Bafana Bafana’s organization impressed me even more than the 2-0 scoreline away from home in their opening Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Uyo, Nigeria.
Coach Stuart Baxter is known for his attention to detail and his ability to switch between systems mid-game, utilizing his transition tactics that won him two PSL titles with Kaizer Chiefs and got his last club, SuperSport United into three Cup finals in 18 months.
His performance away in Africa reminded me of the tactical discipline Bafana Bafana once produced under Carlos Queiroz’s reign. That’s the ideal template to follow when you consider that Queiroz consistently qualified South Africa for the Afcon, as well as the 2002 Fifa World Cup.
At the start of the game SA knew they needed to be patient for Baxter’s impact to be realised. When a coach places tremendous focus on drilling a mechanical system, it’s only natural that it takes time to get drilled into the players. The South Africans were disadvantaged to go to one of the most difficult countries away in Africa with a new drawing board. In terms of performances Bafana were not doing badly under Shakes Mashaba, having beaten Senegal and going 16 games unbeaten.
It’s true that new coaches get that little bit extra from players to start with, and that it takes time to measure true success.
However, this was not a result gained through passion alone. It was a perfectly executed game plan from the coach to the players.
Though, it must be said that Bafana Bafana did start shakily in Uyo. In the first ten minutes, the visitors defended awfully as they were struggling to deal with Nigeria’s pace. Our defenders made matters worse for themselves by ‘clearing’ the ball back to Nigeria in dangerous positions. With the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho lurking, they should’ve safely kicked the ball out. I believe the worst you can say about the Super Eagles is that with their superior firepower, they failed to take advantage of Bafana Bafana, to such an extent that their attackers were not even in the right positions to cash in.
After that, South Africa seemed to play a higher line and the home side was caught off side. From then on they grew frustrated together with the crowd. The visitors did virtually nothing in the first half, apart from being gifted a guilt edged chance from close in, thanks to the keeper Daniel Akpeyi spilling the ball. With the goal at his mercy, Themba Zwane hit the post to Baxter’s disbelief.
The first half told us that Baxter’s playing much more defensively than previous coach Shakes Mashaba, who didn’t show any respect to opposition. You’d be thinking that this was going to be one of those grinded out, ugly 0-0 draws. I enjoyed watching Bafana play under Mashaba. We’d get into good positions with big goals but the concentration wasn’t there to last, as SA always let the opposition back into the game. So, under Shakes we’d end up with good performances but drawn results (against Nigeria and Cameroon), and in one case we managed to turn a winning position against Algeria into defeat. So, the real test in Uyo was after Bafana went 1-0 up. The opening goal came from Nigeria’s poor aerial coverage and the keeper was too easily beaten on his near post by a Tokelo Rantie header.
Did Bafana pass their test? Yes, emphatically. To rub it in I have to say, South Africa could’ve won this game 5-0 which is an unbelievable statement to make. Look closely at the game and you will find it’s true. Zwane hit the post twice when he surely should’ve scored easily. The second time was after a beautiful move with two back heeled passes. Zwane eased through the Nigerian defenders and when he hit the post again, you wondered if SA would get a better chance to seal it.
Not against top teams like Nigeria, you’d think? Actually, the Super Eagles fell apart. To continue to prove my point, Keagan Dolly should’ve been awarded a clear penalty when through on goal, but a Nigerian defender clearly pushed him back with his hands. Not to be deflated, South Africa’s quality never stopped shining on the night and Dolly produced the perfect through ball for Percy Tau on the break. Tau used his pace to easily get away from the keeper. If you look closely Akpeyi attempted to take Tau out and should’ve been sent off there. Nevertheless, Tau shook off the push and still had time to find the ball again, before slotting it into an open goal.
With Nigeria rattled, they were there for the taking and Lebogang Manyama could’ve made it three… Ever since the Nigerians were chasing the game, they left too much space in wide positions. Baxter made the perfect substitutions with Manyama and Tau to exploit Nigeria on the counter attack.
Now, South Africa just needs to show the same level of professionalism in their remaining Afcon and Fifa World Cup qualifiers. We can only speak of a great new era when we earn that ticket to Russia 2018. For now, this has to be South Africa’s best ever single result in a competitive game. South Africa’s 1-0 victory against Spain, when the visitors were reigning World and European champions, is a tough act to surpass in friendly matches.
The South African public has long complained that they only impress in friendlies. This night was all about beating Nigeria for the first time in a real, competitive match.