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Wed Apr 23 16:35:09 SAST 2014

Can Bafana stay on the ball?

JONATHAN WILSON in Durban | 05 February, 2013 06:540 Comments
2013 Orange AFCON, Quarter Final 2: South Afica v Mali
Bafana Bafana's players huddle during the Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal between South Afica and Mali at Moses Mabhida Stadium on February 02, 2013 in Durban, South Africa
Image by: Anesh Debiky / Gallo Images

THERE was, as Gordon Igesund said, dignity in defeat for South Africa - and there was no guarantee of that after the drab opening game against Cape Verde.

He was positive in his disappointment after the quarterfinal exit to Mali - as coaches often are - but with good reason.

What will frustrate him, and what should frustrate South African fans, is how close they came to reaching the semifinal.

Mali are a good side, ranked third in Africa, as Igesund repeatedly underlined but, for 50-odd minutes in Durban on Saturday night, South Africa outplayed them.

Perhaps it was inevitable that in the heat and humidity, the high tempo of their start would catch up with Bafana, but the biggest concern must be how utterly Seydou Keita's goal deflated them.

It is, of course, easier to keep driving on, to keep squeezing effort from exhausted limbs, when there is a lead to protect, when the prize of a semifinal place is in your possession, than it is to pick yourself up again after all that effort and know you have to go through the same agonies again.

To know that, after all your exertions, one moment of sloppiness has dumped you back where you were when you started - yet that is what the best teams do.

The attrition rate was astonishing: Tokelo Rantie and Bernard Parker lost to ankle injuries, Tsepo Masilela playing on with a wedge of tissue stuck up his nostrils to staunch a bleeding nose, Reneilwe Letsholonyane struggling on with cramp. South Africa's physical courage couldn't be faulted: bodies were pushed to the limits and beyond. What they lacked was a little quality, or the wherewithal, having conceded the equaliser, to pick themselves up and come again.

They are a young team and that may come; and the encouraging sign was the improvement over the course of the tournament, from the nerve-ridden scratchiness of that opening game to the consummate win over Angola, to the resilience of the fightback against Morocco to dominating for a long spell against Mali. The key now is to retain self-belief, to keep faith with the chosen philosophy.

The big question is what happens with the forward line. Lehlohonolo Majoro and Parker started the first game, Katlego Mphela and Rantie the second and third - with Thulani Serero and Oupa Manyisa coming off the bench to change the shape. Thuso Phala, May Mahlangu and Parker were arrayed behind Rantie in the 4-2-3-1 selected against Mali.

The lack of consistency was an indication of how no combination really impressed. It was in the quarterfinal in which they seemed to have the most options, when the rigid lines of the 4-4-2 were broken up.

Mahlangu, in particular, seemed to relish the freedom of the creative role, and the central midfield triangle with Dean Furman and Letsholonyane had a pleasing balance.

Igesund, though, seems to have an instinctive preference for 4-4-2 and the suggestion was he had added the extra midfielder as a direct response to Mali's strength in that area. It's a useful option to have against better opposition but the question now is whether it remains only an option or whether it becomes the default.

Given Igesund seeks to control games, the fluency and flexibility of 4-2-3-1 would seem a logical fit - with perhaps playing two up front a possibility against weaker opposition.

But the most important thing is to take the mood of positivity, to carry that atmosphere of the Moses Mabhida - as far as possible - into the World Cup qualifiers and beyond. Igesund has laid reasonable foundations; the key now is to build on them.

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and was named Football Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters Federation in 2012

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