Bafana Bafana spared the country’s blushes at the Confederations Cup

By Mark Gleeson in Cape Town
They might have won only one game and were somewhat lucky to make it through to the semi-finals, but there was much relief that South Africa looked a lot more competitive at the Confederations Cup than had been expected.

It has been the source of much anxiety in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup that the host nation will be unable to produce a side that are able to stir the emotions of the locals and add the same kind of festive atmosphere to the tournament as provided by Germany in 2006.

While the absence of a competitive home side had little effect on the party feel surrounding last year’s European Championship in Austria and Switzerland, the atmosphere around South Africa’s World Cup will be generated, in the main, by the locals. Incoming tourist numbers are expected to be around 500,000 – which is considerably less than those able to make the short, cross-border journeys to tournaments in Europe in 2006 and 2008.

The Confederations Cup gave South Africa’s national side a boost in confidence, particularly after they held out for 88 minutes against Brazil in the semi-final until a Dani Alves free-kick deflated local hopes.

There were also two defeats by Spain, an unimpressive win against lightweight New Zealand and a tentative goalless start against Asian champions Iraq, but still the side emerged with an enhanced reputation.

Whether that is desperate clutching at straws or a realistic view after five matches at the two-week tournament remains to be seen, but there has been much criticism of Brazilian coach Joel Santana and his tactics.

South Africa’s failure to take the game to Iraq in the opening encounter – when all the factors were in their favour: home advantage, altitude, support – raised many eyebrows and, though Bafana Bafana were unlucky not to win, the draw left their chances of qualifying in an unnecessarily precarious position.

Against the part-timers of New Zealand there was an opportunity for a much more emphatic performance, but showboating and tomfoolery exposed the immature side of the South African game.

Although the hosts won 2-0, they still had to rely on the Kiwis holding Iraq to a draw to go through to the semis. This was achieved despite losing to Spain in a much-improved performance in which South Africa looked equal to the European champions for an hour before defensive lapses cost them dearly.

Defensive lapses
South Africa’s last two games provided a big morale boost and drew much approval from the assembled international audience. After years of banging away about the need for
a competent host side, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he would sleep a lot easier and the local association gave Santana and his tactics a vote of confidence – even if his don’t-lose-at-any-cost approach is palpably not suited to the African game.

South Africa now embark on a vigorous preparatory programme, enhanced by a decision by the country’s Premier Soccer League to cram the league season (plus three cup competitions) into seven months. This is to give the national side two training camps ahead of the World Cup – even though half of the squad is based overseas and will be unable to attend.

One drawback for South Africa is the need to travel in the next few months if they are to play European opposition. Countries trying to fit qualifying matches around a game against the World Cup hosts will not be prepared to make the long journey south to Africa.

There do have one home game, against Serbia on August 12, but then there are trips to Germany, Republic of Ireland, Norway and Iceland. A fixture for November has yet to be fixed and then South Africa will go to Brazil for a January training camp instead of competing at the African Nations Cup finals, for which they failed to qualify. Matches against Japan and Chile are also scheduled for early next year.

Those fixtures will hopefully give Santana the chance to show that the glimpse of potential spotted at the Confed Cup was indeed real.