Wednesday, 31 December 2014

AFCON 2015 special: Farewell Thulani Serero, good luck Shakes Mashaba, the complete guide to South Africa's January jaunt

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Ready for action: Soccer Laduma's Joe Crann's take on Bafana
SO Ephraim Mashaba has added Thulani Serero, the world class Ajax Amsterdam midfielder, to his growing list of unwanted players, though he failed to explain exactly WHY when he announced his final squad for AFCON 2015.

With Serero joining May Mahlangu, Ayanda Patosi and Kamahelo Mokotjo in the list of foreign players not needed for Equatorial Guinea. the storm clouds are brewing for Shakes, who has had his job as South Africa's head coach terminated due to ignoring the big-name foreign stars before.

Personally, I think it's madness (and may have something to do with Serero turning up in South Africa but failing to rush straight to the Bafana Boxing Day camp) but Mashaba got through qualifying - with Serero - unbeaten and top of Group A ahead of the reigning African champions Nigeria. So the criticism button is on mute, We have to stick to the "Shakes knows best" hashtag for now.

But forget all that. Apart from the absence of Kaizer Chiefs central defender Tefu Mashamaite, I understand the Mashaba attitude to players he considers unpatriotic for putting their European careers ahead of national pride.

It's worth noting the average age of this Bafana squad is 25.3, less than a year younger than Gordon Igesund's 23 (26.2) at AFCON 2013 on home soil. EIGHT players survive from two years ago - Bernard Parker, Yeye, Matlaba, Ngcongca, captain Furman, Rantie, Manyisa and Phala.

But what happens next for Bafana Bafana, now that they have finally qualified for an on-off Afcon shifted from Morocco to Equatorial Guinea due to the threat of ebola and (some say) poor ticket sales?

With the PSL on hold until February 10 the next big step is the friendly against Zambia the Orlando Stadium on Sunday.

OFFICIAL: the final 23 names for AFCON 2015
The 2012 AFCON champions finished second in their qualifying group behind Cape Verde but are the ‘pot one’ representatives in Group B for Equatorial Guinea. I’d imagine Shakes will experiment a little in his final preparation on home soil, resting the foreign players, trying a few combinations in the midfield and up front with Andile Jali’s knee, Yeye's post-Nigeria suspension and Tokelo Rantie’s shoulder all worth considering.

The squad will then fly to Gabon, west and south of tiny Equatorial Guinea, where they will play a friendly against Mali – in Group D for AFCON – before their final warm-up against Cameroon – also in Group D - in the capital Libreville.

From there, they head to Mongomo, a tiny city of 7,000 souls right on the border with Gabon, which gave rise to current President Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled the nation since erm… 1979. Given the local dictator was born in the region, much has been done at the local stadium, known as  Estadio Santiago Nguema Eneme, with the capacity raised from 5000 to 15000.

Spanish pitch experts IberGreen claim to have relaid the dodgy surface in “record time” over the weekend, though it might still be a problem when they host the Group of Death, as South Africa’s gang of four in Equatorial Guinea will soon find out.

So how does the AFCON 2015 schedule look? First up: the opening ceremony in the Bata Stadium on Saturday, 17 January, starting at 4pm CAT, which will be followed by the opening game between the hosts and Burkina Faso an hour later.

On Monday, January 19, Bafana Bafana face what will be the toughest test of this tournament: Algeria in Mongomo, at 8pm. The Algerians, impressive during the World Cup, are now Africa’s top ranked side and with a FIFA ranking of 15, their gathering of French-born, French-bred professionals may not be household names around the world but they are a seriously efficient outfit.

On Friday, January 23, it’s Senegal with their array of foreign-based stars, including Newcastle’s Papisse Cisse, kicking off at 8pm.

On Tuesday, January 27, South Africa play Ghana at Mongomo at 7pm. Though former Chelsea boss Avram Grant has ditched some of the great names – Muntari, Essien and Boateng – they remain a potent force with Asamoah Gyan apparently back in favour. As I’ve explained below, this is by far the toughest group in the tournament. South Africa will do well to come away with anything from those three African giants.

If Shakes and his boys surpass all expectations and finish in the top two in Group C, they go to the quarter-finals in Bata or the capital Malabo on Saturday, January 31 or Sunday, Febuary 1.

The semi-finals take place on Wednesday February 4 or Thursday, February 4 at the same two venues.

And finally, the final at the Bata Stadium on Sunday, February 8, though the third-place play-off is on Saturday, February 7 at Malabo.

Phew. Sadly, few South Africans will be there to enjoy the action live. SAFA sent me the Champion Tours itinerary for Equatorial Guinea. Just watching the group games would set me back a cool R82500 but that rises to R145000 if Bafana Bafana go all the way to the final. Guess I’ll have to sell the family jewels to get there.

Given the draw, South Africa will do well to get more than a couple of points in Equatorial Guinea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen luckier hosts and less fortunate South Africans – and I’ve covered a lot of them, rugby, cricket, football. But nothing quite like how this tournament panned out.

Below, I’ve given current FIFA rankings in an attempt to highlight just how hard it will be for Bafana Bafana. The easiest team in South Africa’s Group C (Senegal, 41) are way tougher than the hardest team in the hosts’ GroupA (Congo, 62) and it’s surely not by chance.

This is how the groups breakdown:
Equatorial Guinea 125
Burkina Faso 71
Gabon 67
Congo 62
TOTAL: 325

Zambia 78
Tunisia 31
Cape Verde 33
DR Congo 60
TOTAL: 202

Ghana 35
Algeria 15
South Africa 57
Senegal 41
TOTAL: 148

Ivory Coast 25
Mali 58
Cameroon 40
Guinea 55
TOTAL: 178

Unbelievable draw that. Still, having been quoted the price of a family car to make the trip, it’s unlikely I’ll be remonstrating personally with Presidents Obiang or Hayatou. Just as well I guess.

Good luck Shakes Mashaba. As I’ve said all along, you’ll need it.


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