As the South African National football team (also known as Bafana Bafana for international visitors) begin their final preparations for the 2013 African Cup of Nations with friendlies against Norway (Cape Town Stadium, tomorrow night) and Algeria (Saturday 12th Jan, Orlando Stadium), we offer a few thoughts on the squad selected for the coach’s first competitive international competition – those included, omitted and tactical options available.
GK: Itumeleng Khune (Kaizer Chiefs), Wayne Sandilands (Mamelodi Sundowns), Senzo Meyiwa (Orlando Pirates)
CBs: Bongani Khumalo (PAOK, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Siyabonga Sangweni (Orlando Pirates), Thabo Nthethe (Bloemfontein Celtic)
LBs: Tsepo Masilela (Kaizer Chiefs), Thabo Matlaba (Orlando Pirates)
RBs: Anele Ngcongca (Racing Genk), Siboniso Gaxa (Kaizer Chiefs)
DMs: Kagisho Dikgacoi (Crystal Palace), Dean Furman (Oldham Athletic)
CMs: Reneilwe Letsholonyane (Kaizer Chiefs), Oupa Manyisa (Orlando Pirates), May Mahlangu (Helsingborg IF)
AMs/WMs: Thulani Serero (Ajax Amsterdam), Lerato Chabangu (Moroka Swallows), Thuso Phala (Platinum Stars), Siphiwe Tshabalala (Kaizer Chiefs)
CFs: Bernard Parker (Kaizer Chiefs), Katlego Mphela (Mamelodi Sundowns), Tokelo Rantie (Malmo FF), Lehlohonolo Majoro (Kaizer Chiefs)
* 16 locally based players, 7 overseas
The only slight surprise in the goalkeeping selection was the inclusion of Senzo Meyiwa ahead of Belgium based Darren Keet. Keet has played every single minute for KV Kortrijk this season, receiving high recommendations for his performances. However, rumours abound that the Kortrijk coach, Hein Vanhaezebrouck is severely reluctant to allow his ever-present goalkeeper to go to a tournament where he would be third choice and unlikely to feature. This at a time when Keet’s club are sitting with a (albeit slim) chance of European qualification in the league, going into the last third of the season (Keet would potentially miss 6 out of the last 10 games of the season).
Igesund, speaking about relationships with coaches overseas: “This is something that needs to be done face-to-face; over the phone there is nothing personal there. We need to talk about how we can assist them because I do understand this club vs country issue – the players earn their money from the clubs and get paid big salaries, and the clubs don’t want to lose these players. And no disrespect, but those managers don’t really care about our national team, like I don’t care about the English national team.”
Meyiwa has provided solid and consistent cover for Moeneeb Josephs during his injury in the PSL’s strongest defence and his inclusion as third choice is merited. Itumeleng Khune is undoubtedly 1st choice, with Wayne Sandilands providing excellent backup. Khune’s incredible distribution is vital to a team lacking height up front. His accurate kicking to attackers’ feet over long distances allows Bafana to build up quickly, skipping the opposition’s midfield line with a better chance of maintaining possession as opposed to the aerial route. His shot stopping ability is also superb (see his performance against Brazil) and he is guaranteed to save us at least 3 goals in the tournament.
The inclusion of only 3 centre backs in the squad may be a surprise. Consider the situation if 1 picks up an injury and another receives 2 yellow cards for a one match suspension and Bafana are already looking at alternative options at centre back, with the possibility of Anele Ngcongca filling in at centre back. Ivory Coast have similarly named 3 centre backs, however they have Yaya Toure and Didier Zokoro in their squad, 2 players more than capable of dropping in as cover. Bafana will be relying heavily on the fitness and discipline of Sangweni and Khumalo. Bevan Fransman can count himself unlucky not to make the final cut, having started against Malawi and been in the squad for the previous 3 camps. He loses his spot to the more versatile Thabo Nthethe, who is also capable of playing fullback and defensive midfield (at a push).
The starting centre back partnership will undoubtedly see the captain Bongani Khumalo and the excellent Siyabonga Sangweni paired. A quick attack may potentially threaten these two on transitions, however they have proven a solid partnership, only conceding 3 goals in the 4 games they have started together since last year June. A strong defence aerially is a major attribute at tournaments, when inferior teams look to defend well, win set pieces and capitalise.
A relatively strong area of Bafana’s squad. Anele Ngcongca and Tsepo Masilela look to start at right and left back respectively, with Thabo Matlaba usefully being able to play on either side. Siboniso Gaxa provides cover at right back. Matlaba may potentially come in against smaller opposition, when Igesund needs to make a more attacking, proactive selection. He may not be risked against more ruthless teams, as he often leaves too much space behind him regularly going forward (his pace usually hides his positional weakness).
There has been lots of talk of Ricardo Nunes missing out on a spot. The Portuguese born South African impressed in games against Kenya, Zambia and Poland. In the end Matlaba was favoured mainly due to his versatility as well as Nunes attributes leaning towards his attacking rather than his defensive ability.
Igesund: “I think Nunes was very unlucky. It was a tough one. Ricardo was very good going forward. He has a great left foot but defensively he was sometimes left wanting. The game in Africa is very fast and this was new to him.”
The English based pair of Dean Furman and Kagisho Dikgacoi looks to be set on starting in the heart of Bafana’s midfield. Furman’s job is a simple role of maintaining possession, quick movement of the ball and passes out wide to encourage fullbacks to advance. Dikgacoi has been performing better this season getting forward much more from a deep position (something which is vital for South Africa who lack an advanced No. 9). He has been on the scoresheet 5 times this season as Crystal Palace push for promotion (currently 3rd in the league) and if he does not score himself, South African fans will be hoping for more defence splitting passes like the one that led to Tshabalala’s opening 2010 World Cup goal.
Dikgacoi: “Last season I had a lot of injury problems but in the summer I worked really hard. I feel a lot stronger and playing a lot of games has really helped me. Dougie Freedman (ex-Crystal Palace manager) had a chat with me at the start of pre-season and spoke to me about some aspects of my game, like getting more involved in the attacks and also keeping myself fit. He is an honest guy and he would advise you in a constructive way to make sure you improve as a player. He has played a significant role in my career. Everything is going well for me now and obviously for the team as well.”
Igesund on KG: “KG’s getting forward more and scoring goals so that’s really good for us. I’m very happy with the way he has come back from injury but I just hope the Palace coach leaving doesn’t affect him too much. I had a good relationship with Dougie about when we could take KG for friendlies but hopefully the new coach will keep playing him in the same kind of role. He should be one of the main guys for us in January.”
Reneilwe Letsholonyane is an alternative, more mobile option as a potential No. 8 in what most presume will be Gordon Igesund’s flexible 4-3-3. Letsholonyane is a vital part of Bafana’s build up as he likes to be continuously involved in play from the back. He may be suited better than Furman against teams that press aggresively due to his mobility. In more advanced positions, he is capable of picking out one of Bafana’s numerous attacking midfielders with his strong vision and passing.
May Mahlangu, 2011 Swedish Player of The Year at age 22, is a similar player, possibly offering not as much defensive cover as Letsholonyane but his ability has excited South African football fans, dying to be able to watch more of the player based in Sweden. Oupa Manyisa provides good all round competition as a defensive midfielder or box-to-box.
The outrage by fans at Andile Jali’s ommission from the final squad does not seem to be too surprising. For far too long Jali has been coasting on his reputation. He has excellent tackling ability and has ferocious intensity but often does not track his man on transitions and gives away far too many fouls. This would be worth putting up with in the league but in a short cup competition where teams rely on set pieces far more for chances, this would be a liability for Igesund.
The undoubted star of the side and man to watch out for (since Steven Pienaar’s retirement) is Thulani Serero, provided he can fully recover from injuries in time for the tournament. Serero is likely to start either as a No. 10 or on the left wing with Lerato Chabangu a more conservative option on the right to give balance. Serero, who is likely to be given an extension to his Ajax Amsterdam contract soon, is likely to be marked tightly throughout the competition with international coaches well aware of his ability and potential. It is disappointing that Cape Town fans will not be able to see him in action in the city he developed his football education in, however a lot rests on his very young shoulders. Do not be surprised to see him start out wide, where there is more space for 1v1 opportunities with Rantie or Parker starting behind a 9.
Thuso Phala’s inclusion has been a talking point amongst fans and pundits, however he is a sensible inclusion given the form of both Phala and his club Platinum Stars (which recently won the 2nd Q innovation quarter). He is not the creative type like Serero or the excluded Sifiso Myeni, who have the ability to innovate but he is reliable and consistent, and he has helped a modest Platinum Stars team overachieve, often providing chances for the flourishing Henrico Botes.
Igesund on Phala: “Well, for me he is a very good player. Of the 16 Premier League games he has been in the Soccer Laduma Team of the Week 13 times. No doubt in my mind he has earned his place.”
On width: “Yes, we want to play with width. We need to go at teams and get behind players. We need to get wide, and this is what I have always done. We want to create opportunities.”
Phala’s Platinum Stars coach Cavin Johnson: “Thuso’s call-up adds to what we have been doing and adds a lot of credit to our work at the club. We are obviously thrilled to have one of our own in the final squad for a major tournament because this has never happened before for us. We also didn’t expect it but when you consider that we are third on the log and won the Q2 we surely deserve some kind of recognition.”
Siphiwe Tshabalala needs to improve his international form if Bafana are seriously looking at being genuine contenders. His club form has been good, his experience often guiding him in choosing the right decision to hurt the opposition the most. His international performances of late have left much to be desired. He also tends to disregard his defensive duties which can be targeted by opposition sides.
PSL top scorer Bernard Parker and Tokelo Rantie offer different qualities than Lehlohonolo Majoro and Katlego Mphela. Igesund has constantly stressed that he requires mobility and variety in choosing his team and tactics. Parker has the ability to play as a 10, as a wide forward or as a 9. Rantie likewise. Mphela runs the channels more and Majoro (best goals to games ratio in the PSL) is more of a box player. All these options give Igesund the ability to alter his tactics depending on who the opposition are on the day. A static defence may see Mphela start, a more mobile one may see Parker and Rantie looking to stretch them out of shape. Parker and Rantie may be the first choice if Igesund looks to press aggresively, whereas Majoro could be used late on to help defend set pieces.
Igesund: “Parker has always been a very clever player. He is a coach’s dream because he scores goals, but offers so much more. He just needed to be used correctly. He is quick and intelligent with and without the ball and gets into good positions. He must keep finding the space, and scoring and assisting goals.”
Igesund: “We will be a lot better organised because I have a week to work with the players. The most important thing now is to mould the team to a unit. It’s a great period, to work in the morning, to work in the afternoon, to have chats in the evening. Its a very new team, our style of play is going to be totally different to what the players have played before, we have got so many different combinations, so many new players, what’s is important is that we gel, and the more competitive games we get together the more the understanding. The players are giving me a very good headache, they are all performing, they are all fighting. When I had the mini camp with 33 players, they were all fighting to make the cut of 23, now they are fighting for the starting 11. I’m close to having a team – not only the players, but the way we want to play. And I have picked players who can play in a certain formation.”
“It’s turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Our opposition, Morocco, play a very European style of football, and so does Cape Verde – 21 of their 23 players are in Europe. Norway is a very organised team, very physical. Algeria as well, they are one of the favourites for this competition, these are fantastic games for us.”
“Ja, look I had to gamble in one or two areas. If you want to call it a gamble. I think ‘Killer’ [Mphela] is coming along quite nicely. He has been among the goals for his club Sundowns and has shown that he is on his way back. As for Serero, he is a very, very special player. I don’t think I need to tell you that because nobody will doubt that. He is the Lionel Messi of SA football. He is young, he can go past players and he is fit again. The only thing Thulani is lacking is match fitness. I would say he is at about 65 percent match fitness right now.”
I believe that I have a mentally strong squad, we have got 10 players under the age of 25 and just one player over 30. We are playing a new style and working on a lot of new things over the next few weeks and that will be a challenge for the players. But they are a group of players that I know will learn fast. For example, against Malawi we had four players on the pitch who had never played together but I thought they did well. We will work hard over the next two weeks to try and get the understanding of the players going.”
There are so many players that are just fantastic players, but unfortunately I had to leave some players out. We had sleepless nights. The line between being in the team and being out of the team was so small, there were so many magnificent players. It is a very experienced team, I’ve gone for youth, I’ve got 10 players in the squad that are 25 years and younger and I’ve also got some players that have many caps for South Africa.”
“When you select a team, you need to know what you are selecting the team for. I am selecting this team because we have three teams (Angola, Cape Verde and Morocco) that we have to play in the first round. Based on what those teams are capable of doing, where we are going to counter them, where I think that we can be strong and I picked a team not only based on the opposition, but one that is very well balanced.”
A semi final finish is realistic with home advantage. South Africa lack outstanding attacking players and are highly reliant on Thulani Serero when he is only just recovering his full fitness. The defence looks strong with an excellent goalkeeper, however the team has mixed results in the build up to the tournament. The squad might be just too thin in key areas.