Sunday, 12 January 2014

CHANUARY COULD BE CHANTASTIC: Kekana thunderbolt lights up a hungry footballing nation

CHANTASTIC: Kekana (centre) celebrates his cracker
CHANUARY. That’s what we call it when the footballing New Year starts with the much-maligned third edition of the Championnat d’Afrique des Nations.

In English? The African Nations Championship. But calling it the ANC would be a little confusing given the unveiling of the ruling party’s manifesto over the weekend.

Poorly marketed, widely disrespected, there appeared to be no CHANce this tournament would really inspire our Rainboo Nation – until THAT sublime moment from Mamelodi Sundowns midfielder Hlomphe Kekana. CHANtastic!

With the opening game against Mozambique in Cape Town locked at 1-1 after a series of habitually missed chances for Gordon Igesund’s Bafana Bafana, Kekana’s Kracker left visiting goalkeeper Soarito cartwheeling through the sky as his 35-yard hammerblow hit the back of the net.

And suddenly CHAN was up and running. A 3-1 opening triumph. With Mali beating AFCON holders Nigeria 2-1 later on the night, the tournament – limited to home-based players – had suddenly blossomed. With R80,000 win bonuses, full international caps and FIFA ranking points on offer, that’s as it should be after the unseemly row over player availability.

For a nation exhausted by hosting (2009 Confederations Cup, 2010 Fifa World Cup, 2013 Africa Cup of Nations), Igesund and SAFA were under huge pressure to get off to a winning start in a tournament where only the winners emerge from the qualifying pools.

Either side of Kekana’s Kracker, Bernard Parker – ironically one of the players Kaizer Chiefs general manager Bobby Motaung wanted withdrawn from CHAN - scored his 20 and 21st goals for the nation, the first a hotly disputed penalty, the second a neat left-foot finish. A troubled first half was forgotten, a rousing win had the Cape Town audience on its feet.

Igesund grins:  "History tells you a win in the first game gives you a 70 percent chance of qualifying. At AFCON and the World Cup, we drew our first game, it was difficult from there onwards, an opening draw puts a lot of pressure on the team.

"Winning today gives the players lots of confidence, the fans get behind us and fill the stadium up when we play, they start believing again.

"If you're creating chances like we did, you have to be happy. We had 20 chances and scored three. We always looked like we were going to get one after they Mozambique scored. I was very confident.

“Sometimes you watch a team play and they don't score a goal and they haven't even created any opportunities. Yes, we had a major problem with scoring goals but we haven't got that problem any more!"

Mali, now officially the SERIOUS rivals in Group A, loom on Wednesday at the merry Cape Town Stadium with Igesund insisting: “Look it wasn’t a classic performance. But we had control of the game and we scored two fantastic goals – especially Kekana’s.

"It was the kind of goal you dream about. When Kekana struck it, I thought: “He’s taken the wrong choice there, he’s a bit far out” but when you saw it fly, you could see it had goal written all over it.

"In the first-half I thought we played okay – we didn’t really penetrate and I thought we were unfortunate to concede the early goal (Itumeleng Khune admitted afterwards he slipped and fell short of the deflected shot).

"But in the second half I was very happy, we kept possession, didn't panic and kept plugging way and were rewarded with the three points which was crucial for us."

With Thato Mokeke, Buhle Mkhwanazi, Lindokuhle Mbatha and Asavela Mbekile all making their full Bafana debuts, Igesund argues: "That also excited me today. Sometimes debutants can get a little nervous out there, but I was pleased that we were able to bring them on. We believe in these younger players; slowly but surely you have to do it, like we're doing it right now... I was very pleased for them."

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