Sat, 20 Jul 2019

Cape Town - Reasonable building blocks ... that what I believe South Africa have in terms of their next major footballing quest: to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Bafana Bafana will return now from the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt as beaten quarter-finalists following their harrowingly late 2-1 surrender to traditionally superior continental force Nigeria on Wednesday.

The match in steamy Cairo really summed up their entire, ultimately plucky enough tournament: seldom dazzling, they nevertheless also never split at the seams.

They deserve to fly home to a warm enough - without going too gooey, of course - welcome, considering that even getting as far as they did wasn't envisioned by a great many, long-suffering supporters of the national team.

Yes, they only reached the knockouts by a back-door scuttle, having lost two of their three group fixtures, but every result in that phase was by a 1-0 margin in notably alien, especially faraway conditions to them and the pattern continued in unquestionably their finest hour at AFCON 2019: knocking over the Group A-topping host nation, Mo Salah and all, before a stunned, enormous crowd in the Round of 16.

Bafana then succumbed by the odd goal - and a minute or two from the end of normal time - in the fateful clash with the Super Eagles, despite a gritty second half showing in which they had wiped out the 1-0 interval deficit through Bongani Zungu's dipping, VAR-approved header and looked destined to stay very resilient indeed into seemingly looming extra time.

Nigeria have always been physically superior to South Africa, going a long way to explaining why Bafana sport only a two-from-15 win record against them, but that didn't prevent the underdogs from showing a heartening bit of own mettle in the pretty compelling last-eight battle.

Indeed, the match mirrored so many recent performances by Stuart Baxter's charges that have seesawed tantalisingly a lot of the time: oft-maligned Bafana have not been eclipsed by more than one strike, when they have played second fiddle, in any of their last dozen or more matches of consequence.

It says something about a developing sense of both resilience and resolve that may just stand them in decent stead for a spirited crack at an all too often elusive goal for them: qualifying for a World Cup in the orthodox manner.

Albeit that they automatically assumed a berth in 2010, as host country, the last time they could do that job through conventional hard yards was as far back as 2002 (South Korea/Japan), so they must naturally throw everything at nailing down Qatar tickets for a jamboree that will be a full 20 years on from the last Asian one.

CAF qualification (there will be five African slots again, for the 32-nation tournament) begins in October, just three months up the drag, and will run until November 2021.

Encouragingly, the kernel of the plucky crew who headed Bafana's challenge at AFCON 2019 should also power that initiative; several are young enough, and still short of swollen tallies of international caps, to gain from this Egyptian experience and be even more street-smart going forward.

Thembinkosi Lorch, for example, is 25 and had only four caps before AFCON, Percy Tau the same age and holder of 18 ahead of this event, Lebo Mothiba 23 (seven appearances, going into it) and while Sifiso Hlanti is 29, he, too, had only represented South Africa a modest 13 times entering the continental showpiece event.

So relative international rookies abound and, if blessed with a kind enough group allocation, World Cup 2022 qualification by Bafana may not be quite as wacky a thought as some cynics will inevitably content.

They seem a "hair's breadth" sort of team, if you like - might go one way in a particular game, could go the other - and a few subtle, patient strategic tweaks and a stiffening sense of self-belief could just be enough to make them a 10 percent better bunch ... potentially making a big difference in results terms.

Certainly they weren't too heavily castigated - that would have been off the mark - in the post-match SuperSport studio analysis of the tense Nigeria defeat.

Former Bafana stalwart Teko Modise acknowledged: "They were better in the second half ... started playing with passion ... it's a shame we couldn't quite contain the game to extra time."

Meanwhile veteran SA playing and coaching personality Gavin Hunt indirectly lauded Bafana's toil by suggesting the "superbly organised" Nigerians have it within them to go on and win the tournament.

The sun will rise again on these Bafana battlers.

Remember, we haven't always been too sure of that in the past.

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