Tuesday, 11 September 2012

An Urgent Warning for Bafana: Mozambique's Mambas are highly dangerous

Danger: Elias Pelembe

Message: Urgent. Delivery data: Mbombela Stadium before 8.45pm tonight. Eyes only: Gordon Igesund. Header: BAFANA WARNING.

Message reads: Gordon, beware. Stop. Mozambique won’t be easy. Stop. Pulled off one of THE shocks in AFCON 2013 qualifying over weekend 2-0 against Morocco. Stop. And while you’re jetting in from Sao Paulo, they only have to drive a couple of hours along the N4 from Maputo to Nelspruit. Stop. Keep an eye on Elias Pelembe. Stop him. Ends.

Yup, I’m hoping that top secret alert will get through to Flash Gordon and his boys before tonight’s big kick-off on SABC1, where viewing records fell as Bafana Bafana put up a brave fight against five-times world champions Brazil on Friday night.

What a performance. Professor Jonathan Jansen, the increasingly puzzling peacemaker from the University of the OFS, put out a tweet complaining about South Africans “celebrating defeat” and I told him in no uncertain terms: “Then you know nothing about football.”

Friday night at the Morumbi Stadium on Brazil’s National Day was no ordinary 1-0 defeat. Only a late goal from R6bn man Hulk -  yes, Givanildo Vieira de Souza cost more than the entire Bafana squad when he moved from Porto to Zenit St Petersburg last month – robbed Bafana of the draw they so richly deserved.
The locals, thoroughly fed up by Brazilian boss Mano Menezes, gave South Africa a far louder ovation than their own “Selecao”,  with Itumeleng Khune starring in goal behind Siya Sangweni, who emerged after the match with the fabulous Neymar still in his pocket.

There was a period, for 15 minutes after half-time, when Bafana were clearly the better side. Before Igesund’s decision to remove the silky Lerato Chabangu instead of the sulking Siphiwe Tshabalala, South Africa were putting passes together and making Brazil look decidedly ordinary in front of a whistling 52,000 crowd.

Even when they lost a further TWO strikers – Dino Ndlovu (dislocated shoulder) and Benni McCarthy (hamstring) – Bafana remained unruffled, with Thulani Serero probing, Bernard Parker engaging and surprise captain Bongani Khumalo completing a dynamic defensive duo with Sangweni.
Defeat or not, this was not a bad night for South Africa football. Igesund pronounced himself “satisfied”, as did a glowing Khune.

Khumalo, while “thanking God” for the armband, raved: “We were working for each other. There was good character and spirit. We must continue with this, go forward, not look back.”

Then there was this extraordinary tribute to Igesund from the experienced McCarthy. Despite an injury after 10 minutes which will keep the former Porto, Blackburn and West Ham striker out for six weeks, South Africa’s only Champions League winner oozed: “Wow, Gordon is different class. He has that Jose Mourinho feel (irie) to him. He brings the best out of the players.

“He makes every player believe in themselves. He jokes with the players and he makes them laugh and smile. He makes us feel invincible.
“I think we did very well against Brazil. Every person has their own opinion but as a team we are proud of our coach and our game.”

Tributes don’t glow much more than that. But amid the general euphoria over the world’s 74th ranked side coming so close against Brazil, ranked an all-time low of 12th, Sunday night brought a swift reality check.

That came with the news that Morocco – 68th in the world – had been soundly beaten 2-0 by our neighbours – and tonight’s friendly opposition – Mozambique, currently ranked 109th.

Elias Pelembe – the Mamelodi Sundowns star who is one of South Africa’s best-paid players – scored the second and made the first for Almiro Lobo at the Machave Stadium in Maputo, quieting a restless home crowd who had booed Jerry Sitoe for an early miss in a goalless first half.

Before his meeting of minds with Igesund, the Mamba’s German coach Gert Engels admitted: "We were very patient and everybody knows that the second leg in Morocco will be hard work if we are to reach the AFCON finals. My players are in good shape for South Africa.”

Tonight, with the Mozambiquans travelling a mere 205kms along the N4 from Maputo to Mbombela, Igesund’s injury-stricken Bafana will still be recovering from their 7441km trek to Sao Paulo and back – a return trip of over 15000km.

Igesund insists he does not need reinforcements before tonight’s game. He will continue with Bernard Parker, his one fit striker, up front (unless you count Golden Arrows front man Thamsanqa Gabusa, who hasn't played a match all season) and keep faith in the Boys from Brazil.

He may be right. But can he possibly instil the same level of commitment against modest Mozambique as he did against mighty Brazil?

Igesund said yesterday: "We played very well against Brazil and the boys were all fired up and they need to be equally pumped up when we face Mozambique. We need to have the same passion, drive, commitment and attitude in all our games. We are facing another formidable side."

Exactly. That opening defeat against the Samba Boys was no disaster for Bafana fans accustomed to disappointment under Pitso Mosimane. But a mauling against Mozambique - and a rare home defeat - may just end Igesund’s short honeymoon. Let’s hope he really can render his jet-lagged squad “invincible” tonight.

This article first appeared in The New Age newspaper today as my Neal and Pray column. See www.thenewage.co.za

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