stuart baxter bafana bafana

Stuart Baxter, coach of South Africa during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals South Africa press conference at AL- Salaam Stadium, Cairo, Egypt on 22 June 2019 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Opinion: One can only hope Baxter is holding his cards close to his chest

Bafana have offered insipid displays thus far, and one can only hope it’s a deliberate ploy to give the opposition little to analyse and plot against.

stuart baxter bafana bafana

Stuart Baxter, coach of South Africa during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals South Africa press conference at AL- Salaam Stadium, Cairo, Egypt on 22 June 2019 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Stuart Baxter has given very little insight on what, in his opinion, would be a succesful Afcon for Bafana Bafana, but the turn of events over the last 72 hours could just as well have pretty much determined what that could be.

Hosts Egypt await Baxter’s men, and a victory on Saturday could be the big moment that sparks what would be a deserved hero’s welcome for this group of players – regardless where they end up finishing thereafter.

At present, Bafana remain standing in the tournament, but only just, having managed just one goal in the group stage, in a victory against Namibia – the one team they would have been eyeing three points against at what ever cost before even trekking up to Egypt.

Nothing to delight the Bafana faithful

Three matches in, South Africans have been starved of excitement, and even what was meant to be a moment of delight in Bongani Zungu’s winning goal against Namibia inspired what was more of a collective sigh of relief, as Baxter’s charges inflicted an underserved defeat on their spirited opponents.

The rest of Bafana’s campaign, including most of the 90 minutes against Namibia, has been characterised by an overly-cautious approach, with very little in the way of creativity.

In Bafana’s opener, the Ivory Coast had a defensive lapse to thank for their 1-0 victory in a match where neither side really showed up in terms of attack.

The result was met with the expected backlash from fans, which could have been mostly for the manner in which the scoreline came to be than the scoreline itself – a conservative approach against a lacklustre performance from the Elephants.

Baxter’s retort upon hearing of the negative atmosphere back home included an indication of yet another cautious display, as he talked up his next opponents’ chances.

“And still people are talking that now we will dismantle Namibia, which is totally disrespectful towards a team who have qualified for Afcon and ran Morocco very close.

“So, yes, there were positives to take out of the game against Ivory Coast – 100 percent.

“I think we need to get a touch of reality. That was a top class [Ivory Coast] team we were playing.”

Stuart Baxter

One would have hoped that Baxter’s comments where Namibia is concerned were nothing more than mind games, and his changes to the team seemed to indicate a more attacking approach, as he brought on Zungu and Hlompho Kekana – two holding midfielders who like to venture forward – to replace the injured Dean Furman and Kamohelo Mokotjo, who seemed to have played himself out of a starting place with his display against the Elephants.

However, a nervy showing followed, with the Brave Warriors easily snuffing out the rare attempt at creativity, largely thanks to their opponents’ misdirected passes.

After a scrappy 180 minutes of action, in which they came out with a fortuitous three points, the best period of play Bafana have been able to muster up came against Morocco, who had already secured qualification for the next round.

For Bafana, qualification at that moment rested in either at least avoiding defeat against the Atlas Lions, or limiting the damage then hoping for favours from Mali and Tunisia.

For the first time in the tournament, Baxter’s men looked like troubling the opposition in the first 45 minutes, which ended with their only clear-cut opportunity in the game, only for Thulani Serero – brought in to offer a direct line of supply to the highly deprived front two of Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba – to fluff his lines with a pass that would have seen the latter one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

While the football-loving South African public has become desensitized to the odd squandered opportunity, one occurring in a period where chances have been so rare would have been gut-wrenching, even more so when followed by last-gasp winner from the other side, which had many lose all hope of Bafana’s further participation.

But joy comes in the morning, and a combination of a goalless draw in Tunisia’s match against Mauritania and Mali’s win against Angola conspired to have South Africa survive to live another day.

Hope springs eternal

The hosts await in the last 16, and one can only hope that Bafana knew that even the very bare minimum would get them to this stage of the competition. That Bafana’s displays up to this point were part of a bigger tactic in the grand scheme of things – giving their rivals very little to analyse and plot against.

Egypt have so far punished each of the teams they have come against for not taking chances that fell on their path. Their next opponents haven’t produced many opportunities for themselves to begin with.

One can only hope that Bafana have been playing within themselves, and that one big performance is coming on Saturday.