Darren Keet, all 1.83m of him, wears the regal look of a king on his throne while sitting on a low couch that has no back support. Others sat on the very same spot as if sitting on an uncomfortable toilet. His protruding long legs fill the now almost vacant room that was a hive of activity when Bafana Bafana took their individual portraits for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
In a way, Keet’s ability to sit comfortably in awkward positions is the reason why he is back in Egypt, 10 years after making history with the national Under-20 team that remains the only South African football side to reach the knockout stage of a World Cup.
A decade later, Keet is set to don the No. 1 jersey in Bafana’s opening match at the Afcon against Ivory Coast at Al Salam Stadium on Monday 24 June. The baseball enthusiast has been thrown a number of curveballs in his career, and more often than not he has smashed them off the park. The uncomfortable ones, which rattled him, were lessons that only toughened him up.
The rejection he received from Ajax Cape Town on trial for their Under-13s made him more driven. Competing with talented goalkeepers like Moeneeb Josephs at Bidvest Wits and the joint-tallest footballer – 2.08m tall Kristof van Hout at KV Kortrijk in Belgium – made him better in his craft. That’s why he didn’t read much into the crucifixion he suffered after Bafana’s 3-1 loss to Algeria in the opening match of the 2015 Afcon. Keet shouldered all the blame for the defeat, which led to him being banished from the national team. He only returned to be the first choice goalkeeper because Itumeleng Khune is injured.
Getting over the 2015 setback
“That Afcon didn’t affect me, the only thing it did was that I lost my place in my team when I was in Belgium,” Keet said at Novotel Cairo Airport Hotel, Bafana’s base for the continental showpiece.
“I was out for a few games, I regained the No. 1 position. It didn’t affect me at all, obviously when you go into a tournament you want to play all the games. That’s why we are here, we want to play all the games. It was a little bit disappointing not to play the other two games, but I still kept the same attitude and tried to help the other two goalkeepers [Brilliant Khuzwayo and Jackson Mabokgwane], make sure that the team is prepared. In this tournament we have a better team than the one we had then. We’ve got to take that and make sure that we get the results that we want.”
Bafana players have talked about a minimum target of at least reaching the knockout stage. But that is setting the bar low because 16 teams from 24, in the first expanded Afcon, will advance to the knockout stage. The top two teams from each of the six groups will go to the last 16 along with the four best third-placed finishers. A more meaningful minimum target would be to reach the quarterfinals, a stiffer challenge that would test this generation. Reaching the last eight would go a long way in brightening the mood of South Africans who have been disappointed by their national teams in May and June.
“As South Africans, we want results,” Keet said. “Look at the reaction from the results of the Under-20s, Banyana Banyana and the cricket now. The same will be the case when the Rugby World Cup comes in September. People want results, they don’t want anything else. They want a team that wins. It’s been so long since the last time we won anything as Bafana. That’s what people want, for us to win something. People want our teams to do well, represent the country with honour and make the people of South Africa proud.
“We do have those capabilities [to make the country proud], we beat Nigeria away and we beat Libya in Tunisia when not many people expected us to win. We expected to win. We are slowly brewing a winning mentality among the players. We are developing a system where we know what we expect from each other, how to handle situations and how to handle each other’s emotions on the field. We are slowly getting into a situation where we think we can do well and excel. This tournament has come at a good time for us.”
Carrying the hopes of millions
Stuart Baxter, Bafana coach, echoes Keet’s sentiments that the senior men’s national team has what it takes to heal the broken hearts of South Africans who watched Amajita and Banyana crash out in the group stage of their World Cups and the Proteas, who wilted at the Cricket World Cup in the UK in dramatic and embarrassing fashion.
“That’s a burden you have, you can’t run away from it,” Baxter said. “We know how important sport generally is in South Africa. We know the reaction of people in their disappointment, it’s very easy to be very critical and bitter. We know! The players know it better than me because they were born and raised in South Africa. I’ve had to learn. But we are all aware of it.
“So to say that you bear that responsibility isn’t a negative, the only thing that you can do is to make sure that your attitude is right and you give 100%, you don’t sell yourself cheaply. Sometimes, when you are affected by the thinking that I can’t make a mistake, I can’t do this or that, the handbrake comes on and you don’t perform. If the players don’t pull up the handbrake, but they hit the gas instead, then there is every chance that we will do what people want us to do in South Africa, that is have a good tournament and punch above our weight.”
Bafana have a lot to be confident about going into this Afcon even though they are in a tough group that also has Morocco and Namibia. Bafana qualified for this tournament unbeaten, conceding two goals – a penalty and an own goal. Only three teams (Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast) scored more goals than Bafana in the qualifiers. But despite that good run, South Africans aren’t screaming from the rooftops that come 19 July Bafana will be the Kings of Africa.
Rising from the ashes
But being looked down upon, by their own people and the opponents they will face here, is what drives this generation. The squad exudes confidence even in their strides on a walkabout in Egypt’s capital. Baxter has assembled a talented group that has the capability to stun African football royalty. Bafana has players who have conquered the continent before, by winning the 2016 CAF Champions League with Mamelodi Sundowns, players who came close to conquering the continent – SuperSport United’s 2017 CAF Confederation Cup losing finalists, some of the brightest emerging talent in Europe and four recipients of the Premier Soccer League’s Footballer of the Season award: Thulani Serero, Sibusiso Vilakazi, Percy Tau and Thembinkosi Lorch.
The preparations, apart from not having enough friendly matches, have been good. Their camp in Dubai, where temperatures were over 40 degrees, helped them acclimatise to the heat. It will be boiling hot when they take on Ivory Coast at 4.30pm, but the conditions will be 10 degrees cooler than what they experienced in Dubai.
“We believe in our abilities,” Keet said. “Everyone expects the worst from us and in the last few months we have developed such a strong bond. We back each other. You look at the fact that we haven’t conceded so many goals, but that isn’t just about the defence. Look at how much we have backed each other and helped each other. Percy Tau defends, out of nowhere he wins the ball and we attack again.
“It’s things like that that helps the team. Our midfield has been key, any loose balls they win. That’s what has been a strength for us, we start defending from the front and that makes the defenders’ job easier because all they have to do is read the game and make sure that they are rock solid when they have to. The way we back each other, we will make it difficult for many teams.”
Re-united a decade later
An impromptu reunion of Amajita’s class of 2009 took place at Bafana’s base on Thursday 20 June. Serame Letsoaka, who coached that team, met with them in Egypt for the first time since they were knocked out by eventual winners, Ghana, in the last 16. Letsoaka is in Egypt as part of the Confederation of African Football’s technical study group. Keet, Serero, Ramahlwe Mphahlele, Thulani Hlatshwayo and Kamohelo Mokotjo played in that tournament and are in the Bafana team at the Afcon. Molefi Ntseki, who is now Baxter’s assistant, was Letsoaka’s No. 2 in the Under-20 World Cup that was played in Cairo and Alexandria.
The seven men, along with Barney Kujane who was Amajita’s team manager and performs the same role at Bafana, reminisced about their history-making run and the progress the five players have made in their careers since then. Keet, Mphahlele and Hlatshwayo went on to win the Absa Premiership while Mokotjo and Serero have played in some of the best leagues in Europe. This reunion made Keet crave another history-making run in Egypt.
“We’re very proud of what we did in 2009,” Keet said. “We are still the only South African team that made it out of the group stage of a World Cup, it’s something for us to be proud of. Having some of the boys from that generation is very encouraging. We played Ghana in the last 16 and we gave them a tough time. Ghana went on to win the tournament, it shows that we were strong. We were that close to winning the game, and who knows what could have happened if we won it. You always look at things like that and challenge yourself to get better and better. It would be nice to make history again here.”