuvuzelas. Joy and disbelief overcame the country, Bafana Bafana were off to Afcon by virtue of finishing second, ahead of Niger. But in the most tragic and heart breakingly embarrassing circumstances, news arrived that there was a misunderstanding of CAF rules on the part of the coaching staff, a detail nobody in the entire national team setup was aware of, a rule which stated that it was head-to-head, as opposed to goal difference that determined the final standings. And just like that, it was gone. No Afcon, no joy, no dance. The calamity!
The pain caused an uproar amongst South African fans, who then demanded change and a better Bafana Bafana. The top dogs obliged, substituting the then coach Pitso Mosimane for the more trusted and more cost effective, Gordon Igesund. The kit changed, the mentality changed, the style of play changed (somewhat), but it was results that the fans wanted, and failure to win the 2013 Afcon tournament, held in South Africa, meant even more change was needed. The order was given to recruit the most worthy of suitors for the job, to rescue what the Minister of Sport called “A bunch of losers”. A shortlist was drawn up, featuring some of football’s more reputable names, and after much deliberation, it was announced that Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba would be the man in the hot seat for the foreseeable future, a man who some quarters of the media considered “the cheap option” despite having held the position before and had recently brought glory to the Mzansi football fraternity. Which brings me to the beautiful story, ‘The Shake Up’, the fairy tale, The Maverick.
Having built a reputation for focusing on youth, and awarding national team call ups on merit, change under Mashaba was an inevitability, and with “the cheap option” tag and a mountain of pressure resting on his shoulders, it was up to the players to answer the critics on his behalf. The first chance they had to do so was during an AFCON 2015 qualifier against Sudan, a happy 3-0 occasion made possible by goals from Sibusiso Vilakazi and Bongani Ndulula. A fluke, some said, while a draw against Nigeria and a victory against the likes of the Ivory Coast and Zambia followed. Meanwhile, Shakes was building an army, the boys weren’t just getting results, but they were earning them, displaying the kind performances we had only seen in black and white and on video games; Bafana Bafana were now looking like a top class South African team and not a 3rd tier European side. A victory against Sudan secured Bafana’s place in the tournament with a game to spare, a game which they drew to ensure an unbeaten qualifying campaign.
I am yet to see fans so happy to see a coach with his hands on his head, but Mashaba’s trademark celebration and the number of times we have been able to witness it in recent times, are a sign that our football is moving in the right direction. A steady defence, a solid, creative midfield and an ever growing strike force have seen Bafana move from 69th on the FIFA rankings in August 2014 to 52nd in the latest rankings. If that does not represent some form of progress then I’m not sure what does. Taking an 11 game unbeaten run into the continent’s biggest competition is an admirable feat by any standard, regardless of whether it was a of string friendlies or back to back cup finals, because of the impact it has on the morale, attitude and mentality of the team and the fans.
The coach himself has talked up his side’s chances, going as far as to say that they will be returning after the final has been played. While some think this is placing unnecessary pressure on the squad, I reckon it’s the biggest indication of Mashaba’s belief in his boys, putting his money on his troops, and if the coach believes it, and the fans believe it, then the players too can play with confidence and belief; something that has been the hallmark of Bra Shakes’ tenure. Even the new sponsor Nike’s visually appealing kit represents the progress and belief amongst (most) South Africans right now; although many South Africans are finding it taxing on the pocket, especially after a very joyous festive season. So to answer the question “Are the boys ready?” my answer to that is, they are more ready now than they have been since the 1996 triumph, and whether they win the tournament or not, the boys have come a long way from the group once dubbed “a bunch of losers” by the Honourable Razzmatazz.