Thursday, 20 November 2014

BAFANA SEND CHAMPIONS NIGERIA CRASHING OUT: Tokelo Rantie double leaves Super Eagles grounded. Now for Equatorial Guinea

TAKE THAT: Dean Furman joins Tokelo Rantie's celebration
CHAPTER ONE of the Shakes Mashaba miracle is complete. In six remarkable games across four short months, the “cheap but sensible” option has led South Africa to AFCON 2015 qualification amid a whirlwind of renewed optimism. Carlos Queiroz, we never needed your R22m-a-year assistance.

Last night in Uyo, Bafana Bafana were two injury-time minutes from their first ever competitive win over Nigeria, their first triumph over the so-called Super Eagles since 2004 in 11 attempts. But that serves only to mask the fact that, beyond all expectation, they’d gone to the brand new Akwa Ibom stadium knowing  they would finish as Group A winners NO MATTER WHAT.

Tokelo Rantie, my Man of the Match against Sudan on Saturday and again last night, had a chance to make it 3-2 and complete his hat-trick in the dying moments, with Vincent Enyeama’s save reducing Mashaba to head-stroking frustration (videos of both Rantie goals, from Soccer Laduma's Joe Crann, feature BELOW).

Though Mzanzi will emerge this morning knowing victory was torn from our grasp, we should also wake up to the fact that Steve Keshi’s African champions are OUT, given the final shove by Bafana as Congo picked up the 1-0 victory they needed in Sudan.

For much of the first half, Nigeria ran rampant, capitalising on Mashaba’s decision to give Reneilwe Letsholonwane a run in midfield ahead of the ever-improving Andile Jali. Yeye left captain Dean Furman over-run in midfield as Doncaster Rovers’ finest struggled to contain Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel.

38 minutes: Tokelo Rantie's superb opening goal from @yeswecrann
That turbulent period saw Tefu Mashamaite, standing in for young Rivaldo Coetzee at centre-back, struggle next to his table-topping Kaizer Chiefs centre-back partner Tower Mathoho. Only a series of superb saves from Darren Keet denied the lethal Ahmed Musa as Bafana struggled to stay afloat.

Up front, Kermit Erasmus – a late replacement for flu stricken Bongani Ndulula – was substituted before half-time and his replacement Moeketsi Sekola simply disappeared along with midfielders Mandla Masango and Oupa Manyisa. Things didn’t look good. The social networks were creaking with cruel critique.

But then, either side of half-time, Bournemouth’s substitute striker Rantie did his stuff. Twice he blasted a huge hole in the Nigerian defence. Twice he beat the great Enyeama. Twice he silenced the home support.

But once Yeye had been red carded by Mauritian referee Rajindraparsad Seechurn, Nigeria were always going to come back. Seconds after I tweeted about the dangers of a home goal, the Super Eagles had equalised and, in the desperate five minutes of “Fergie time”, along came the equaliser – both scored by supersub Sone Aluko.

I predicted a draw when I previewed the game on ANN7 yesterday (see previous entry) and a draw it was. By a whisker.

Afterwards Mashaba, in a splendid striped shirt, was magnanimous: “We soaked up the pressure in the first twenty minutes, that was the plan. Then we got the two goals. But we lost our shape at the end, we stopped man-marking.

“But football is a matter of luck. We should have beaten Nigeria in Cape Town too. Now I have to organise three or four friendlies before the tournament in January.

53 minutes: Rantie's second goal and it could have been 3
“We are not going to Equatorial Guinea to make up the numbers. We are going to compete. If anybody takes BafanaBafana for granted, they will do so at their peril.”

He’s right of course. After all, Shakes knows best. A quick look at the seven qualifying groups shows only South Africa, Tunisia, Senegal and Gabon finished unbeaten. Even mighty Algeria, currently Africa’s top side, slipped at the final hurdle.

The qualifiers with unsuspended hosts Equatorial Guinea in January? South Africa, Congo, Algeria, Mali, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Cape Verde, Zambia, Senegal and Tunisia finshed in the top two. DR Congo qualify as best third-place finishers after once-mighty Egypt stumbled in Tunisia.

Captain Furmidable, whose dentist dad Ronnie from north London has promised to travel to Equatorial Guinea with me in January,  said: “It shows how far we’ve come when we’re disappointed with a draw against Nigeria away. We’ve got a good group, we play as a team. There are things we have to work on, but everybody is looking forward to January. We are looking good.

“Shakes Mashaba has installed a pride in the team and you saw that on the pitch today, we fight for the shirt, we want to win every ball, score every goal. We have a very focused group and that’s down to the coach.”

Fine uplifting words in a nation where even the pale people are starting to sit up and take notice, as they did in the 1990s when Clive Barker – like Mashaba, a motivator rather than a master tactician – had Bafana playing a key role in Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.

The draw for AFCON 2015 takes place on December 3. Then friendlies. January looms. Optimism grows. But for now, after a qualifying campaign beset by Ebola, bans and murder, a final thought: Thanks Senzo Meyiwa. You were the foundation. You were never beaten.

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