Isn’t it strange that we have to turn our attention to 2019 Afcon qualification in the middle of a 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign?
Yes, we are already accustomed to this Caf qualifying structure because the Africa Cup of Nations is played every two years. New Caf president Ahmad Ahmad needs to go ahead and change the Afcon tournament to once every four years. Caf should also move the event to our winter so that there’s no availability issues with stars from European club football. It’s not just the top leagues in the world who are disrupted, the Afcon creates a scheduling problem for our local calendar too.
Then you throw in the Caf Champions League and Confederations Cup and we have a total fixture mess! It is time Caf thought about the players because better scheduling will result in better performances, better players at tournaments and better African results at the Fifa World Cup. In terms of how this affects South Africa, either Caf needs to move their fixtures, or the PSL needs to start in January, like Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane suggested.
The experience SA gains in these Caf competitions is essential for the development of our local players and in turn strengthens Bafana Bafana’s performances for qualifiers. I don’t want to see clubs like Bidvest Wits and Kaizer Chiefs fall easily to boost their domestic ambitions. This hurts our chances of playing in World Cups. The scheduling and financial benefits for these tournaments must be improved. So, let’s start with proper communication between the associations and then let’s all follow the same calendar in Africa.
Nigeria's star player, Victor Moses is not even in their squad
Beating the 'big boys' to qualification
From now on Bafana Bafana should be qualifying for both the World Cup and Afcon. I say this because Africa’s old super powers are not as strong as they used to be. There are significant weaknesses in the likes of Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon's teams. Over the years our fans would be more excited to watch the likes of Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure in his prime, Nwankwo Kanu, Samuel Etoó or Michael Essien. Their teammates were also at the top of their game! The odds were always stacked against us when we faced Africa’s elite. These days many of the new stars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are playing for nations that are less experienced than Bafana Bafana in terms of World Cups.
The so-called famous African nations are regressing, and at the same time many other countries are improving. For this reason there isn’t a big difference anymore, so there’s potential for many upsets in these qualifiers. We’ve already seen this with Nigeria and Egypt missing out on some of their recent campaigns. Now, to progress you don’t need star names from the English Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A or La Liga. Of course it helps to decide tight games. What’s better is superior team work and this is where South Africa can take heart from the likes of Cape Verde and Burkina Faso.
Ironically, Bafana’s got these same two teams in their World Cup qualifying group. The pundits all rubbed their hands in glee that we got a relatively easier group. However we will have to work even harder against these organized nations. It would have been easier against a famous team that has star players who think they're better than they really are. To make the difference in tight games against the likes of Burkina Faso, our quality will have to stand out. What quality? Without star players such as Benni McCarthy or Steven Pienaar, South Africa has to rely on team work too. Then there's Senegal, a rising force in Africa that could become the ‘new Ivory Coast’ in future. They're different from Nigeria or Cameroon, because some of Senegal's players could be unstoppable no matter how organized South Africa is. Coach Stuart Baxter faced a team in a similar position of development, when he failed for 2006 World Cup qualification. Back then it was Ghana. Let’s see what he’s learnt this time around. Safa must cross fingers that their 2-1 victory over Senegal still counts when Fifa’s investigation comes to a head. As always it will take time for South Africa to get in tune with a new coach, Baxter's system. Before all that, Nigeria will be a steep learning curve and Bafana needs the confidence that this game will offer.
Don't forget Nigeria
I’m obviously far more excited about the World Cup campaign than the Afcon. We play Nigeria on Saturday, but the Afcon is in 2019. Time goes so fast and Russia 2018 is just a year away. Taking the same factors I mentioned above into play, previous coach Shakes Mashaba managed to get the better of Nigeria to qualify for the 2015 Afcon. Baxter will be examining those videos along with the tips he received from his Manchester United scout.
We can do it again because Bafana Bafana’s gradually improved in the last five years. We’re gaining experience in Caf club competitions too. We don’t have super stars but the likes of the new generation in Keagan Dolly and Bongani Zungu are starting to gain European experience. Dean Furman’s stepped up his African education which is vital when you’re only facing African opposition (not English Championship material and conditions) in qualifiers. Finally, there’s fresh options to solve our problems upfront and Sundowns being African champions will boost our confidence. The only negative factor is that our Brazilians will be awfully tired. This is why the top half of this editorial was all about restructuring our competition schedules.
We are capable of beating the Super Eagles in Uyo, but SA supporters shouldn’t get on Baxter’s back if we do suffer defeat. Nigeria away is one of the worst possible games to start your new tenure in Africa. Yes, Nigeria’s not as strong as they used to be, but even European nations won’t find it easy to get a result in those conditions against one of the most passionate football fans in the world.
As far as the format goes, both Nigeria and South Africa could qualify. Three second placed teams will earn a ticket for Cameroon 2019. So, we need to make sure we get maximum points against Seychelles and Libya, home and away. It’s not a make or break fixture in Uyo, but Baxter will be itching to silence his critics. If he can get his tactics right… South Africa’s first ever competitive win against Nigeria will do wonders for bringing everyone (especially the doubters) on his side.
The last time Bafana beat Nigeria (2-1 at Soccer City) was with Baxter’s team in November 2004. South Africa should be confident of doing the same when Nigeria comes home in October 2018. On Saturday both teams should be happy with a draw in Uyo.