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Cry, The Beloved Country

Published 10 years ago
By Forbes Africa

The stadium was chanting his name. People were everywhere—in the aisles, hanging on the railings—all pushing for a glimpse of the game. The match was sold out and the crowd was moving constantly. Every person was shouting out one name.
“Madiba! Madiba!”
Nelson Mandela was out on the field wearing the captain’s jersey of Neil Tovey—a carbon copy of his appearance at the South African rugby triumph the year before.
It was the Africa Cup of Nations final at FNB stadium, in Johannesburg, on February 2, 1996.
Bafana Bafana or ‘Boys Boys’ were playing Tunisia. En route to the final, South Africa had beaten giants Cameroon in the group stages and Ghana in the semi-final.

Zambia national football team players celebrate their victory at the end of the African Cup of Nations final football match between Ivory Coast and Zambia at the Stade de l’Amitie in Libreville, on February 12, 2012. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

The nation was behind them and 80,000 people crammed into the stadium as Bafana Bafana lifted the cup as the undisputed kings of African football; confirmation that South Africa—after years of exile because of apartheid—was the vibrant and emerging power in African football.
Sixteen years later and the national team is an embarrassment. As small nations from Botswana to Gabon vied for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations in recent weeks, the South African team could only watch on TV. It was even more embarrassing because one of the reasons South Africa failed to qualify is that no-one had bothered to read the rule book.
Playing the final game of the qualifiers, Bafana played at home against Sierra Leone in Nelspruit. The team and the coaches believed they only needed a draw to progress to the continental tournament on goal difference. They played to a 0-0 draw, and at the final whistle the crowd erupted as the home team danced on the pitch in celebration.
Minutes later, the team was informed that they had better stop celebrating because they had not made it. Rule 14.1 clearly states the team with the “greater number of points obtained in the matches between the concerned teams” will go through.
In short, only an outright win by Bafana in Nelspruit would have guaranteed them qualification.
The South African Football Association (SAFA), in a knee-jerk reaction, launched an appeal to the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
SAFA president, Kirsten Nematandani, infamously told TV news station eNews: “Those rules are wrong.”
When it became abundantly clear that the rules were not wrong and South Africa had not, in fact, been victimized and cheated, SAFA admitted to misreading the rule book.
Many were quick to call for the head of national coach Pitso Mosimane, and while he should share some of the responsibility, his job is on the pitch.
The coach always has to fight to get players released from the local clubs when they are called up for national duty and SAFA does not always help. It’s quite simple; to get players released, international fixtures have to be scheduled on FIFA-sanctioned dates as clubs are then required to allow players the national call-up.
But this is seldom the case, and clubs then have the right to refuse players. It means Mosimane will rarely have the luxury of calling on a first choice team. Then, when the team underperforms, he is the one to feel the criticism.
Matters came to a head in January, when Mosimane was forced to pick what was effectively classed a ‘third team’, for matches against big guns Zambia and Ghana.
SAFA downgraded the fixtures from international friendlies to ‘practice matches’, fearing South Africa would plummet down the rankings with this side. As it turned out, Mosimane’s charges were able to draw both matches, which was particularly impressive against Ghana—one of the favorites for the Africa Cup of Nations.
After the Ghana match, Mosimane—with the pressure seemingly getting to him—launched a verbal tirade against the media.
“How many times have you written my obituary?” were his first words in the post-match press conference.
The rift between Mosimane and SAFA is clear for all to see, but the mighty association of football in the rainbow nation does not seem overly concerned.
Another problem the national team has, and it is not a new one, is that the best South African players head overseas and do not see the honor in representing their national team.
A prime example is Benni McCarthy. He is South Africa’s all-time leading top goal scorer and in his prime snubbed Bafana.
After making his debut for the team in 1997 as a 19-year-old, he soon rose to superstar status and was the joint top scorer at the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations.
Then, after his second FIFA World Cup in 2002 where the team failed to make it through to the knockout stages, he announced his retirement from international football at the age of 25, when he would have been just reaching his prime.
He came out of retirement after two years, but South Africa did not qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup and effectively ended his world cup career.
The reason, one can only surmise, is that a national contract would not be able to offer him anything close to what he would get at his club side, where he was just starting out at Portuguese side Porto.
His story is typical of the situation in which South Africa finds itself: players who are world-class leave, never to return. The national side is made up of a collection of decent club performers, but will never be a team that can compete with the best in the world.
SAFA needs to start being proactive—year after year, they make the same promises and the media and the public are tiring.
Bafana Bafana should not be seen as the ugly step-child that nobody wants, and SAFA needs to stop making simple problems complicated. The national team have to be allowed the best possible team whenever they play and SAFA must realize that in a football-mad country, the beautiful game can help unify a nation as it did all those years ago.

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Related Topics: #Africa Cup of Nations, #Bafana Bafana, #football, #March 2012, #Nelson Mandela, #South Africa.