South Africa’s new era under Shakes Mashaba got off to a fine start with a 3-0 away win in Sudan. The young side looked impressive and proved to be a Bafana skin for their opponents.
Substitute Sibusiso Vilakazi, so adored by fans at Bidvest Wits, but previously untested with the national side, was the difference-maker. He entered the contest as a half-time replacement for debutant Keagan Dolly and wasted little time changing the dynamic of the match.
His first goal was the result of a Sudanese inability to clear their lines, and while the defending was poor, Vilakazi still needed to be Jonny-on-the-spot to fire home. The second was a different strike - a powerful drive from just inside the box - but was also the result of some sub-standard defending (by this point the home side were chasing the game and had left themselves exposed in defence).
Another debutant, Bongani Ndulula, was arguably the team’s weak link throughout the match, but he added a certain gloss to the scoreline, profiting from a fine delivery from Oupa Manyisa to tap in with little over ten minutes left on the clock.
This was not a perfect performance - not by any means - the midfield appeared devoid of creativity for long spells, the defence occasionally stuttered, and a few of the younger performers lack refinement. However, for a national side so long in the doldrums, such an emphatic victory was cause for great celebration.
Fans, journalists and players took to Twitter after the match to delight in the team’s outing.
Former skipper Steven Pienaar wrote, “The future looks [sic] goot for SA Football,” while Kermit Erasmus, who was overlooked for the squad, had this to say, “Well done Bafana Bafana great start to the AFCON 2015 Qualifier #TheDreamContinues #GreatPerformance #GreatTeamWork.”
South African legend Shaun Bartlett was another observer imbued with optimism, “Great start to the weekend. Awesome result away from home boys. Well done Bafana Bafana.”
Spectators were right to be impressed.
Two things were particularly pleasing from a South African point of view. First of all, there is the knowledge that there are still a number of talented players still to come into the team.
While Mashaba overlooked a number of key names, one assumes that the likes of Bernard Parker and Thulani Serero still have an international future. Then there is the aforementioned Erasmus and his teammate at Orlando Pirates, Lehlohonolo Majoro. Could club-level chemistry between these two lead to an international recall? If so, imagine those offensive options!
Despite being named in the coach’s initial squad, neither Itumeleng Khune nor Kamohelo Mokotjo was available for the game against Sudan.
The former is a key figure in defence and should replace stand-in captain Senzo Meyiwa (despite the latter’s impressive showing in Omdurman). As for Mokotjo, as I explained recently for KickOff.com, the central midfielder should be seen as a key figure in the new South Africa - he, Serero and Manyisa give Mashaba exciting creative options in the centre of midfield.
The second reason for optimism is the manager’s impressive game-management skills.
Too often, at the World Cup, it appeared as though Africa’s sides were being undone by poor in-game decisions by coaches and players alike. Too often, the teams lacked the hard-nosed pragmatism or the cynicism needed to close out games and seal contests.
It was the case for the Cote d’Ivoire against Greece, when progression was in their grasp, and for Ghana against Germany, when the Black Stars missed the opportunity for a famous victory due to tactical naivety.
The 4-4-2 formation may have its detractors these days, but Mashaba used it perfectly. The defence were protected by the hard-working Dean Furman and Andile Jali and width and menace was provided by Mandla Masango and Dolly. Both players will improve over current showings.
South Africa bedded in, remained resolute and compact, absorbed the pressure and looked to worry their opponents on the break.
On many an occasion in the past, South Africa have become defensive and jittery after taking the lead, not this time. Mashaba was proactive, urging his team forward, and his young charges took advantage of Sudan’s disarranged defence.
One advantage of filling the squad with young and hungry players is that the manager is likely to enjoy the loyalty and unswerving respect of his squad. This was evident against Sudan, where Bafana’s players carried out the manager’s orders to a tee.
Ahead of the match, ‘Sudan away’ was billed as a challenging test for Mashaba’s young collective.
The crowd were partisan and furious, the conditions were supposed to be energy-sapping and without Khune - such an influential figure - it was anticipated that Bafana Bafana would be in for a tough time.
It is to the great credit of both players and management that such a potentially taxing fixture was navigated with such aplomb and conviction. Similarly, when one considers the nation’s recent record for falling apart in contests of this kind of status, the result is particularly pleasing.
However, the honeymoon will face a stern test - arguably the toughest the continent has to offer - next week.
On Wednesday, South Africa welcome the continental champions Nigeria to Cape Town. Stephen Keshi’s men - fresh from their run to the World Cup last 16 - will be keen to re-assert their dominance over a side they have always considered the great pretenders to their crown as the continental powerhouse.
Victory over Sudan was a terrific start for the Mashaba regime, however, against the Super Eagles the young South Africans may realise just how far they are from being one of Africa’s elite sides once more.
The Sudan match suggests, however, that Bafana Bafana may finally be back on track.