Africa Cup of Nations
Africa Cup of Nations

From Angola to Tunisia

Bafana Bafana take on Tunisia on Sunday with some confidence after their 1-1 draw with Angola in the opening game of their Group D contest against Angola. While the team will be glad to get away from Southern African opposition and even if it is to take on one of the giants of North African football, they will draw strength especially from the second-half performance against Angola on Wednesday evening in Tamale.

Elrio van Heerden handed coach, Carlos Parreira a “get out of jail free” card with a sumptuous equalising strike five minutes from the end of a tough battle against Angola.

As Parreira said after the game “the group stands still, everyone in still in the same position”. In the earlier game on Wednesday Senegal and Tunisia shared the spoils in an entertaining 2-2 draw, leaving all four teams in the Group on one point after the opening round of games.

Parreira feels that his young team will have taken a lot out of the outing against Angola, not least that they have another game under their belts. In his opinion, the two-week pre-tournament training camp in Durban during which they played friendlies against Mozambique and Botswana was too short, and the players will be both physically stronger and sharper in the next game against Tunisia.

Whilst it is not a must-win game, South Africa will not want to place undue intensity and pressure on themselves in the final group game against Senegal in Kumasi next week. A result against the Tunisians is what is required on Sunday to ease the passage to the knockout stages of the 2008 African Cup of Nations.

They will need greater support from the crowd. While the town of Tamale, which is somehow reminiscent of Giyani, has adopted South Africa as their team, support for Bafana in the stadium was muted in comparison with the organised and vocal Angolan fans.

Bafana Bafana started well against Angola with Sibusiso Zuma taking on the responsibility of the lone striker role, and the wing-backs Bryce Moon and Tsepo Masilela given the freedom to push forward at every opportunity.

The Angolans were happy to sit back and defend, especially as they were not subjected to any sustained pressure on their goal. The Angolans counterattacked with pace and purpose, and despite not being under significant pressure, Benson Mhlongo made two errors to release the Angolans. The second of these in the 29th minute resulted in the opening goal as the ball was beautifully crossed by Flavio for Manucho to firmly head in beyond Moeneeb Josephs.

The South African passing, retention of possession and skills on the ball were accomplished but they sometimes succumbed to the temptation of being too intricate around the edge of the Angolan penalty area. Chances were rare.

Parreira made two substitutions at halftime bringing on Thembinkosi “Terror” Fanteni and Lerato Chabangu in place of the ineffectual Surprise Moriri and Siphiwe Tshabalala. This immediately enhanced the structure and shape of Bafana Bafana as Fanteni’s presence and running created more space to attack. He looked hungry and eager to impress, and could well have stolen the game with a rasping drive that was parried by the Angolan keeper in stoppage time at the end of the match. He is worthy of a place in the starting line-up on Sunday.

Steven Pienaar’s form with his English Premiership side Everton has temporarily deserted him and while he displayed some great touches, his talent and class demands that he should dominate games of this nature.

Elrio van Heerden replaced him in the 70th minute, and this proved to be the decisive substitution. Van Heerden’s greater physical presence came to the fore and he added a steeliness that had been lacking. He fully deserved his goal, which was almost a replica of the 30-yard stunner scored by Ghana’s Sulley Muntari in the tournament’s opening game last Sunday.

The Bafana camp was tense in the build up to the game — a Safa statement said that “for the first time Parreira was under some pressure”. Parreira’s tetchiness was evident early in the game as he rebuked the fourth official for allowing the cameramen to station themselves in his line of sight of the field.

Team manager Sipho Nkhumane however stressed the desire and commitment of the inexperienced team to do their best. He said that while Benni McCarthy’s international career is by no means over, the Africa Cup of Nations provided the platform for new talent to rise to the top. “Benni has been playing in the Nations Cup since 1998, its time to give others a chance”, said Nkhumane.

The youngsters exhibited great endeavour and determination, and have won over a few admirers here in Ghana. Parreira commended his young charges on standing up to an Angolan team that has experience of playing in the World Cup finals in Germany.

This squad is a work in progress but the evidence is there that they will grow in stature.

The Africa Cup of Nations has so far produced some enthralling matches and the quality of the football is worthy of a tournament of this stature.

We have been thrilled by some spectacular goals and enterprising yet strategic game plans. Whether this is the consequence of so many African footballers now plying their trade in the European leagues or better coaching in Africa, is a question for another day.

For now African football can hold its head high — it is putting on a show for the world to enjoy.