National teams edge closer to continental glory

Banyana and Bafana held their own against Nigeria this weekend, but there is still hard graft ahead.

Tough mental tests await both Banyana Banyana and Bafana Bafana, even though they are firmly in control of their fate. Last weekend’s “SA vs Nigeria double bill” saw the national men’s side play to a 1-1 draw at FNB Stadium on Saturday and the women’s team beat the Super Falcons 1-0 on Sunday in their opening match of the 2018 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon) in Ghana.  

After what was only their second-ever victory against Nigeria, Banyana now find themselves sitting pretty on the Awcon Group B table. It is up to them to ensure the win doesn’t go to their heads, as it it did in 2012, when they beat the Super Falcons for the first time in the semifinals of the Awcon, only to lose to Equatorial Guinea in the final. 

Six years on, Banyana have an opportunity to settle the score with Equatorial Guinea when they take them on in their next group game at the Cape Coast Sports Stadium on Wednesday in Ghana’s Central Region. A victory against the 2012 champions would move Banyana a step closer to the knockout stage and a step closer to lifting the trophy, which would earn them a spot at the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup in France.

“Nigeria has always had the upper hand against South Africa, not only on the male side but on the female side,” said Banyana forward Thembi Kgatlana, who scored the winning goal on Sunday. “This win is a very historic moment for us. Our aim isn’t to avenge anything but to qualify for the World Cup. The win over Nigeria is a confidence booster, especially because Nigeria have been dominant. They don’t take chances. They make sure that they kill whoever is in front of them.”

17 September 2018: Thembi Kgatlana of South Africa during the Cosafa Women’s Championship match between South Africa and Malawi at the Wolfson Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images)

All in the mind for Bafana

That ruthless streak will need to be emulated by Bafana Bafana, who still need to qualify for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). Their result on Saturday means they need only a draw with Libya in March next year in the away leg of the fixture. That match will be played in a neutral venue, probably Tunisia, because of the political instability in Libya. “When we go there, it’s going to be a mental issue again,” said Bafana coach Stuart Baxter.
“You can excuse some of the players who might be too careful because we only need a draw. If we play our normal game, there’s only one team that has scored against us [Nigeria], so if they don’t score – we are through. I don’t think that we should go there to park the bus,” added Baxter.

“I don’t think we need to be gung ho but when the opportunity arises, we must be in their faces and make sure that they have to take care of our moves. We didn’t do that here [when we played Libya]. We didn’t have enough bodies forward so the game fizzled out. But going there, they’ll see a better South African team and hopefully a mentally stronger South African team that’ll deal with that situation.”
Bafana’s inconsistency is Baxter’s main concern heading into a match that could make or break his career with the senior national team. Failure to qualify for the 2019 Afcon, having also failed to qualify for the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia earlier this year, could lead to his sacking.

17 November 2018: Super Eagles fans in high spirits during their 1-1 draw at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. Photograph by Lebo Edgar Mashao

Football 1 – Xenophobia 0 

As expected, Johannesburg’s Nigerian community came out in their numbers to watch their team play at FNB Stadium on a scorching afternoon. They outnumbered Bafana fans, who tried their best to outsing their eternal rivals, but to no avail. Even though there were a few xenophobic comments in the stands, the atmosphere was generally friendly and welcoming. Nigerians and South Africans sat together. Just before the start of the game, both teams took a picture with a message that read: “United Against Xenophobia.”
It was a nice enough gesture in a city where people have lost their lives to xenophobic violence, and whose mayor persists in making inappropriate, xenophobic comments. But football brought people of different nationalities together, if only for 90 minutes, as FNB Stadium played “home” to both sets of fans.

After Bafana scored the equaliser, a burly Nigerian man confronted his Zimbabwean friend on the stands with “Which team are you supporting?” The Zimbabwean passionately celebrated Lebogang Mothiba’s goal as much as he celebrated Nigeria’s fortuitous opening goal in the penultimate match of the Group E qualifiers.
The Zimbabwean pleaded neutrality before another Nigerian, who was part of the group, came to his defence. “Nigeria is the country of my birth, but South Africa is my home,” the Nigerian peacemaker, who sang both national anthems, said in defence of the friend who turned against “his own” after being spellbound by Percy Tau’s magic.

But it wasn’t just the Nigerian fans who felt at home at the iconic venue, which became known as “The Calabash” during the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa. The Super Eagles, led by Ahmed Musa, have fond memories of the stadium, where they won the Afcon in 2013. “I have never lost in South Africa,” said Musa. “We had great celebrations the last time we played in this stadium when we won the Afcon. It was nice to have another wonderful celebration here, having secured qualification for the Nations Cup [Afcon’s previous iteration] for the first time since 2013. We have a lot of fans here, so I am always happy to play here.”

What was disappointing about the match was the poor turnout of South African fans. It was almost as if Nigerian supporters kept up their end of the bargain, while the South Africans failed to do so. It was something that even drew comment from Nigeria’s German coach, Gernot Rohr. “I was surprised that the stadium was so empty,” he said. 

“You have such a big game and was important for your country and you only have, I don’t know how many fans, but not even half of the stadium was full. I think that is a problem. I don’t understand why. When there is a match like this in Nigeria, you would see the stadium full. The people who were here were good, but they were not enough. We should have more people in the future.” 

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