|At the double: Bernard Parker scored twice at Mbombela|
“By the the time the African Cup of Nations starts in January, I want us to be a machine.”
With that exquisite phrase, Gordon Igesund ended the first chapter of football’s Mission Impossible last night. And the verdict on Bafana Bafana’s new era? Even the dimmest doubters must admit South Africa’s much-maligned football team have taken the first tiny steps on a rocky road to recovery.
When he took the job three months ago, Igesund was told he had several improbable tasks to complete: a place in the semi-finals of next year’s AFCON 2013 on home soil, qualification for Brazil 2014 and a return to the top three in African football.
After Pitso Mosimane’s chaotic reign, such targets looked unlikely. Some said impossible. Igesund took one look at the mission statement and said: “I’ll do it.”
And what was he handed as his opening gambit? An away game against five-time World Cup winners Brazil followed by a home game against Mozambique four days later. I remember our first chat after his appointment, Gordon asking me to spell “Maracana” at a The New Age Business Briefing. He hadn’t even been told where his opening game would be played, but he knew he had the toughest of starts, a footballing baptism of fire.
Unfazed, Igesund went to work… and the results of his never-say-never optimism are now available. A gutsy 1-0 defeat against the Brazilians was followed by a clinical 2-0 triumph over neighbours Mozambique.
On paper, that may look average. In truth, Igesund has already accomplished miracles. Remember, they took on an under-pressure Brazil on their biggest national holiday with coach Mano Menezes desperate for a rousing victory.
With Siya Sangweni keeping Neymar quiet and Itumeleng Khune pulling off five good saves, it was left to substitute Hulk to produce the only goal late in the game - but it was Bafana Bafana who took the applause from the 52,000 unhappy Brazilians as the sides went off.
Three days later, Neymar scored a hat-trick as the same Brazilians crushed China 8-0. Yup, eight. If that wasn’t enough to keep the doubters quiet, the people insisting “you can’t celebrate defeat”, then what is? It’s not as if the Chinese haven’t got plenty of people to choose from or enough experience when it comes to building bloody big defensive walls.
Scroll forward to Tuesday night at Mbombela. South Africa, having travelled 7,441km from Sao Paulo, came up against a Mozambique fresh from a 2-0 AFCON win over Morocco a mere 205kms away in Maputo.
Igesund knew he was in for a tough night. But instead of tip-toeing about, he dropped Friday’s man of the match Itumeleng Khune and risked a huge Kaizer Chiefs v Orlando Pirates civil war by putting Moeneeb Josephs in goal. The same larger-than-life Bucaneer who had retired in disgust when Pitso was in charge of Bafana.
And despite having lost Tokelo Rantie, Siyabonga Nomvethe, Steven Pienaar, Edward Manqele, Dino Ndlovu and Benni McCarthy to injury, Igesund stuck with the depleted squad who had endured the flight from Brazil. He declined the offer of reinforcements to keep the mood in the camp buoyant.
And it worked. Though many will question Mozambique’s decision to make eight changes from the side that beat Morocco – including Mamelodi Sundowns’ talismanic Elias Pelembe who scored one and made one in Maputo on Sunday – Bafana barely put a foot wrong.
Bernard Parker, the Kaizer Chiefs striker who opened the season with a four-goal burst against Amazulu, scored one early and one late to ensure a clinical 2-0 victory over the nation’s eastern neighbours.
Suddenly the doubters were silenced. Those who questioned everything Gordon had done – from getting rid of Thomas Madigage’s hat to leaving Teko Modise at home – were left without a leg to stand on.
His decision to select the unknown Dean Furman – an unused sub for Joel Santana’s Bafana against Australia in 2008 – from English Championship club Oldham Athletic proved inspired. Reformed alcoholic Lerato Chabangu, rubbished as a “coach’s favourite” from his days at Moroka Swallows, was magnificent in Sao Paulo and Mbombela.
The surprise decision to make Spurs reject Bongani Khumalo his captain worked like a charm and Ajax Amsterdam’s Thulani Serero once more showed the nation he could become the fulcrum over the coming months.
But Igesund refused to crow about successfully completing the first leg of his Mission Impossible. He said simply: “I didn’t want to mention this before the game, but we had to travel through four time zones for this game. The lads didn’t know whether it was day or night. Our sleeping patterns are all over the place.
“Look, it wasn’t a great performance tonight. We lost possession too often, we wanted more goals, but I have to say I’m satisfied. The bodies were tired, the legs were wobbling. I did a bit of rotation and you can’t fault the attitude. These boys showed true commitment.
“In the end, we did the job. The lads did great after just four days of training together. The camaraderie was good. You saw our set-plays out there. They were non-existent because we haven’t had a chance to practice them!
“But this is just the start. We’ve got Poland next in a friendly. Then I think we’ll play in the Middle East. By the time we get to AFCON in January, I want us to be a machine.
“We still have a long way to go. A hell of a lot of work to be done. But we will only get better.”